Can Canada fulfil the promises imbedded in the UN’s declaration on Indigenous rights?

  • National Newswatch

Three years ago on June 21, Canada took a bold step forward when the legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples became law. It sparked both fear and optimism and created considerable uncertainty. While conceptually invaluable, it is not clear that UNDRIP or the current approach to implementation is practical.

The legislation is, to say the least, unpoetic. It focuses on processes and government priorities and much less on the nation-altering commitments that are imbedded in UNDRIP.  To put it simply, it is not clear that the political commitment to UNDRIP is matched by an appreciation for the practical and fiscal challenges of proper implementation. Unless a new approach is adopted, UNDRIP could turn out to be the latest in a long line of broken promises to Indigenous peoples.

The passage of the declaration at the UN in 2007 was a remarkable international achievement. I did not expect it to succeed, but like many observers I underestimated the tenacity of Indigenous leaders and organizations from around the world.

UNDRIP documents the shared hardships, injustices, mistreatments and sorrows of Indigenous peoples, covering a wide variety of groups, cultural encounters, and historical and legal settings. It was described in the early years after passage as an “aspirational” document, outlining what Indigenous peoples deserved and what national governments and the UN felt was owed to them.

UNDRIP was not crafted as a detailed legislative program. It was not designed to address specific national and regional contexts or to provide a template that worked in all Indigenous-newcomer settings. Instead, the declaration called on the world to do better — much better — in the treatment of Indigenous peoples, including respecting their Indigenous and treaty rights.

From the outset, the Canadian response to UNDRIP has been mixed. Most non-Indigenous peoples have ignored it or, at best, viewed it as a vague roadmap to better relations. Indigenous peoples, in my experience and for good reasons, are much more familiar with the document and the implementation act. Even here, however, few Indigenous peoples appear to view the current UNDRIP process with a great deal of excitement and hope. It is, however, seen as a major advance in the national recognition of Indigenous rights and the obligations of national governments to deal fairly and honourably with Indigenous peoples.  As with other major political achievements – modern treaties, self-government agreements, Supreme Court decisions – Indigenous folks know that it takes decades for these commitments to be transformed into actions that bring positive effects to communities.

There is a great deal that can be said about UNDRIP, but a few core elements stand out.

UNDRIP does a fine job of outlining the impact of newcomers, settlement and development on Indigenous peoples. It is an articulation of legitimate Indigenous grievances and, even more, as a statement of Indigenous priorities and aspirations. History has truly unkind, if not brutal,  to Indigenous peoples. Going forward in a manner that is fair to Indigenous peoples requires urgent and comprehensive action across a wide variety of fronts.

The history of Indigenous-government relations in Canada, however, is one of routine betrayal. There is a nearly broken path from the Peace and Friendship Treaties of the 18th century and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to the historic treaties in Western Canada.  Nice speeches and fine words do not readily translate into action.

UNDRIP has the potential to be an extreme example of heightened Indigenous expectations and broken promises by the national government. Parliament must make sure the country is truly committed to a shared completion of the process and to the explicit promises continued therein before it goes much further down this path. There is little sense at present that the country is aware of the implied commitments outlined in UNDRIP and, therefore, nothing approaching a national consensus on the importance of moving forward expeditiously.

UNDRIP outlines many of the steps needed to address, minimally, the damage caused by the occupation of Indigenous lands and the marginalization of Indigenous peoples. To date, no one has put either a cost or an implementation timeline for all this work. Even if Canadians support, in full, the commitments outlined in UNDRIP, they are right to ask if the government of Canada is able and willing to fund the legislative commitments. The political salability for the required UNDRIP actions remains to be seen).

Of the many provisions in the legislation, the commitment to Indigenous language revitalization is among the most urgent. UNDRIP calls for comprehensive commitments to Indigenous language preservation, use and services. However, the money needed to meet these essential needs, to even give the Indigenous languages a faint hope of remaining vibrant into the second half of the 21st century, would run into the many billions of dollars. Canada’s present effort is tiny in comparison to the real ad urgent need; much more is required, but Canada has been reluctant to provide even the basics to date.

The path forward is not going to be easy. Implementation of UNDRIP is a process and not a single destination. At present, the Canadian public lacks a clear vision, one that is openly and publicly shared with Indigenous peoples, of the desired outcomes from UNDRIP.

The promised changes are enormous. Real autonomy, political re-empowerment, prosperity sharing and cultural revitalization are essential if Canada is to honour its commitments. They are all overdue.  Evidence of the general Canadian support for such outcomes is scarce. In the past, Canada has tinkered rather than changed. Indigenous Canadians deserve and expected fundamental transformations of the country; it is far from clear that non-Indigenous Canadians are ready for the transition.

British Columbia is the only province that has taken significant steps regarding UNDRIP, but its draft implementation plan and initial steps show how challenging this transition will be. Implementation cannot be constrained by artificial deadlines and must, to be credible and sustainable, be driven by Indigenous priorities, protocols and timing. Implementation will take decades to get right, with all delays and roadblocks adding to the challenges facing Indigenous communities. The Canadian political process leans toward commitments that are limited and precise; UNDRIP promises the opposite.

The implementation of UNDRIP has the potential to transform Canada in constructive and positive ways.  It is not a matter of a few policies and programs and small budget increases. UNDRIP calls on Canada to address historical injustices and to return the country to a real partnership with Indigenous peoples.

First Nations, Inuit and Metis are clearly eager for such a re-imagining of Canada. There are several places — the northern territories and northern Quebec, being promising examples — where UNDRIP-scale changes are already underway. Is the country as a whole ready for such a transformation? Sadly, I think it is not.

In the last few weeks, British Columbia has once again changed the UNDRIP debate.  British Columbia was first – and fast – out of the gate in seeking to align BC legislation and policy with UNDRIP.  The BC Conservative Party, now polling in second place to the governing NDP, has announced that they will repudiate UNDRIP if they are victorious in the Fall 2024 election.  This strong position – which they assert is not anti-Aboriginal but instead a preference for economic engagement – has the potential to be a key point of contention in the coming campaign.

First Nations, Metis and Inuit are ready and have been waiting for the opportunity to be real partners in a renewed Canada. Non-Indigenous Canadians, as is so often case on Indigenous affairs, lag well behind. There is much work to be done to get to the starting point on UNDRIP, let alone to reach the finish line.

Ken Coates is a distinguished fellow and director of Indigenous affairs at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.