Indigenous rights advocates 'cautiously optimistic' about Liberal UNDRIP legislation

Indigenous rights advocates say the Liberal government’s draft legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is better than expected.

Justice Minister David Lametti tabled Bill C-15 in the House of Commons Thursday

Judith Sayers is a member and former chief of the Hupacasath First Nation, and current president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. (Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council)

Indigenous rights advocates say the Liberal government's draft legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) is better than expected.

Justice Minister David Lametti tabled Bill C-15 in the House of Commons on Dec. 3. The bill would chart a path toward implementing the rights affirmed in the declaration.

"I don't think it's perfect by any means but from the draft that they were discussing with us across the country, it's come some ways," said Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council in B.C., who took part in the consultation on the bill.

"Changing the laws of Canada is going to take some time. I think the biggest issue is going to be how they will work with Indigenous people across the country to change those laws."

UNDRIP was passed by the UN General Assembly in 2007 after 25 years of negotiations to affirm the rights of Indigenous peoples to their language, culture, self-determination and traditional lands. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as well as Quebec's Viens Commission all called for the implementation of the declaration at all government levels.


After the shooting of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation member Chantel Moore by police in New Brunswick during a wellness check in June, Sayers said she is happy to see that the draft legislation addresses injustices like systemic discrimination but she has concerns about the proposed timeline outlined.

If passed, the bill would require the federal government to prepare an action plan within three years of the bill's passage to achieve the declaration's objectives. Sayers would like to see meaningful consultation and an interim action plan that addresses the top priorities in Canada, something she acknowledges is not an easy task.

"That's going to be difficult, talking to 633 First Nations and determining that, but I really think that waiting for three years on action that may or may not be complete at that time is too long, way too long," she said.

"We need a change yesterday to many laws."

Amnesty International Canada welcomed the legislation, stating it is "much-needed" and "long-overdue."

"Because the core purpose of the new bill provides a framework for implementation, Amnesty International strongly urges the Canadian government to pass this legislation quickly," said Ana Collins, Amnesty International's Indigenous rights campaign advisor in a statement.

Limitations on self-determination

If the bill is passed, the federal government must ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with UNDRIP. While Canada is not the first country to legislate UNDRIP, Kenneth Deer said if the draft is passed as is, it would put Canada in the forefront of applying the declaration inside its borders.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that this could be beneficial for Indigenous people in Canada," said Deer, who is Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) from Kahnawake, Que., and was involved with the development of UNDRIP. 

Kenneth Deer, the secretary for the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake and member of the Haudenosaunee external relations committee, holding a replica of a Two Row Wampum belt outside of the longhouse in Kahnawake, Que. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

He said it's important that Canada make legislation to implement the declaration, to move it from being aspirational to binding. He added the legislation has its limits when it comes to Indigenous self-determination by being a Canadian law.

"You can't have true self-determination and be limited by the Canadian constitution but Indigenous people can go a long way until we hit that wall," he said.

"Anything that the UN passes or Canada passes does not take away our right to self-determination or does not take away our sovereignty. Our sovereignty is inherent, and will always be there."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.