It's time to affirm – and celebrate – Indigenous equality

  • National Newswatch

It was inspiring last week to see the government of British Columbia become the first jurisdiction in Canada to move to enshrine in law the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). This was the culmination of a process that began in 1981 with the inclusion in the Canadian Constitution of a clause recognizing and affirming the existing rights of Canada's aboriginal peoples. Now, as we await passage of the B.C. legislation and the formal endorsement of UNDRIP by other provinces and by the federal government, we should think about why this journey has taken so long and faced so many obstacles.The ceremony in the B.C. Legislature on October 23rd was one of high emotion.  With the support of all political parties and senior representatives of the business community and B.C.'s highly valued resource industries, Premier John Horgan welcomed First Nations into the chamber and promised to initiate a comprehensive review of provincial laws to protect Indigenous peoples' rights and to support reconciliation.The all-party solidarity shown upon the introduction of the bill was particularly important given our divisive history on the issue. During constitutional debates in the early 1980s, Canada's Indigenous leaders argued passionately that their rights should be included in the country's foundational document. The New Democratic Party agreed, withholding support until then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau acceded to what became Section 35, which states: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”Note that this clause, controversial at the time and influential in the years since, did nothing to expand Indigenous rights. It simply “recognized and affirmed” existing rights that, even then, were being enforced by the courts – though often only after long and expensive legal battles.The UN Declaration is similar in intent. It doesn't create new rights or define Indigenous rights in a way that would supersede the rights of others. It simply reinforces the rights and freedoms recognized in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in international human rights law.Specifically, the UN Declaration begins by “affirming that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples.” Yet, as the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report indicated, often in tragic detail, many of Canada's indigenous peoples do not yet enjoy equal status. Consider the record of all those Indigenous children whose social welfare standards are inferior to those of other children or of the many Indigenous communities still without safe drinking water.The TRC recommended that provincial governments should “fully adopt the declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples as the framework for reconciliation.” To its credit, the House of Commons in the last Parliament passed NDP MP Romeo Saganash's private member's Bill 262, An Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It's disappointing that Mr. Saganash's bill was obstructed and killed in the Senate.Now, however, we have a fresh start. We have a provincial government showing leadership – in cooperation with a business community that recognizes the need to build effective relationships and a robust and sustainable economy, in partnership with Indigenous communities.Michael Goehring, CEO of the Mining Association of B.C., was quoted on the day the provincial government tabled the UNDRIP legislation as saying that B.C.'s mining industry is cautiously hopeful that B.C.'s new bill will “enable greater certainty and predictability on the land base.” Noting how much development has been tied up in futile court cases challenging Indigenous rights, Greg D'Avignon, CEO of the Business Council of B.C., added, “This starts the process of enabling economic reconciliation, with the kinds of supports that the province should have been providing for decades.”Now is the time for the new federal government to make good on its promise to re-introduce Romeo Saganash's bill, or to champion a new one that will bring federal law into alignment with the UN Declaration. The Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens have all committed to supporting such legislation. Let's use this collaborative spirit to start a new moment of reconciliation – to end, finally, the many decades of resistance.Ed Broadbent is the chair of the Broadbent Institute (  He was leader of the federal New Democratic Party when Section 35 was added to the Constitution.