Nov 27/98: UN High Commissioner to visit reserves



Edmonton Journal
November 27, 1998
Jack Danylchuk

Edmonton - United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson will get her first look and a taste of life on Canada's Indian reserves Friday when she sits down to a feast with leaders of the four First Nations of Hobbema.

Cultural events will dominate her day-long visit to the community that despite its oil wealth has many of the social problems found on Canada's reserves, but native leaders are expected to raise the question of indigenous rights.

"We would like to open the door and create an awareness that we are here and there are some issues," said Rick Lightning, coordinator for Robinson's visit to the reserves of the Samson, Montana, Louis Bull and Ermineskin bands.

"The issues are so serious that you just can't raise all the points in a tight time frame. We're saying that we're alive and we would like to sit down in Geneva when we have time to talk."

Native peoples have in the past used United Nations conferences to plead for protection under international law and to press their claims for self-government and the right to represent themselves at the United Nations.

In Geneva five years ago, native leaders condemned Canada's human rights record and used quotations from Amnesty International, the British Columbia Supreme Court, the United Nations and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to make their points.

"It's less political than social," Lightning said. "We're going to recognize her for who she is and give her a dinner."

But before the commissioner sits down to a noon-hour feast of moose, venison, elk, rabbit, bannock, and blueberries she will have a 45-minute meeting with native leaders.

A spokesperson for Canada's external affairs department said that Robinson met earlier with aboriginal leaders in Geneva and "was very interested in going to an aboriginal reserve and continuing discussions."

Robinson is also coordinator of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples and is also following closely the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples and the UN permanent forum for indigenous peoples.

Native leaders "want to talk about the UN's role in advancing indigenous issues," the spokesperson said.

Singers and dancers in traditional costume will welcome the former Irish president to Nipisihkopahk High School where Robinson begins a day that is filled with presentations of gifts and encounters with elders and children.

Robinson's view of the reserves 90 km southeast of Edmonton will be from the window of the car that will shuttle her between recently built schools and administration buildings. She will get a look at the inside of the Lightning family home during 15 minutes allotted to personal time.

"It's just a normal, ordinary 23-year-old house," Lightning said of the house he shares with his wife Inez and their children.

The commissioner's visit comes a day after native leaders meet in Hobbema with the author of a United Nations report that indigenous peoples around the world hope will help their court battles over land claims and other treaty rights.

After a nine-year study, international law expert Miguel Alfonso Martinez has concluded that treaties with indigenous peoples are valid and bound by international law.

Martinez spoke directly to native peoples and government officials in several countries. In Canada, he held discussions with the James Bay Cree and native groups in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

The report that will eventually go to the UN General Assembly states that native peoples have "the right to self-determination" and treaties without an expiry date remain effective "until all parties to it decide to terminate them."

Sharon Venne, a Cree lawyer from northern Saskatchewan who represents several aboriginal organizations in Canada, believes the study is an important step towards international recognition of native treaty rights.

The International Conference of Universal Rights and Human Values in Edmonton with Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Lloyd Axworthy, Svend Robinson, Antonio Lamer, Ed Broadbent is at and can be emailed at It ends November 28th.

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