New York City may be a long way from Tache Reserve, but for Chief Edward John, it is just a matter of taking the right steps to get there.
“There’s always hurdles, you just have to bear down,” said John over the phone from Vancouver, where he had recently returned from New York.
John is a hereditary chief of the Tl’azt’en Nation, and was even an elected councillor for around 18 years, but he only works in the background now, as he has his hands full.
As the recently appointed chair for a one-year term of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, John was in New York in May, chairing a two-week session at the United Nations. The forum is an advisory body to the United Nations (UN) on indigenous issues.
There were 1,800-2,000 indigenous delegates from around the world at the session, plus government representatives, repersentaties from international organizations and some from non-governmental organizations (NGOs, usually aid organizations like Doctors Without Boarders or World Vision).
“It’s a big undertaking,” said John.
As the chair of the second largest annual gathering at the UN in New York (the largest being the forum on women’s issues), it is logistically a lot of work to chair the long session.
John and the rest of the forum must listen to the discussion on the floor between indigenous peoples, and between indigenous peoples and governments, and then the 16-member forum of which he is the chair produces a report for the UN Economic and Social Council. The report then goes to the UN General Assembly in the fall.
There will be advice and recommendations related to next year’s meeting in Rio de Janeiro (Rio +20), the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. World leaders will then be meeting in 2014 to deal with indigenous issues, so the recommendations John is helping to make potentially have long-term global impacts.
These recommendations will look at ways the UN and state governments can implement the 46 articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The implications of this declaration are huge for all indigenous peoples, and John said one of the greatest things indigenous leaders can do for their people is to understand the articles of the declaration and work with local communities and others to implement the provisions.
“A good example for that would be the concept of ‘free prior and informed consent for resource development in indigenous people’s territories’” explained John.
This kind of globally relevant work is not a bad gig for a boy from Tache.
“I’m right from the village of Tache,” said John, when describing his background.
He spent time growing up in a number of surrounding communities, with relatives in Portage, Nak’azdli, Yekooche and as far west as the Babine Lake community of Nan Tl’At.
With nine brothers and sisters, it is not surprising John still has relatives throughout the area.
But growing up, he said he focused on getting through high school and did not set out with the intention of going to law school or becoming involved in government and politic, but he had a work ethic taught to him by his family.
He graduated from O’Grady High School in Prince George, and from there went to the University of Victoria (Uvic), where he completed his undergraduate degree, but came back to work in the area each summer.
After graduating from Uvic, John returned and worked for his community for a couple of years and then went back to the University of British Columbia (UBC) for law school.
Even though he said there was a need and the demand from his community still for his time, they understood and supported him in what he was doing.
“I made it clear that my first priority is my education,” he said.
After finishing law school, he did his articling at a law firm in Prince George.
Form there, John became involved in the First Nations Summit, a B.C. body addressing treaty negotiations and other indigenous issues in the province, and from there he went to the UN.
Chief Ed John said he did not set out to become a lawyer and get involved in higher-level politics.
While he may be living on Musqueam Reserve near UBC and traveling extensively for his role with the UN and the First Nations Summit, he also still maintains a connection with his community in the north, providing some background support and advice.
“We all have responsibilities to our community,” said John.
The work he is doing has also given him some truly valuable opportunities to get to know First Nations people across the region, with the greatest benefit coming from spending time with the elders, talking with them and learning from them according to John, which he said gave him a firm grounding.
“Having that grounding I think really served me well in the work that i do nationally as well as internationally,” he said, giving him a depth and a world view not well understood outside of First Nation culture.
In his time with the UN, John has already seen some interesting things happen, and said Canada’s role at the UN is a developing one.
“They’re working on it, let’s put it that way,” he said. “And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
While Canada did endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they are also the only country in the world which voted against it twice.