Canada reluctant to adopt UN declaration on Indigenous rights

While Canada has signed UNDRIP, it still has a long way to go before it can be considered “adopted.”

In 2016, Canada had signed the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights, (UNDRIP) a declaration outlining the steps, laws, and freedoms that a nation should abide by when dealing with Indigenous people. This came nine years after the United Nations first voted in favour of the declaration. At the time, Canada voted against the declaration, along with Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

But although Canada is no longer an “objector” to the declaration, this doesn’t mean the government has officially adopted and implemented UNDRIP as law.

So far only two of the thirteen Canadian provinces and territories have actually passed laws pertaining to the declaration: British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. British Columbia passed legislation that requires the province to begin a process to bring provincial law into harmony with UNDRIP, ensuring that Indigenous rights as laid out there are respected in BC law. It also establishes a framework to ensure a collaborative decision making process between Indigenous governments and the provincial government, in making decisions that affect the rights of all citizens.

The Northwest Territories is considering a similar bill. However, due to treaties that already lay out certain processes and requirements in that province, the process is more complex. The bill they are setting forth is currently being created, revised, and reviewed as it is being passed from local government to different Indigenous governments. With how broad the language used in the declaration is, there is a lot to be considered.

However, some in Canada look at the declaration with both confusion and concern. Due to the broad language used in the declaration, the Harper administration had voiced their concerns on land and natural resource provisions, which had the potential to undo the work on land claim settlements from the past. 

The most recent legislation passed by the federal government, a private member’s bill called “Bill C-262,” has also generated controversy. The main goal of the bill is to help Canadian law work in tandem and harmonizes with UNDRIP. However, Conversative senators are worried that enshrining these Indigenous rights in Canadian law will give Indigenous governments a veto over activities such as mining and pipeline construction.

According to The Narwhal, while support is high, MPs in the federal government have contradicted themselves and misconstrued the meaning of the declaration — in particular on the question of Indigenous rights to “free, informed and prior consent” and whether or not that language implies the existence of a veto. Indigenous scholars have a completely separate idea from the Federal government on what the contents of the declaration mean.

When the declaration was signed by the Trudeau administration in 2016, it looked like Canada was finally stepping up its efforts in improving relations with the Indigenous people. 

This was tested when Trudeau had bought the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion project, which cost about five billion dollars and would run through multiple Indigenous lands. However, ultimately it did little to actually help those affected get a say in the matter as Trudeau decided to continue with the expansion without the permission of the First Nations on those lands, stating that they didn’t have any veto power.

The declaration itself is a 32-page document that starts with the key ideas that a country should abide by when implementing it, followed by 46 articles and laws, some with added subsections, clauses and requirements. 

When the declaration’s complexity is coupled with the bipolar statements from those in parliament and the somewhat limited media coverage, it becomes clear why some Canadians may be reluctant to adopt UNDRIP fully.


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