UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Bill C-15

Self-determination is at the heart of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples including its provisions on free, prior and informed consent.

March 9. 2021 Open Letter to Parliamentarians on Bill C-15

“The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society.” – Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,
Principles of Reconciliation, Principle # 1.

Parliament has an historic opportunity to advance reconciliation.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a consensus global human rights instrument, elaborating minimum standards for the “survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous peoples.” Implementation of these standards is vital to improving the lives of Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world, and to upholding Canada’s solemn and urgent human rights commitments. Members of the House of Commons and Senate must ensure that Bill C-15, An Act Respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passes into law before this session of Parliament concludes. The UN Declaration affirms the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples and the corresponding obligations of States. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was right to put the Declaration at the heart of its vision for reconciliation. The Declaration condemns the racist and colonial doctrines, laws and beliefs that continue to cause so much harm to Indigenous peoples. It also provides the principles and mechanisms needed to redress these harms, as well as safeguards critical to ensuring these violations are never repeated.

Canada has repeatedly committed to implement the UN Declaration. The federal government has even stated this commitment in the preamble to recent Acts of Parliament like the Indigenous Languages Act. Bill C-15 is about putting these commitments into practice.

• Bill C-15 underlines and reinforces the UN Declaration’s rejection of racism and other forms of discrimination, colonialism, forced assimilation and destruction of culture.
• The Bill requires the Government of Canada to work with Indigenous peoples to establish priorities and processes for implementing the Declaration’s diverse provisions – and to report annually to Parliament on the progress made.
• The Bill provides clarity around the fact that the Declaration, like other international human rights instruments, is already being used by courts to interpret Canadian law.
• In particular, the Bill also requires a collaborative process of legal review and reform to bring federal laws into line with the human rights affirmed in the Declaration.

These are important, practical and achievable measures that deserve the support of all Canadians.

We are mindful that a previous effort to meet Canada’s implementation obligations, Bill C-262, died on the Order Paper after unnecessary delay and obstruction in the Parliamentary process. We do not want any further delays in meeting Canada’s obligations to implement the UN Declaration.

Some Indigenous peoples’ governments and organizations, including some represented in this letter, are proposing or supporting amendments to clarify and strengthen Bill C-15. We believe that the Parliamentary process can accommodate a fulsome consideration of such amendments, while still ensuring that Bill C-15 is adopted before the end of the current session of Parliament. Concrete measures to implement the UN Declaration in Canadian law and policy are necessary and overdue. Passage of Bill C-15 should be a top priority for all Members of Parliament and Senators.

Understanding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Self-Determination and Free, Prior and Informed Consent

The heart of the matter is the universal right of peoples to self-determination. Indigenous peoples, no less than any other peoples or Nations, have the collective right to make their own decisions through their own institutions and systems of governance and law.

Respect for the right to self-determination is crucial to reconciliation. Self-determination is at the heart of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples including its provisions on free, prior and informed consent. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada stated as its first Principle of Reconciliation that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of society.”

There is no inherent conflict between the human rights framework set out in the UN Declaration and Canadian constitutional law. To the contrary, the Declaration provides a way to achieve the constitutional imperative of reconciling Canadian law with the pre-existing sovereignty of Indigenous peoples.

The right of Indigenous peoples to make their own decisions includes the right to say “yes”, the right to say “no”, and the right to “yes with conditions” to proposals brought forward by others.

The term “veto” implies an absolute power, regardless of the circumstances in any given case. Characterizing the right to say no as an absolute veto is confusing, potentially misleading, and often deliberately alarmist. Veto implies a decision that is arbitrary, unilateral, without legal foundation, and taken outside of any legitimate process. None of these things are true of decisions taken by Indigenous peoples in the legitimate exercise of their rights.

Misrepresentations of the Declaration must be set aside so that Canada can get on with the necessary and long overdue work of ensuring that the rights of Indigenous peoples are recognized, respected, protected and fulfilled.

This is what we fought for:

An open letter in support of implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

For more than two decades, Indigenous leaders and human rights advocates fought to have the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the United Nations. Our goal was always to use the Declaration to bring about fundamental changes for the treatment of Indigenous peoples around the world including in Canada.

The Canadian Parliament is now debating a proposed new law that, if passed, would begin the process of collaborative implementation of the UN Declaration.

This bill, Bill C-15: An Act Respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is a unique opportunity to advance our rights and confront the harms to our people created by colonialism, racism and other forms of discrimination.

This is what we fought for.

Understanding Bill C-15

On December 3, Justice Minister David Lametti tabled Bill C-15 that, if passed into law, will create the legal framework for the federal implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The tabling of the Bill follows commitments made by the Trudeau government after a previous implementation bill, Romeo Saganash’s private Member’s Bill C-262, was blocked by stalling tactics in the Senate in 2019. As promised, the Liberals tabled a government bill before the end of 2020 that built on the “floor” of C-262.

It is important to recall that Romeo Saganash undertook national tours and other speaking engagements to inform Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across Canada in regard to the contents and significance of Bill C-262.

In addition, since the time of the Declaration’s adoption, the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) [or GCC(EI)] has participated in countless workshops and presentations on the UN Declaration as well as C-262 in more recent years.

In the view of the, GCC(EI) / Cree Nation Government, Bill C-15 not only contains the essential elements of C-262, it also builds on C-262 in a number of important ways.

To become law, the Bill must still be considered by committees of both the House of Commons and the Senate and be adopted by a vote of both Houses. As a government Bill, it will not be as easy to block as C-262. However, given that this is a minority government, the window for passing the Bill into law may be short.