Indigenous

Canada supports UN Indigenous rights declaration: Now what?

When Canada announced it fully supports the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it earned Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett a standing ovation. But that announcement is raising questions about what the declaration actually means for Canada, and exactly how it will be implemented.

Questions remain about what the declaration means and how it will be implemented

Canada is now a full supporter of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 'without qualification,' Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told the United Nations in New York on Tuesday. (UN video/CBC)

When Canada removed its permanent objector status to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it earned Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett a standing ovation.

But that announcement at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday is raising questions about what the declaration actually means for Canada, and exactly how it will be implemented.

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, the declaration consists of 46 articles that recognize Indigenous peoples' basic human rights, as well as rights to self-determination, language, equality and land, among others.

"The declaration sets a strong foundation for the way in which we should work together — respectfully, nation-to-nation and in the spirit of reconciliation," said a statement from Ghislain Picard, regional chief for Quebec and Labrador of the Assembly of First Nations.

'Without qualification'

According to Bennett, Canada's new support of the declaration was "without qualification."

"By adopting and implementing the declaration, we are excited that we are breathing life into Section 35 [of Canada's Constitution Act] and recognizing it as a full box of rights for Indigenous peoples in Canada," she added.

But not everyone is so sure.
Hayden King of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto said interpreting the UN declaration using Canada's constitution has been problematic. (CBC)

"That's kind of a recipe for disaster," said Hayden King, director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.

Section 35 of the Constitution Act is supposed to provide protection for Indigenous and treaty rights, but King says that's been problematic. 

"The court's interpretation of Section 35, which previous governments have relied upon, have been an extremely limited, narrow view."

King also said that Bennett's announcement should have included a clear plan, or at least more details, for how the declaration would be implemented in Canada.

Implementation

"What many Indigenous peoples have been pushing for is a process to develop a national action plan, where Indigenous peoples work with Canada to implement the UN declaration," said Brenda Gunn, who teaches in the faculty of law at the University of Manitoba.

Gunn, who is Mé​tis, is also the author of the handbook Understanding and Implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Gunn says that any action plan must include a review of all Canadian laws and policies, to see if they align with the standards set in the declaration.

SENATOR MURRAY SINCLAIR ON CANADA'S CHANGE OF STANCE ON UNITED NATIONS INDIGENOUS RIGHTS DECLARATION. 9:20


"I think one has to look at the legislation that's in place now, the Indian Act, and other pieces of federal and provincial law that are impacting on the use of tradition and treaty rights that Indigenous people have been trying to exercise," said Senator Murray Sinclair, a former justice who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"I'm not sure that it would automatically repeal the Indian Act but I think that's got to be part of the equation, part of the discussion."

It's a discussion many are eager to start. 

"We were ready yesterday," said Chief Wilton Littlechield, a Cree lawyer and former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Free, prior, and informed consent

However, Littlechild worries that there still might be disagreements about land rights and resource development. Some believe the declaration gives Indigenous peoples a veto over developments on their lands and territories. 

That is partly why the previous Conservative government opposed the declaration when it was adopted by the UN, but that's apparently not a problem for the new Liberal government.

"Canada believes that our constitutional obligations serve to fulfil all of the principles of the declaration, including free, prior and informed consent," Bennett said in her speech.

Free, prior and informed consent is supposed to mean that Indigenous peoples are involved in the decision-making process as partners from the beginning, says Gunn, not simply presented with a plan and asked to say yes or no.

"We know that Section 35 talks about the duty to consult and accommodate," said King. "But that's not getting close to free, prior and informed consent." 

With files from Karina Roman, Power and Politics