Canada has introduced legislation to implement a United Nations declaration that outlines and protects the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world, a move that was welcomed as an “important step”.
In a news conference on Thursday alongside Indigenous leaders, Justice Minister David Lametti outlined Bill C-15, which aims to get Canadian laws in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
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“This framework will put into place new requirements for the government to work in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples, to align federal laws with the human rights standards set out in the declaration, to develop an action plan to help achieve the objectives of the declaration and to report annually on our progress to parliament,” Lametti told reporters.
“I believe that implementing the declaration offers hope for a stronger, more equitable future for Indigenous peoples. I hope – and expect – that this critical legislation will receive strong support to move through the parliamentary process with the urgency it deserves.”
More than 1.6 million people self-identify as Indigenous – First Nation, Metis or Inuit – in Canada, according to the most recent 2016 census, accounting for 4.9 percent of the total population.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected on a promise to promote reconciliation with Indigenous people in Canada, who have been subjected to systemic discrimination, racism and colonialism for generations.
Critics have questioned Canada’s commitment to reconciliation, however, pointing to the federal government’s push to build resource development projects despite opposition from Indigenous communities, a lack of clean drinking water on First Nations reserves, and other issues.
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) in the province of Ontario said in a statement Thursday that though he acknowledged the government’s announcement, it was important to note that Canada has not yet legally adopted UNDRIP into federal law.
“We share concerns that the development of this framework will be guided by an action plan that does not yet exist, and that the federal government has given itself a minimum of three years to develop one,” Fiddler said.
“We welcome the opportunity for full engagement by NAN leadership and look forward to providing recommendations as this legislation proceeds through the parliamentary process.”
Free, prior and informed consent
After first voting against UNDRIP, Canada signed on to the declaration in 2016.
UNDRIP outlines the rights and freedoms of Indigenous people to self-determination, their languages and identity, and to live without discrimination, among other things.
It also affirms that states must obtain the “free, prior and informed consent” of Indigenous peoples before adopting or implementing policies that will affect Indigenous rights.
That last issue has been a point of contention between proponents of pipelines and other big development projects in Canada, who have accused Indigenous communities of invoking UNDRIP in order to exert a “veto” against such projects.
“The word veto does not exist in the document,” Lametti said on Thursday, rejecting the idea that “free, prior and informed consent” would create a roadblock to passing Bill C-15 and implementing UNDRIP in Canada.
‘Significant point in history’
Indigenous leaders and human rights groups welcomed the bill on Thursday, saying it opens up a pathway to protecting Indigenous rights.
The new bill was modelled on a previous piece of legislation known as Bill C-262, which passed in the House of Commons in 2018 but was blocked in the Senate.
“No question this is a good first step,” said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a national advocacy group for First Nations across Canada.
Bellegarde said much work needs to be done to get the bill passed, but he said “there is nothing to be feared about” with UNDRIP. “It really is about building a better country and that’s what this bill does,” he said.
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“This is a significant point in Canadian history,” Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an Inuit advocacy group, said during the news conference.
“This is an important step towards ending discrimination against Indigenous peoples,” he said.
Amnesty International Canada also said Bill C-15 brings Canada “one step closer” to recognising “the human and collective rights of Indigenous Peoples and committing to respecting those rights in an action plan developed in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples”.