By Clint Buehler
EDMONTON – Wilton (Willie) Littlechild says the international community has a responsibility to protect indigenous rights.
He’s spent much of his career fighting to achieve that goal.
And that was the theme of his lecture at the ninth annual Visiting Lectureship in Human Rights at the University of Alberta, recognizing outstanding contributions to human rights, following such acknowledged human rights advocates as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Canadian Forces General Romeo Dallaire.
Littlechild, a much achieving and honored Cree from Alberta’s Ermineskin First Nation, is a longtime delegate to the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Littlechild told the supportive audience at the university’s Horowitz Theatre that much of the effort must go to improving the wellbeing of Aboriginal children because they are the most common victims of rights violations, with lower life expectancies, racial discrimination by police, unsanitary living conditions and denial of education as abuses that indigenous boys and girls suffer daily across the globe.
“Imagine a child being born and being expected to live 20 years less than others, experience Third World diseases, live in overcrowded houses, receive poor education, routinely be made to feel ashamed for who they are, and be harassed by police. This is an indigenous child.
“They live in both dev eloped and developing countries, but their plight is the same,” Littlechild said, calling on Canada to officially adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which he helped draft and negotiate.
He said he was frustrated at Canada’s, and Alberta’s, failure to take that important step—a step already taken by most other nations and political bodies including, as recently as last month, the State of Arizona.
“Canada was one of only two countries to vote against the Declaration,” Littlechild said. “We could look to our neighbours to the south for leadership.”
He said that be refusing to accept this Declaration, Canada has created two sets of laws, with indigenous peoples on the bottom end.
He emphasized that the road to justice was a long one, citing, for example, the first ever delegation by indigenous people to the League of Nations in 1926, when members of the Iroquois Six Nations went to the League’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland and, as with a Maori delegation from New Zealand, weren’t even received by the Assembly there.
By the 1950s and 1960s, Littlechild said, the international indigenous peoples’ movement had begun to gain momentum, as groups from across the planet joined forces with similar complaints ranging from the banning of indigenous culture and language to outright genocide.
It was no better in 1977, Littlechild said, when he headed an international indigenous delegation to the United Nations and they were not allowed in United Nations headquarters in New York City.
“In 1977, we couldn’t even get into the building,” Littlechild recalled. “With Elders with four pipes leading the way, we locked elbows, four-by-four, and marched.”
Soon after that rejection, he said, things began to move rather quickly for the indigenous peoples’ movement, capped in 1993 by the United Nations declaration of “The Year of the Indigenous People,” and the establishment in 2002 of the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, to which Littlechild was appointed North Americas representative.
He found that involvement ironic in that he only studied international law to fill his course schedule while studying for his law degree. “Why would someone like me study international law?” he recalled asking himself at the time. “I’m never going to use it.” In fact, his efforts on behalf of indigenous peoples has occupied a large part of his life.
Littlechild also cited the International Decades of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the second of which began in 2005 with the theme of Partnership for Action and Dignity as another example of the successes that indigenous peoples have found in the international arena.
“Most indigenous peoples movements emerged in response to experiences of grave violations of their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms,” he said. “Their main demands are non-discrimination, equality and self-determination, and the right to subsistence. These are all the basic principles upon which international human rights law is based.”
The result has been that indigenous peoples’ involvement with the UN Commission on Human Rights “has immeasurably enriched the world’s discussions about human rights in general.
“The contributions of indigenous peoples in elaborating further discourse on self-determination, collective rights, rights to land, territories and resources, rights to culture, knowledge and identity cannot be underestimated,” he said.
Littlechild said he was particularly proud of how Aboriginal peoples have insisted on integrating the rights of women and children into all human rights discussions, cutting across previous divisions in law and diplomacy.
However, he ended his lecture on a positive note, saying that over the past 30 years, indigenous peoples world wide have achieved great successes in their efforts to achieve respect, recognition and justice.
His presentation was not without humor. Saying he owed much to the university, he told of the time he earned a zero on an English assignment.
“I went to the dean and told him I should get at least one mark for spelling my name right.”
The dean refused to change the mark, but told him to keep working.
“I have to thank him for not letting me take the easy way out.”
Following the lecture, Littlechild took questions from the audience, with several asking how the Alberta and Canadian governments could be persuaded to deal with Aboriginal treaties in the spirit of international law.
“The Maskwacis Cree wanted to, and continue to, promote partnerships among our peoples, using the international forum,” he responded. “As one stated, ‘It’s like the two wings of an eagle that it takes to fly. On one wing is treaty, and on the other wing is the UN Declaration [on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples]. These are solutions, and they both go hand in hand to fight for the future.’”
A woman in the audience noted that, traditionally, Littlechild would have been given blankets and horses in recognition of his leadership whereupon, on behalf of the University of Alberta, Students Union President Samantha Power and Aboriginal Student Council President Derek Thunder presented him with a ceremonial blanket chosen by Elder and advisor Jerry Wood.
Littlechild said he had been in the audience for three of the previous human rights lectures, but had never anticipated that he would be chosen as a guest lecturer.
“Each of you out there also has a story,” he said. “Little did I think that some day I would be up here, so it has truly been an honour. Keep up the work that you do, and I look forward to the day when you get up here to tell your story.”