The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) is a global agreement completed in 2007 to protect the rights of Indigenous people around the world.
It wasn’t until nine years later, in 2016, that Canada finally signed on to UNDRIP. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been enough, and to this day the government continues to violate the rights of Indigenous communities. Why?
Let’s find out.
What Is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People?
In the words of the United Nations, UNDRIP established “a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.” On September 13, 2007, 143 states voted in favor of the Declaration, and four voted against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States—all countries that have large Indigenous populations, share similar colonial histories, and have economies based on the extraction and exploitation of resources. All four subsequently reversed course and signed the Declaration).
UNDRIP is based on four core rights:
- The right to self-determination
- The right to be recognized as distinct peoples
- The right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC)
- The right to be free from discrimination
Securing, maintaining, and building on these rights is critical for Indigenous sovereignty everywhere. But UNDRIP is only an agreement and does not have the force of law, even in countries that signed it. That means that there’s often a considerable gap between the glowing words countries use to speak about UNDRIP and the way these same countries actually treat Indigenous people. Which brings us to Canada.
Canada and UNDRIP
Canada and its mining, drilling, and logging industries have been exploiting the Indigenous peoples’ land and resources for hundreds of years, leaving behind a legacy of pollution, poverty, and disease—and have really never shown any intention to stop.
That may explain why Canada didn’t sign the declaration until 2016.
That may also explain why it took another five years before Parliament approved the UNDRIP Act, which enshrines UNDRIP protections in Canadian law. Essentially, it is supposed to turn all that aspirational talk about safeguarding Indigenous rights into action—action that provides real-world benefits to Indigenous people.
Canada now has to implement an action plan by 2023 to demonstrate how it will meet UNDRIP’s objectives. Some Indigenous activists have concerns about the government’s commitment to fully implementing the UNDRIP Act and backing up its protections with the full force of the law. That’s why we have to put pressure on elected leaders to follow through.
Consent Should Not Be Controversial
Canada’s mining, logging, and drilling industries, like we said, would of course prefer to continue taking what they want from Indigenous communities without having to ask. Disputes between these industries and Indigenous people often hinge on the concept of consent.
The right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) established in UNDRIP is all about making sure Indigeous communities have a say over what happens on their own territory. Let’s break down what FPIC really means:
- Free = Free from coercion or manipulation by any party (including bribery and political pressure).
- Prior = Before anything happens and with ample time to review all aspects of the proposed project.
- Informed = With all the information about the proposed project’s scope and impact.
- Consent = A community has the right to say no. The government and/or corporations must accept and respect that decision.
The Importance of Indigenous Leadership
Indigenous communities like Grassy Narrows First Nation have been fighting for years to protect their rights, their lives, their health and wellbeing, and their land. For generations Grassy Narrows has dealt with clear-cut logging, flooding from dams, forced displacement, and industrial mercury poisoning, and yet they’re more determined than ever to be able to decide what happens on their own land. And the people of Grassy Narrows know better than elected leaders in Ontario or any corporate CEO how to be good stewards of that land. After all, they had been living off the land and thriving for hundreds of years.
That’s true for every Indigneous community in Canada, and it’s also true throughout the world. Indigeous people make up less than 5% of the world population, but they protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity. Which is why, as important as it is for Indigenous communities to have control over their own land, it’s perhaps just as important for the rest of the world that they do so.
Studies have shown that intact ecosystems act as carbon sinks and can help lessen some of the impacts of the climate crisis. That’s why the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that Indigenous land security is critical to the fight against climate change. Which is all the more reason, here in Canada, to ensure that Indigenous communities are able to determine what happens to the places they’ve called home for thousands of years.
We Must Act Now
With COP27, the international climate change conference, coming up soon in Egypt, we call on the government to get to work immediately on implementing the UNDRIP Act—and on respecting free, prior, and informed consent.
If we’re going to fight the climate crisis, build sustainable communities, secure a habitable planet for future generations, and uphold universal standards of human rights and justice, we must respect Indigneous sovereignty.
Join us in standing with and supporting communities like Grassy Narrows that have never stopped fighting for their rights.