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As Saskatoon explores UNDRIP implementation, Indigenous voices want more from federal and provincial leaders

While Saskatoon is on its route to potential UNDRIP implementation, Wendy Lynn Lerat, who teaches Indigenous studies at First Nations University of Canada, says the provincial and federal governments need to do more on reconciliation.

Canada is failing miserably on reconciliation, says Indigenous educator

Saskatoon is exploring how it might implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

The City of Saskatoon is examining the possibility of implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) after councillors voted unanimously in July in favour of administration writing a report on potential implementation.

The UNDRIP document, passed by the UN General Assembly in 2007, affirms the rights of Indigenous people to their language, culture, self-determination and traditional lands. It also establishes "minimum standards for the survival and well-being" of Indigenous people.

Federal Bill C-15, which will see Canada formally adopt UNDRIP, has been approved already by the House of Commons and the Senate. Though Conservatives in both chambers largely voted against it, the legislation received royal assent on National Indigenous Peoples Day this year.

Figuring out how to Implement UNDRIP will be a challenge for Saskatoon, according to the city's mayor.

"There's no city that has successfully and fully completed this process, so there's quite a bit of work to be done to explore what is the best way to do it," Mayor Charlie Clark said. 

"There are a number of cities that have begun the process of either adopting or implementing UNDRIP, but there's work to be done to report some specific implications for the city."

Traversing uncharted terrain

Mayor Charlie Clark and Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand sign memo of understanding on a different project back in 2017. (CBC)

The city is consulting with scholars, experts, communities and other jurisdictions on how to move forward. 

In July, Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand wrote a letter asking the mayor to implement the declaration.

"Adopting and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is about building a better country for Indigenous peoples and all Canadians, now and in the future," Arcand wrote. 

"The same can be said for the City of Saskatoon to be a true leader in reconciliation, honouring Indigenous relations."

Clark said there are a lot of individual people trying to achieve reconciliation and build better relationships with Indigenous communities.

"But there isn't necessarily an overarching framework to guide that. That's the opportunity that UNDRIP provides. It creates a framework that can help make the approach to reconciliation less piecemeal," he said.

There is no timeline set for when the report council requested from administration will be presented, but Clark said they expect an initial report around the new year.

'This work is new'

Melissa Cote, director of Indigenous initiatives at the city, said her department has been primarily tasked with looking at the implementation. 

She said they are consulting with many stakeholders, including elders and knowledge keepers.

"The work that we do with reconciliation in Saskatoon, we're often reminded by the elders and the knowledge keepers that they want to see concrete actions toward reconciliation," Cote said.

Melissa Cote, director of Indigenous initiatives at the City of Saskatoon, said the work around UNDRIP implementation is relatively new for a lot of organizations and municipalities. (The City of Saskatoon)

Cote, who is from Cote First Nation, said UNDRIP is about relationship building and making spaces for Indigenous people.

"This work is new. It's new for a lot of organizations and municipalities across the country. We are really trying to understand what implementation actually means for a municipality," she said. 

Last year, Saskatchewan Minister of First Nations, Métis and Northern Affairs Don McMorris and five of his counterparts from across the country asked the federal government to delay Bill C-15.

Though McMorris was not available for an interview, an email statement from the Ministry of Government Relations said the Saskatchewan government is committed to reconciliation and supports the underlying principles of the declaration.

"The Government of Saskatchewan raised a number of concerns with the federal Act through the legislative process; however, these concerns were not substantially addressed before becoming law in June 2021," the statement said.

"In co-operation with Indigenous leaders and industry representatives, the Government of Saskatchewan is open to exploring practical ways of addressing the declaration in a manner consistent with Canada's Constitution, existing domestic law, and the historic Treaties."

Cote said Saskatoon will proceed regardless of what the province decides to do.

"We want to ensure that UNDRIP is grounded in a respectful and productive government-to-government relationship. Genuine implementation of UNDRIP can only be done with the active participation of Indigenous governments and the citizens we represent," Métis-Nation Saskatchewan (MN-S) said in an email statement.

MN-S has been holding information and feedback sessions to ensure Métis citizens' views are considered and included in the process.

"We hope that UNDRIP legislation marks the beginning of real, substantive government to government action and steers and guides us forward in a good way for generations to come," the statement said.

'Canada is failing on reconciliation'

Wendy Lynn Lerat, who teaches Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada, said Bill C-15 is a "watered-down version" of UNDRIP, noting that Canada was one of four countries that initially voted against UNDRIP's adoption in 2007. 

"Canada's rationale was UNDRIP is incompatible with Canada's constitution. UNDRIP establishes a new suite of rights for a small little group of Canadian society. Canada's territorial integrity cannot be damaged in any way and that it will create a vehicle for Indigenous peoples to veto development projects," Lerat said.

Wendy Lynn Lerat is from Cowessess First Nation, which is on Treaty 4 territory in Saskatchewan. She currently teaches Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada. (Submitted by Wendy Lynn Lerat)

She said Canada's version of UNDRIP, Bill C-15, consequently "does not have the teeth required right now to protect Indigenous peoples."

Lerat, who is from Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, said the entire process has continued the colonial agenda.

"There has not been a sincere attempt to obtain true consultation and free, prior and informed consent," she said.

"All our families are broken apart. We're all dealing with it. Is Canada really doing good in reconciliation today? I have to say it's failing miserably."

Lerat said she is worried that many elected chiefs and councils are being "courted" with promises of self-government and funding. 

"Self-government is not self-determination. If we really want reconciliation in this country, there needs to be some give from the provinces and the federal government in regards to the land question," she said.

She said the provincial government should move forward in a way that ensures that the Indigenous voices are being heard and that treaties are being respected.

"Our elders have always told us our treaties are our bridge to the future. But we haven't even begun that journey yet."


Called to Action: Stories of Reconciliation features individuals and groups across the province who are embracing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action. Themes range from language to justice, putting the spotlight on local efforts and the people leading them. Read more Called to Action stories here.

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pratyush Dayal covers climate change, immigration and race and gender issues among general news for CBC News in Saskatchewan. He has previously written for the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and the Tyee. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UBC and can be reached at pratyush.dayal@cbc.ca

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