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.
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.
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.