B.C. tables historic Indigenous rights bill in move to implement UN declaration

B.C.'s promised bill on Indigenous rights has been tabled in the legislature and, if passed, it will make the province the first in Canada to legally implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Province will become 1st in Canada to legally enshrine 'minimum standards' of rights if bill passes

First Nations leadership council representatives hold up printed copies of the Indigenous rights bill tabled on Thursday morning in Victoria. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC )

B.C.'s promised bill on Indigenous rights has been tabled in the legislature, and if passed, the province will be the first in Canada to legally implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Since the province committed to the legislation more than a year ago, a team from the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation has been working with the First Nations Leadership Council to draft the historic bill. 

"This legislation is a real catalyst for significant change," said Premier John Horgan after the bill was introduced.

"This bill is critically important because Indigenous rights are human rights. We all want to live in a province where the standard of living for Indigenous Peoples is the same as every other human being in the province." 

Indigenous leaders from across the province and across the country filled the gallery, some invited to sit on the floor of the central aisle. Those present represented the range of political leadership among Indigenous communities — there were elected MLAs, MPs Jody Wilson-Raybould and outgoing NDP MP Romeo Saganash, hereditary chiefs, elected chiefs and Elders. 

The legislation is meant to provide a framework for the province to align its laws with the standards of the UN declaration — something Indigenous groups have long been advocating for in B.C. and across the country. 

At its core, the legislation has been discussed among Indigenous leaders as a way to improve government-to-government relations.

"It moves us away from a relationship of denial," Cheryl Casimer, one of the First Nations Summit political executives, said in an interview on CBC's On the Coast

"Denial of our rights, denial of our title, denial of our basic human rights — and puts us in a position where we can sit as equal decision-maker at tables where decisions are being made that impact our lives."

Grand Chiefs Ed John and Stewart Phillip fielding questions at a news conference after the UNDRIP legislation passed first reading in the Victoria legislature. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

"What this declaration does is now recognize that Indigenous Peoples have the inherent right to self-government and to make decisions and have power," said Ed John, who has long worked to advocate for the rights of Indigenous communities in Canada and internationally. 

John was involved with the development of the declaration as a representative for the Assembly of First Nations. He was in New York City when Canada formally opposed the declaration's adoption in the UN General Assembly in 2007. 

He was also there when Canada came back to the table in 2016 and endorsed it.

"There was a standing ovation, believe it or not, from Indigenous Peoples around the world. And you don't see standing ovations at the UN."

UNDRIP has now been endorsed by both B.C. and Canada. It consists of 46 articles meant to recognize the basic human rights of Indigenous people along with their rights to self-determination.

Article 43 states the rights detailed in the declaration represent "the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world."

"This is about recognizing human rights applied to Indigenous peoples, and it's something that governments of all stripes have not done before despite the fact it's in the Constitution of Canada," Scott Fraser, the B.C. minister of Indigenous relations, said Wednesday. 

Fraser introduced the bill for a first reading on Thursday morning. He spoke about next steps and about how the legislation provides a path forward in the government-to-government relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the province. 

"By working together we get better outcomes. That is how we create opportunities for Indigenous Peoples, for B.C. businesses, for communities and for families everywhere," he said. 

B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser shares a moment with First Nations leaders after introducing the bill in the legislature. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

This isn't the the first time UNDRIP legislation has been introduced in Canada. 

In 2016, outgoing NDP MP Romeo Saganash introduced bill C-262 in Ottawa, which was described as "an act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

The bill passed in the House of Commons in 2018, but died earlier this year after getting held up in the Senate so did not become law. 

Speaking to reporters in Victoria on Thursday afternoon Horgan said he's confident the provincial bill will pass. 

And there's still a chance UNDRIP legislation will be brought forward in Ottawa again. 

Jody Wilson-Raybould, the newly elected Independent MP and former Liberal cabinet minister, said the country needs to create mechanisms to enable Indigenous people to be self-determining, something she will push for when she returns to her Ottawa work.

"I'm going to continue to be a strong voice, to advocate for rights recognition in the country much like the province of British Columbia is doing today," Wilson-Raybould said in a phone interview on CBC's The Early Edition Thursday.

In B.C., Horgan campaigned on a promise to legislate UNDRIP, and his throne speech reiterated the government's commitment. 

"We need to address reconciliation in British Columbia, not just for social justice ... but for economic equality for all citizens, Indigenous and non-Indigenous."

With files from The Canadian Press