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Cover of UNDRIP Handbook by Law Professor Brenda Gunn.

Ottawa Citizen Op-Ed: Gunn and Neve: Canada mustn’t wait any longer to implement the UN declaration on Indigenous rights

By adopting legislative commitments to uphold and put in place a binding framework for implementation, this country would not only do the right thing at home, it would set a vital example to the world.

March 11, 2021 — 

The following op-ed was published on February 24, 2021 in the Ottawa Citizen by University of Manitoba Faculty of Law Associate Professor Brenda Gunn, co-written with Alex Neve.

Bringing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to life in Canada has been a long time coming. Close to four decades in fact, a staggeringly long time for such a crucial human rights concern.

First, 25 years of negotiations at the UN. Then, even though it was overwhelmingly adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, eight years of outright opposition and lukewarm support from the Stephen Harper government. After the Trudeau government was elected in 2015, four wasted years of politics thwarted passage of Bill C-262, NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s private member’s legislation to implement the declaration. Then another year on hold following the 2019 election, waiting for action on the Liberals’ campaign promise to bring forward government legislation.

And now, with Bill C-15 currently before the House of Commons, it is finally within reach. A process that started at the UN in 1982 may, at long last, secure meaningful implementation of the international human rights framework for protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

But it is not done yet. There is predictable opposition, including alarmist hyperbole which continues misinformation campaigns linking respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples with economic doom.

Days before COVID-19 turned life and politics upside down a year ago, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, for instance, wrote that adopting the declaration would “replace Canadian precedents that have advanced Indigenous rights with undefined international good intentions” and predicted that “more confusion and uncertainty will reign. Investors and businesses will focus elsewhere. Opportunities will be lost. Acrimony will continue.”

Because decades of overlooking, undermining and violating the rights of Indigenous Peoples have been marked by an absence of confusion, uncertainty and acrimony? Obviously not.

It is not clear what position Erin O’Toole’s Conservative Party will take, nor whether there may be an attempted repeat of the obstruction we saw from a handful of senators who blocked adoption of C-262 in the spring of 2019.

Might we finally see acknowledgement that embracing a human rights framework will be good all around?

By any measure, implementing this global declaration domestically will significantly advance reconciliation and strengthen respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples across the country. Not automatically. And not without much hard work ahead, such as the considerable effort – in full collaboration with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples – that must be invested in developing the action plan for implementation that will be required.

But it will be an enormously consequential. Tellingly, that is why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls have both called for this to happen.

And we should not overlook the vital significance this will have more widely, in two crucial respects.

First, this is incredibly important globally. On every continent the rights of Indigenous Peoples are trammelled daily, rooted in centuries-old racism, and often marked by extreme acts of devastating violence. The UN declaration offers a path for tackling this colossal human rights crisis. But only if its stirring words are translated from international promises to national action.  By adopting legislative commitments to uphold and put in place a binding framework for implementation, Canada sets a vital example.

Second, this stands to advance Canada’s overall commitment to international human rights. For decades, communities who have expected meaningful action by federal, provincial and territorial governments to comply with the UN human rights obligations we expect other countries to respect have been disappointed and, frankly, betrayed. Instead, governments disingenuously blame imagined constraints of federalism for inaction and often assert that international human rights are for other countries with more grievous failings.

In that way, this is a human rights breakthrough that, ultimately, benefits not only Indigenous Peoples, but individuals and communities struggling for action to address racism, uphold gender equality, tackle poverty and homelessness, and promote the rights of people living with disabilities.

Bill C-15 is, of course, Indigenous rights legislation. It is also one of the most important pieces of human rights legislation in a generation. It takes our international human rights obligations seriously, brings those promises home and commits to action to uphold them.

And that should be embraced by us all.

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