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Métis Scholar Brenda L. Gunn

Métis Scholar Brenda L. Gunn

Métis Scholar explores the importance of UNDRIP

Meet Indigenous Scholar Brenda L. Gunn.

December 17, 2020 — 

On Dec. 3, 2020, Bill C-15 was tabled in the House of Commons. The bill lays out a framework for the federal government to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which has been at the core of Brenda L. Gunn’s work since she was a law student.

Gunn was born and raised in Winnipeg. She is Métis and her family comes from just north of the city. She obtained a bachelor of arts at the University of Manitoba, and pursued a law degree in Toronto and a master’s in law in Arizona. After articling in Toronto and working in Guatemala, Gunn returned to Winnipeg to be close to family and start a career at Robson Hall Faculty of Law at UM.

She sat down with UM Today to share insight on her career path, as well as what the implementation of UNDRIP would mean for Indigenous peoples moving forward. 

Tell us about your early education, and how that led you to your position as associate professor in the Faculty of Law.

When I was in high school, my older sister was in university and was part of the women’s centre, that encouraged me to be more politically aware and want to do something to make a difference. I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in women’s studies and Native studies to gain a strong understanding of systemic oppression. When I learned that the law was one of the largest contributors to oppression, I decided to go into law school to make change there.

What are some of the things you invested energy on researching throughout your career?

In my second year of law school, I looked to see how international human rights could help address the challenges in Canada. This continues to guide my work to bring change to Canadian law. My work with UNDRIP is definitely what I am known for, but I’ve also looked at international law more broadly. My master’s thesis was on the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Indigenous peoples’ rights.

Over the years, I have advocated before various United Nations bodies for Indigenous peoples’ human rights. I also was part of a five-year research project looking into Métis treaties—including between Métis people and First Nations, as well as Métis people and the Crown.

Tell us how your background in women’s studies [now women’s and gender studies] plays a role in your present work.

Women’s studies provided a clear framework to understand systemic oppression. I still remember my first course with Dr. Janice Ristock and her explanation on how individual experiences of racism or sexism are not just separate incidences, but rather how systems, such as law, work to oppress groups in interlocking and intersecting ways. I try to include a gendered analysis in my work to this day. I have work coming out next year about how Métis rights affect Métis women, and previously, I’ve written on Indigenous women and self-determination.

Briefly describe what UNDRIP is and tell us how this became the primary focus of your work.

UNDRIP is an international human rights instrument that builds and elaborates on how basic human rights and standards apply to Indigenous peoples.

I first learned about UNDRIP when it was being negotiated. I was still in law school. In 2004, I attended the meetings to participate in the negotiations. So really, from the beginning of my legal career, UNDRIP has played a significant role in my thinking about Indigenous peoples’ rights. My biggest contribution early in my career was the handbook I produced in 2013 through a funded project in collaboration with the Indigenous Bar Association.  

What are some common misconceptions surrounding UNDRIP?

There are segments of Canadian society that still view UNDRIP as giving rights to Indigenous peoples, or at least giving special rights. People fail to recognize that human rights are inherent. Indigenous peoples experience violations of human rights in particular ways, and UNDRIP addresses these experiences. UNDRIP also recognizes that Indigenous peoples’ rights are grounded in their own laws, customs and traditions.

Another one relates to the right to free, prior and informed consent, where Indigenous peoples’ rights are especially impacted by government decisions. There is a misconception that this right to consent gives Indigenous peoples special rights that other Canadians don’t have, or worse, that it will stop all kinds of development in Canada. In reality, the right exists to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights, including their special relationship to their lands, territories and resources. And the right ensures that those who are most directly impacted by developments participate in the decision-making processes.

We are seeing some resistance from various grassroots organizations to the federal bill to implement UNDRIP. They raise valid concerns about whether or not Bill C-15 is going to change things in Canada or whether it is going to continue to subjugate Indigenous peoples’ rights to Canadian sovereignty. It is important that we ensure Indigenous peoples have an active role in defining the rights and determining how UNDRIP is implemented. Indigenous peoples must be full participants at all stages of implementation.

What would it mean to see UNDRIP implemented?

Canadian law already accepts international human rights as a valid source of law. To me, implementation recognizes Indigenous peoples as partners in confederation and there are no longer socio-economic disparities. Implementation means that there is real space in Canadian law for Indigenous peoples to protect their rights as they understand them according to their own laws. It means Indigenous peoples are no longer living under government control where the government decides things for them, but rather Indigenous peoples determine their own futures and have all the tools they need to realize those futures.

What advice do you have for Indigenous students considering law?

One of the things that Indigenous students learn early on, is that law doesn’t always mean justice. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to the legal system in Canada before it can be an effective tool in achieving Indigenous peoples’ aspirations. Luckily, there are more Indigenous students in law in Canada and the students are increasingly organized and working together across the country. There are more Indigenous law professors than when I started 10 years ago, and there are more Indigenous lawyers, judges and politicians. That also means there are a lot more supports available to students.

You have a lot on the go. What are some ways you rejuvenate, refresh and recharge?

Getting outside as much as possible, even if it’s chilly. The fresh air helps clear my mind. I prioritize spending time with my family, and rewarding myself to various locally made goods.

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