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Aboriginal rights advocate who's critical of Canada's record gets Nobel Prize nomination

If American lawyer James Anaya wins the world’s most prestigious political award the development could represent a major advance in the human rights battle for aboriginals in Canada, according to a B.C. aboriginal leader

By Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun

OTTAWA — The United Nations’ top advocate for aboriginal rights, who is to issue a report later this year critical of Canada’s record on First Nations issues, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

If American lawyer James Anaya wins the world’s most prestigious political — and politicized — award the development could represent a major advance in the human rights battle for aboriginals in Canada, according to a B.C. aboriginal leader.

“I think this is hugely significant,” said Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

And the Norwegian MP who nominated Anaya said the Nobel committee might view an Anaya win as a powerful signal to governments around the world.

“This may be and should be a game-changer,” Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes told The Vancouver Sun.

Gina Cosentino, director of indigenous and communal conservation at The Nature Conservancy, said the Nobel nomination "will raise the awareness of the importance of Indigenous peoples to both environmental and human well-being, and the particular issues they face with respect to their natural resources, climate change and rights over their lands and waters."

Anaya, during his cross-Canada tour last autumn, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government hasn’t done enough to reduce poverty or fulfil its obligation under Canadian and international law to consult First Nations before proceeding on major projects.

Anaya specifically singled out proposed oilsands pipelines to the B.C. coast, saying not enough consultation has been done.

He also asked the Harper government to reconsider its decision to not hold a public inquiry on murdered and missing aboriginal women.

“There is a crisis in Canada with regard to indigenous issues,” said Anaya, who is to present his full report to the UN Human Rights Council in September, shortly before the Nobel Prize is announced.

Fylkesnes nominated both Anaya, since 2008 the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples, and the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as candidates to be joint winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel laureate selection committee, made up of five people appointed by the Norwegian parliament, has a track record of wanting to shine a light on major issues of human rights and peace, Fylkesnes said in an interview.

At times the committee has appeared to be trying to influence future events, such as the time it selected U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009 shortly after his presidency began.

“I think a strong case of Anaya and the forum can be made, and I think the debate this will arouse is something the committee will find interesting,” Fylkesnes said.

He said Anaya, if he wins, would the second aboriginal laureate since the awards began in 1901.

Recipients have included political leaders like Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders, and human rights advocates like China’s Liu Xiaobo and Guatemala’s Rigoberta Menchu, an indigenous woman recognized in 1992 for her work in fighting gross human rights violations during her country’s long and brutal civil war.

There is also a history of international organizations getting recognition from the Nobel committee. The European Union won in 2012, while the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 award with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore.

Aboriginal leaders across Canada, and especially in B.C., have described Anaya as an important and inspirational figure in establishing land rights under international law.

He is one of the authors of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples, which stated that governments need “free, prior and informed” consent from First Nations before economic projects can be approved.

The Harper government initially criticized the declaration but finally, in 2010, gave it a conditional endorsement. It stressed that the declaration was “aspirational” and not legally binding.

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