The UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya Statement Upon Conclusion of Visit to Canada

by waaseyaa'sin christine sy

The UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya Statement Upon Conclusion of Visit to Canada

It was my girls’ dad who first prompted me to consider that perhaps the United Nations is not all that it purports to be: an institution for the people. It was he who publicly questioned a guest speaker, an Indigenous woman of African descent, at an Indigenous Women’s Symposium in 2007 at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, when she constructed the United Nations as being an institution that legitimately works for Indigenous peoples. He asked something to the effect of,

“Excuse me Madame, you don’t really believe that the United Nations is for the people do you? That it really works for human rights and helps us in that?”

This question, posed in this setting, made me wonder about a few things but ultimately it prompted me to re-visit my present understandings and belief about the UN.

I trust his analysis of global politics and institutions that govern international interests. His education is focussed on such things and grounded in a broader understanding of the world whereas my education is i) Canadian which seems most involved in navel-gazing and ii) on Indigenous peoples in Canada with some international attention as well. His knowledge and experience is that of farming, rurality, and the elite; education human rights and global politics. He scoffs at mention of the UN as a site of legitimacy for promoting life for people. For him, I don’t think there is any other truth about the UN other than it is not debwe (true).

I also watched a movie called “Whistleblower” that is a dramatized version of a true story about Kathryn Bolkovac, a UN employee learned about and revealed how some people in the UN protected traffickers in the sex trade in Bosnia. This movie, and the quick follow-up research I did on it prompted further skepticism.

And here’s more about why I now question the legitimacy of the UN as an organization that helps Indigenous peoples in real ways:

As Anishinaabe ikawe living in my homelands that have been colonized by government, settlers, and their descendants, and that has been educated in the fields of Psychology, Women Studies, Language, Canadian Studies, Indigenous Studies, and Anishinaabe life, I have come to be hesitant and skeptical when presented with possibilities for something positive that will restore good life for Indigenous peoples in our lands. For better or worse, this is how several hundred years of lies and propaganda manifest in my body today and for better or worse, this is what 10 years reading body language and facial expressions as a counsellor and a few years of discourse analysis has resulted in: skepticism and hesitancy. I’ll have faith and hope in western created institutions when I begin to see something real manifest for our people.

Did you know that Anishinaabeg have a sacred song teaching us to be hesitant when entering in matters of significance? Say, like a ceremony? For me, when talking about making life better for Indigenous peoples in our homelands is a matter of great significance. I have to be hesitant otherwise waste my precious time and energy chasing hope on faith when i can be on the land reclaiming our knowledges and practices there; engaging in maajiimaadiziwin (keeping the life-line going through the generations). Being hesitant isn’t a bad thing; it’s important and keeps the heart tempered. Being skeptical also isn’t a bad thing; I prefer it to the rose-coloured glasses I used to wear a few years ago. Also, skepticism is not a constant; it is easily replaced with debwewin (truth), genuine action for change, and new ways of doing things that work for Indigenous peoples. The way it is for me is this: I’m eager to have my skepticism blown up. Please, please, please give me reason.

This is my ‘baggage’ so to speak. I own it and am aware of it.  I like it; it helps me; I’ll keep it until something better comes along. Truth be told, I’ve yet to see anything that compels me to lose it. To my knowledge, the UN has done nothing to date for Indigenous people in Canada other than provide rhetoric for us to sink our hopeful teeth into. It wields imaginary power and that’s about it as far as I can see. Given all this context, I was skeptical about James Anaya’s, Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples for the UN, visit to Canada. After reading his statement upon the conclusion of his visit, I continued to be skeptical about its purpose and value but it makes also makes me curious about why he was really here. Here’s what makes me curious:

1) this statement is not published on the United Nations website. I did a search. I did not find it;

2) this statement is published on a site that seems dedicated to Mr. Anaya’s position as UN Special Rapporteur; and, this site is sponsored by a university. I guess I expected this statement to be on the UN website and not an American university sponsored site dedicated to promoting the position of Special Rapporteur;

3) Indigenous peoples as a name are not capitalized anywhere in the text, not even the title;

4) Mr. Anaya has capitalized his job title, the institution he works for, the nation state he visited (i.e. canada), and the names Canada has for Indigenous peoples. This suggests a kind of privileging of professionalism over matters important to Indigenous peoples;

5) Mr. Anaya uses a hodge bodge of labels for Indigenous peoples including Aboriginal, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit when he could have just use the name Indigenous peoples have chosen for ourselves, that being Indigenous peoples;


6) at the beginning of his statement, which is a statement about Indigenous peoples generally, he uses the label Indigenous peoples however in specific reference to the Canadian context, which makes up the body of his statement, he call us Aboriginal peoples. This is the name neo-colonial canada has given Indigenous peoples and the name neo-colonial canada uses in the constitution for Indigenous peoples. by using this name, Mr. Anaya privileges canada’s reality and erases that of Indigenous peoples, particularly the one most recently articulated through the INM movement which, in part, wishes canada to affirm their relationship with Indigenous Nations, not multicultural special interest groups known as ‘aboriginal’.

Other than this Mr. Anaya seems to be rhetoric-ing on things we all already know (i.e. we are downtrodden in social economic ways) and for that reason I will not elaborate on the content of his statement.

What I am curious to know though is this: Why would a Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples refer to Indigenous peoples in canada as Aboriginals and not Indigenous peoples? I mean, the UN deals in the discourse of Indigenous Rights, not Aboriginal rights; the United Declaration of Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples does not use the word Aboriginal anywhere throughout the text; and, the UN, in my understanding, began to use the name Indigenous peoples to reflect the political meaningfulness of us naming ourselves and using that name in an international context.

Why is he privileging Canada’s construction of us and not our construction of us?

At this point, while the photo-ops of such things are always plentiful, I’ve not seen anything meaningful come out of the UN regarding Indigenous peoples in Canada and I don’t anticipate anything useful from this visit. I don’t think this will prompt any change. Upon referring to UNDRIP and reading the introduction, I was struck by this statement: “This universal human rights instrument is celebrated globally as a symbol of triumph and hope.”

Reading that I can now see why Mr. Anaya is pleased that our people are referring to this document in advancing our agenda: he is glad that people have hope in it.

I suppose when you know the UN is an institution of imaginary power, the objective is to get people to believe in it whether it produces outcomes or not. Hope is important. It’s upsetting if that’s all we have.

Me? I’ll pass on symbols of triumph and hope. I’ll continue to hesitantly wait until I see something that legitimates the UN’s ability to do something practical and real in terms of manifesting the agenda of Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island, the northern part of her anyways. I’ll continue to engage in the real and tangible: the land, the language, the people, and resist the re-creation or continued dynamic of colonial relationships every step of the way to the best of my ability. Does this mean I won’t call on the rhetorical power the UN does have to influence thought? Absolutely not. I do and will use it because I think as a body, it has the power to influence thought and thought can leads to positive action for Indigenous peoples. I think that there are a lot of people in the world that do respect the UN and will shift their consciousness to reflect the ideologies the UN purports. I think we need everybody to be doing everything. All strategies are needed to get our Nations back on track and in sync with mashkikimakwe (mother earth) and we need every tool there is to help us do that in the face of canada’s dominance of our lives. I just think we need to ensure we don’t put more time, energy, and dollars into symbols of triumph and hope when we can be putting time, energy and dollars into reclaiming and re-generating our knowledges and practices with mashkikimakwe (mother earth), each other as individuals, and between our Nations.