Constructing a reconciliation response: Understanding the UNDRIP

If you’ve ever tried to build a Lego set without the instructions, you know it can be frustrating and that often little parts can be left out. Sometimes pictures are helpful, but it is still difficult to replicate the exact model the set is designed to make. Some sets are easier than others, and some seem like a really good idea at first, but quickly become way more complicated than originally thought. It doesn’t help that well-meaning siblings come along and ask why you haven’t put on the stickers yet.

Even though the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is much more important, its complexity might be somewhat compared to Lego. The Declaration is complex and its impact and exact application is difficult to understand at first. With dedication and patience, it can be understood and applied in a constructive manner to create a beautiful structure.

For Christians, the Bible informs our values and guides our behaviour, especially in how we are to treat each other. Since the UNDRIP focuses on how we see each other and how we treat each other, we can turn to the Bible for guidance. The Bible explains that when God created the world, He created all people equal and of value because they were created in His Image. Jesus includes loving our neighbours as ourselves in the Golden Rule, along with loving God (Matthew 22:36-40). Thus, anytime our neighbours (here and around the world) are being treated unfairly and denied rights to dignity and respect, we must seek ways to restore our world to justice and peace. One tool we have been given to articulate those injustices and envision a more equal world is the UNDRIP.

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More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation in Ottawa on May 31, 2015 at the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  MCC photo/Alison Ralph

The document is comprised of forty-six articles which both lay out explicit rights and include implementation mandates directed to states. It was created over a twenty-year span by Indigenous peoples and other parties worldwide. The document mainly focuses on three types of rights: rights to protect and live out ones culture, rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), and rights to self-determination.

Many of the UNDRIP rights have to do with cultural rights– those rights to language, religion, education, traditions, and practices that we pride ourselves on in Canada. These rights appear to be the easiest to address and perhaps the least controversial. Although they do impact government funding arrangements, they largely require that Indigenous communities are given the space to make their own choices about cultural practises. They are significant because they represent a much needed departure from previous policies of assimilation and forced Christianization. In advocating for these rights, non-Indigenous people can work alongside Indigenous communities and remind the government of the openness to other cultures that we cultivate in Canada. For Christians, at a minimum, this means taking the time to learn about and develop respect for Indigenous spiritual traditions, even as we hold onto deeply held faith convictions.

Rights to FPIC mean that Indigenous communities must be consulted, provided accessible information, and their decisions respected, especially in reference to natural resource extraction on their lands. This is similar to the way that non-Indigenous Canadians expect to be treated, but it applies to communities as well as individuals. These rights are harder to define concretely and difficult to imagine fully implemented, simply because the potential influence is huge. Many of Canada’s natural resources are on Indigenous land, making the possible refusal of communities to allow projects on their land problematic, from the perspective of those seeking economic growth through the extractive industry.

Rather than view FPIC as problematic, it is helpful to recall that these are the same rights every person is entitled to, and that as settlers, we are the newcomers to Canada. It is important that all people advocate for Indigenous FPIC rights, especially as communities who have traditionally not been consulted and have seen their lands contaminated and destroyed by mining and other activities. These rights are also one of the sticking points for the government, so it is important for us all to work with communities and discover how their FPIC rights can be respected and upheld in light of the current government hesitation.

The final group of rights are those that have implications for self-determination of communities and nations. Rather than focus on concerns about Canadian sovereignty, it is important that when treaties were signed with the European powers, they were signed at a national level and that rather than giving rights to Indigenous peoples, the UNDRIP is reminding and demanding that those rights and original relationships be respected and upheld. There is some uncertainty about practical application of these rights which have been so long ignored, but with kindness, sincere effort, and a genuine partnership between Indigenous nations and the Canadian government, they can be resolved.

As Christians living in Canada, it is important that we recognize that the existing relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the state is harmful and not as it was originally drawn up in our founding treaties. In addition to supporting a more equal and beneficial society nationally, we can work together at a local level, assisting Indigenous Peoples when it is helpful to them, and working harder to implement the equality and acceptance set out for us in the Bible.

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There was a real sense of  togetherness as people participated in the walk for reconciliation, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

Additionally, as Canadians, we have a history of taking land and resources that are not ours and robbing Indigenous communities of their ability to practice the same cultural, religious, economic, and governance autonomy that we prize so highly. Non-Indigenous people have done this through past programs such as the Indian Act, unfair land treaties and residential schools, and continue through the systems and institutions in place at a national and local level. Here we too have a duty to step forward in reconciliation and ask how we can begin making positive changes. One way that communities have identified is by fighting to hold the government accountable to UNDRIP. This method is set out by the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, as it calls on the government to implement UNDRIP and especially for Christians and their churches to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous neighbours.

The rights set out by the UNDRIP are not unreasonable. They can be difficult to understand, but through honest collaborative efforts, all levels of government—working together with Indigenous communities–may create the beautiful structure that will allow for the flourishing of Indigenous nations. Non-Indigenous people can help by being informed, reaching out in support to local communities as churches, and in reminding our leaders that even slow-moving progress is progress, and that all people should enjoy these rights to dignity and respect.

by Clare Maier, advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office

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