Our voices, our rights

By Miriam Sainnawap, Co-Coordinator of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighbours Program. She is Oji-Cree from Kingfisher Lake First Nation, Ontario.

Every spring, I travel to New York to attend the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). I join hundreds of other Indigenous people from around the world as we gather to raise our voices about our collective rights as Indigenous peoples.

UNPFII is an advisory body to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, with a mandate to address Indigenous issues, particularly economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. This year’s 17th session theme focused on “Indigenous peoples’ collective rights to land, territories and resources.”

Miriam (2nd from left) with friends at UNPFII: Matt Leblanc (Mi’kmaq-Acadian), Erica Littlewolf (Northern Cheyenne) and Sam Leigh (Anishinabe).

As a young indigenous woman observing at the UNPFII, I am only beginning to recognize the long and ongoing struggle for respect for Indigenous rights at the UN.  The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), passed in 2007, has been instrumental of bringing Indigenous solidarity worldwide and has demonstrated a significant shift in thinking with respect to the international recognition of Indigenous peoples, rights and claims.

But the UNDRIP remains a  non-binding document,  and governments are not legally obligated to ensure the protection of Indigenous rights.

Canada is one example of a country dragging its feet on respecting Indigenous rights. Canada’s colonial history of policies and laws, in its relationship with Indigenous peoples, has been repeatedly criticized both nationally and internationally. The UN Human Rights Council regularly calls on Canada to stop violating Indigenous rights. But there remains within Canada a significant tension about what it means to honour Indigenous rights.

At one level, there is  concern about the compatibility of certain elements of UNDRIP and how they challenge Canada’s constitution.

At another level, there is simply an underlying and unspoken racism in Canadian society. Indigenous rights are seen to pose a threat to the status quo and to threaten people who benefit from the status quo. What is good for Indigenous peoples is understood to be bad for non-Indigenous people. Indigenous peoples are therefore seen as undeserving. We need to get past seeing my rights as a threat.

It is an important call for all Canadians to urge the government to uphold their obligation to the UN Declaration and influence it to respect Indigenous rights.

UNPFII in session.

The remaining challenge of Indigenous peoples is achieving political participation and inclusion within the UN structures. Indigenous peoples have been able to participate in different political arenas today, especially through the UNPFII, but the question remains: what it is we want to achieve and how can we have broader influence.

Hearing from various leaders, I was struck by the theme of how  all Indigenous peoples identify our relationship to the land and water. Around the world, water is threatened by mineral, oil and gas exploitation. How do we protect and ensure the well-being of safe drinking water. Without access to our lands and water, how can we conduct ceremonies to heal ourselves, our families, and our communities?

We all need to recognize our collective responsibility to protect the earth and remind others to help restore the balance and harmony of all humanity and its creation. The earth does not exist to serve us, but it sustains and gives meaning to life, and it supports the continuity and vitality of securing our livelihoods and our future generations. We need to care for it.

The UN Declaration is a tool to help address the ongoing refusal to respect  rights that matter to us. It is a mechanism through which we can be  recognized as human beings with rights.

UNPFII #3And the UNPFII is a place where Indigenous people can support one another and hold space for our relatives in the ongoing struggles for recognition of our rights.

As I left New York, after the conclusion of the UNPFII, I was grateful:

For the incredible strength in our people;

For the support extended to all the people present and for holding space for our relatives;

For the rights which matter to us, recognizing our inherent responsibility to promote peace and justice for mother earth;

For the strength that comes from the land and wisdom of our ancestors;

For our ability to laugh at ourselves and others and how that draws us closer together;

For UNPFII as a space to network and exchange ideas to support and stand in solidarity.

I’m reminded we are still here.

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