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U of M human rights experts on the national stage

June 08, 2017


Helen Fallding

By Helen Fallding

A national human rights conference in Ottawa this week features two University of Manitoba law professors.

Prof. Brenda Gunn has been speaking about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) since at least 2010 but recently she has been flooded with requests to explain what it means for Canada.

Two years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada highlighted UNDRIP as a framework for moving forward on reconciliation. Then last year, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced Canada’s full support for UNDRIP.

“Now people really care,” Gunn told more than 100 human rights experts from across Canada gathered at the University of Ottawa for the opening session of the Realizing Rights conference.

Some Canadians worry that recognizing Indigenous rights will tear the country apart, Gunn said, but UNDRIP’s drafters believed recognition will instead “enhance harmonious and cooperative relations between the State and indigenous peoples.”

Her UNDRIP handbook has become one of the key resources for Canadians trying to put the international declaration into practice here, according to University of Ottawa Prof. Nathalie Chalifour.

Gunn’s colleague Prof. Karen Busby explained at another plenary session how the Canadian Constitution could be used to push governments toward realizing the human right to clean drinking water and sanitation in First Nation communities.

While the Trudeau government has committed to ending drinking water advisories on reserves, not much has changed in the last few years.

Section 36(1)(c) is an overlooked section of the Constitution that commits Canadian governments to providing essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians. Busby’s analysis of how courts in other countries have enforced the right to water and of what Canada says in international forums led her to conclude that this provision could be used to nudge governments towards the negotiating table.

Busby is also helping launch the book Canada and the Rule of Law, 150 Years after Confederation, to which she contributed a chapter.

The Realizing Rights conference was organized in recognition that after 150 years, Canada has both much to celebrate in our human rights history and some serious issues to tackle.

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