The federal government tabled new legislation in the House of Commons on Thursday that aims to align Canada’s laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
According to its first draft, Bill C-15, The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, would affirm UNDRIP as a universal human rights instrument and provide a framework for implementing the declaration in Canada if passed.
“Working with First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples to implement the declaration and create a framework to achieve its objectives is a statement that the government of Canada values, respects and promotes the human rights of all and not just some,” Justice Minister David Lametti told reporters shortly after introducing the bill.
“The legislation is a significant step forward on the shared path to reconciliation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike. It has the potential to be transformational.”
The proposed legislation would create new requirements for the government to work in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples, align federal laws with the human rights standards set out in the declaration, require an action plan be developed in three years, and require annual reporting on progress made, Lametti added.
Indigenous leaders, politicians and elders joined Lametti virtually and in person while Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett joined remotely to discuss the new bill.
“The jurisprudence has been clear. Way too much time and money has been spent by governments and industry to lose in court. Indigenous peoples now have a full box of rights. Sadly, despite robust constitutional and legal protections, Indigenous rights continue to be misunderstood,” said Bennett.
“This bill is about breathing life into Section 35 of our Constitution. It formally entrenches the rights of Indigenous people in Canadian law. We have a responsibility as a country to ensure that Indigenous rights are affirmed, but that they are fully understood and respected.”
Proposed legislation builds on C-262
Bill C-15 uses as a starting point former private member’s bill C-262, which was tabled in 2016 by former New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash. That bill passed successfully through the lower house but died on the Senate order paper after what Lametti called “political gamesmanship.”
The federal government says it developed the new bill in consultation with several Indigenous partners, including leaders of three national organizations who expressed hope for the new legislation tempered with a bit of caution.
“In the days and weeks ahead, First Nations chiefs will be looking very closely at this bill. The implementation of the declaration is very important to all our people, and we want to make sure that the implementation legislation adopted by Parliament will be as strong as possible,” said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
“These minimum standards are essential to healing the wounds of injustices and systemic racism. Systemic racism requires systemic solutions, and that the United Nations declaration provides.”
Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said he believes the bill’s enforcement and monitoring mechanisms will help rectify systemic racism in Canada.
“This is an important step toward ending discrimination against Indigenous peoples through the recognition of our distinct status and rights as well as their universal application,” he said at the new conference in Ottawa.
“It marks a positive departure from the past position of segregating our human rights into an imagined, separate underclass of rights.”
The spokesperson for the Metis National Council, David Chartrand was also hopeful.
“Respecting our self-determination as affirmed in the UN declaration means that the government and industries will work in partnership with us. It means that Indigenous peoples must be involved in a meaningful way in the decision-making process that shapes policies or projects, and that ultimately determines their viability,” he said.
“This approach fosters unity, healthy relationships, certainty and civility for Indigenous nations, industry and Canadians and all of our country.”
Countering ‘fear mongering’ and rumours about UNDRIP
The three leaders urged members of all federal political parties to support the bill, which now has a long road ahead of it before potentially receiving royal assent.
Lametti refused to speculate on what sort of opposition in Parliament the new legislation could face, but Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has expressed trepidation about UNDRIP in the past.
The Conservatives opposed Saganash’s former bill in the Senate, and some have expressed concerns UNDRIP would give Indigenous people the power to veto industrial development and resource extraction projects within their territories.
“The word veto does not exist in the document,” said Lametti, adding that fears circulating about UNDRIP are misplaced and that Ottawa plans to work to dispel rumours and misinformation.
“It’s about human rights. How can you be against the recognition and the assertion of inherent human rights? And so, we think this bill will have wide support in Parliament and in the Senate. As a government bill we will be able to better manage the process.”
Indigenous leaders in attendance also tried to counter “fear mongering” about the declaration.
“This UN declaration legislation has over the past 15 years stirred up some of those same sentiments that have those same underlying tinges of racism against First Nations, Inuit and Metis in this country,” Obed explained.
“But, as has already been said, this bill is a very simple bill in that it takes an international human rights instrument and attempts to try to meaningfully implement that instrument in Canada.”
Chartrand said those who want to use UNRIP as a “bogeyman” political tool now have “very little short grass to hide in.” He said he believes industry leaders are coming on board to support the bill.
UNDRIP’s 46 articles lay out global minimum human rights standards for Indigenous peoples. It was adopted by the UN in 2007.
Canada was one of four nations that voted against the declaration initially, but the Liberal government eventually endorsed the declaration in 2016.
The bill would not make UNDRIP itself law but rather offer a “roadmap” for ensuring Canada’s laws are in harmony with its articles.