Five questions answered: the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

OTTAWA – Canada is now a full supporter of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “without qualification,” Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Tuesday in New York.

Here are five questions that flow from the government’s announcement:

1. Is the announcement seen as significant?

Indigenous leaders believe Canada’s decision to support the declaration sends a clear signal on strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship.

“This is a turning point in our relationship and the recognition of our rights but I must point out that we are only regaining what we had previous control of — our right to the lands, territories and resources which we have traditionally owned and occupied,” said Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day.

Larry Innes, a lawyer who specializes in representing indigenous communities on resource issues, said Bennett’s UN address opens up new constitutional turf that will have to be negotiated with indigenous groups and the provinces and territories.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Mining Association of Canada both say elements of UNDRIP ensuring “free, prior and informed consent” from indigenous groups are already part of Canadian law and have become standard industry practice in the past decade.

Indigenous groups, legal representatives and resource extraction industries all agree that the announcement is a step on the path to reconciliation.

2. What’s the immediate impact?

Questions remain about the impact of the declaration because it is not considered legally binding. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for Canada to both adopt and implement the UN declaration.

Innes, who represents Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta’s oil sands country, said governments have been selling resource permits and licences to contested land for generations, stacking the deck in favour of the status quo and locking in wealth ownership.

“That’s not going to go away by just saying ‘UNDRIP, UNDRIP, UNDRIP’ three times. It’s going to require some serious negotiations and serious reallocations.”

3. What will implementation look like?

The NDP’s intergovernmental indigenous affairs critic Romeo Saganash, who spent two decades working on international efforts to craft the document, believes a legislative path is required.

Saganash has put forward a private member’s bill that has been backed by a number of groups, including Amnesty International and the Assembly of First Nations.

Brian McGuigan, manager of aboriginal policy at Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says the UN document will have to be applied within Canadian law, which already recognizes indigenous rights.

“We do need to develop a dialogue in Canada about how would you actually implement it. You can’t just pass a law to say UNDRIP is here if I implement it in Canada, because it’s quite a vague document in places — and intentionally so.”

4. How could this improve the lives of indigenous people?

Chief Day says the government of Canada must follow through with significant funding to address poverty and despair in too many indigenous communities.

But the prospect of greater self-government and nation-to-nation status in resource and other negotiations holds the prospect of correcting a historic wrong. Bennett herself referred to leaving the era of colonialism behind.

Innes, the lawyer, said a framework for free, prior and informed consent with First Nations might be developed around specific resource projects and then applied more broadly.

“Let’s face it,” said Innes. “There are a whole range of pressing issues in most indigenous communities, most of which have nothing to do with major (resource) developments.”

5. What’s the reaction to the announcement?

The government’s endorsement of UNDRIP is seen as a beginning, not an end in itself. One observer suggested it begins a generation of negotiations to establish a new relationship between governments and indigenous communities.

Natan Obed of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami issued a release questioning Bennett’s “unilateral” assertion that UNDRIP will fit within Canada’s existing constitutional framework on indigenous rights. But the ITK president said he remains optimistic that the complex issues can be resolved through negotiation.

Noticeably absent were voices calling Canada’s adoption of UNDRIP a bad idea.