“Get the water fixed!”

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), was drafted by the U.N. in 2007.  It recognizes the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples and their right to self-determination. Until now, Canada has done little to ensure that this important declaration has legal standing in this country. That may be about to change with the recent introduction of Bill C-15, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.  When he introduced the Bill, Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti said:

“This legislation is a significant step forward on the shared path to reconciliation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike.”

Some history

In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government voted against UNDRIP at the United Nations, changing that to a vote in favour in 2010. But, the government did not take any steps to turn it into Canadian law. In other words, Canada stood for it as a U.N. Declaration while choosing not to take responsibility for giving it any legal teeth at home.

NDP MPP Romeo Saganash introduced a private members’ bill in 2019 to turn UNDRIP into Canadian law. His Bill passed the House of Commons, but was stalled by Conservative members of the Senate who claimed there would be serious economic and legal consequences to the country if it were passed. It died when the 2019 federal election was called.

Despite inaction at the federal level, one province and one territory have taken steps to implement UNDRIP. British Columbia passed Bill 41, Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in December 2019, and implementing the Declaration is part of the mandate of the current government of the Northwest Territories.

Why the opposition?

Opposition to UNDRIP by those who support the ongoing exploitation of Indigenous lands is largely focused on the language of Article 32:

“States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

Critics claim this amounts to giving Indigenous peoples veto power over all future land “development” projects. Not so, says Attorney General Lametti, who points out that the Declaration does not contain the word veto. David Chartrand of the Metis National Council calls the claims of opponents “fear-mongering.”

Effective implementation

If passed, Bill C-15 will require the government to produce an action plan for implementation within three years and to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the Declaration’s 46 articles.

Given the scope of those 46 articles, this is a daunting task. Among other things, the Declaration requires that Indigenous peoples have “full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms,” be free from discrimination, have the right to self-determination/autonomy/self-government and not be subjected to forced assimilation or forcibly removed from their land or territories. The list also includes rights to cultural and spiritual autonomy, the right to practice traditional medicines while having the right to equal access to public health care, educational rights and much more.

Soon-to-retire Senator Murray Sinclair, who previously chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, welcomes UNDRIP as having the potential to change the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous peoples to one founded in rights, but he is also critical of Canada’s past and present governments for their ongoing lack of meaningful action:

“There are still far too many things this government is doing to diminish the position and rights of Indigenous peoples.”

“We’re just ghosts”

One day before Attorney General Lametti and Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett introduced Bill C-15 on December 3rd, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller admitted that the government will not be able to meet its commitment to lift all long-term drinking water advisories on Indigenous lands and territories by March 31, 2021:

“While there have been many reasons for the delay, I want to state as clearly as possible that, ultimately, I bear the responsibility for this and I have the . . . duty to get this done.”

Miller and his government should listen to nine-year-old Bedahbun (Bee) Moonias, who lives on the Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario. She has never had the pleasure of turning on the tap at her home, filling a glass with water and drinking it. Her First Nation, just one of the 61 across the country with boil water advisories, has the dubious honour of having the longest standing one: 25 years. She and the 300 other residents of her community are presently housed in a Thunder Bay hotel, 450 kilometres from their homes, because there is no water on their First Nation that is safe to use for any purpose.

Bee says:

“Sometimes I feel like we don’t exist. Like we’re just ghosts and we’re put in a drawer, in a box. We’re suffering in that box with no clean water.”

Bee misses her home because “it’s a good place” and wants to get back there. That doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable request, the honouring of which would make Bill C-15 more than a symbolic gesture.

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