Excitement and apprehension: Canada and the UNDRIP

This week’s writer is Miriam Sainnawap, co-coordinator of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighbours program.  She is from Kingfisher Lake First Nation in Treaty 9 territory (northwestern Ontario).

In May, I attended one of the most highly attended meetings at United Nations in New York City. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (15th session) is where Indigenous peoples worldwide gather to build solidarity and form alliances with other Indigenous peoples and organizations, and to bring the concerns confronting their communities to the UN.
UNDRIP 2“We are now a full supporter of the declaration, without qualification,” Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said, on behalf of the Government of Canada. Her announcement indicated that Canada will fully adopt the United Nations of Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Canada’s previous government had endorsed the declaration in 2010 and named it as an aspirational document, but had maintained some significant objections. With Bennett’s announcement, those objections were lifted.

As I stood up for the standing ovation in a conference room, I was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and apprehension. I was excited that finally Canada is taking this meaningful and important step forward with Indigenous peoples. I was also apprehensive as to whether Canada will actually do what is needed for full implementation.

While the Declaration addresses the complex issues of Indigenous rights in Canada, it is more helpful to understand the UNDRIP is a substantial document with 46 articles addressed in principles with short details.

The Declaration aims to protect and support the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, language, culture and economic development, among other things.  It was developed over a 25-year by a working group of Indigenous people from around the world.

Jingle dancer
Jingle dancer Sherry Starr memorializes the children who died in Indian Residential Schools at a mass blanket exercise, Winnipeg, June 4, 2016.  Photo credit/Alison Ralph

The adoption of UNDRIP is an important symbolic gesture, requiring a major commitment to policy changes and laws, but adherence to the Declaration will unlikely lead to real change on the ground, unless there is full participation and partnership with Indigenous peoples.

Bennett indicated that the implementation process would follow in accordance with Section 35 of the Constitution, would recognize and affirm the existing Aboriginal and Treaty rights, and would commit the Crown to its duty to consult with Indigenous peoples. In other words, the Declaration will align itself with Canadian law, because the document is not legally binding and not enforceable in its application.

My anticipation remains in how the Declaration will be implemented. It is critically important for the government to engage in careful conversation and consultation with Indigenous peoples.

Let’s ensure the government holds to its public commitment to work with Indigenous peoples. It is a step and only the beginning.

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