In the span of a decade, we have moved from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples being largely absent from political and public discourse in BC, to being fully endorsed by both the federal and provincial governments. In May 2017, implementation of the UN Declaration was called “foundational” to the Confidence and Supply Agreement between the BC NDP and BC Green Party. Two months later, each new BC cabinet minister was tasked with implementing the UN Declaration in their mandate letters from the Premier. This is indeed good news.
But what could and should implementation of the UN Declaration actually look like in BC? And why should BC now undertake its full implementation?
The UN Declaration, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007,is the product of many years of dialogue and deliberative work by state governments and Indigenous peoples from around the globe. It is the most comprehensive universal instrument specifically addressing the human rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples. The UN Declaration does not create any new rights; rather, it is the expression of established international human rights as applied to Indigenous peoples. For these reasons, those who oppose implementation of the UN Declaration must answer why they are opposed to human rights generally. And if they aren't - then why are they opposed to human rights only when applied to Indigenous peoples.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action specifically call for the UN Declaration to be adopted as the framework for reconciliation. Simply put, one cannot be in support of the TRC Calls to Action and not also favour full implementation of the UN Declaration – they are inseparable.
So for all of us who seek to uphold human rights and to honour the TRC Calls to Action, our real challenge is not if we should implement the UN Declaration, but only how.
To be sure, this is a challenging question. Addressing the long legacy of colonialism is hard. It involves replacing power and control over the lives of Indigenous peoples with a future where Indigenous self-determination leads the way, including in protecting our land, air, and water, addressing the scourge of social ills including the devastating drug epidemic, and in making decisions about how our territories are used.
Fundamental to the UN Declaration is an understanding that government must move from a ‘duty to consult’ to a genuine process of obtaining free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Nations in all matters pertaining to our Title and Rights.
Implementation will require significant action of many types by Indigenous peoples, Crown governments, and the public. But, undoubtedly, one thing that will be required as a vital starting point is new framework legislation that embeds the UN Declaration in BC law. Historically, legislation has been a weapon to oppress Indigenous peoples. For this oppression to be addressed, and justice and reconciliation flourish, new laws are needed.
Federally, a private member's bill - Bill C-262 - is currently moving through the Senate. If passed, it will establish a mechanism for ensuring the laws of Canada are aligned with the UN Declaration. This is a positive development.
Now is the time to take similar legislative action in BC.
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs and the Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis, BC Office just released the paper, “True, Lasting Reconciliation: Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia law, policies and practices”, that describes an implementation approach for this province that, if pursued, will help move us out of the history of Crown-Indigenous conflict, advance redress of these historical wrongs, and build a stronger shared future. We outline a multi-pronged implementation strategy that is meaningful, workable, and will bring long needed change.
Among our report’s key recommendations are the following:
- As noted, BC needs framework legislation that is modelled on and builds upon the federal Bill C-262. This Act must be co-developed and co-drafted with Indigenous organizations. Among other things, it should oblige the BC government to adopt an implementation Action Plan; to systematically review all BC laws, policies and practices to ensure compliance with the UN Declaration; and include a mechanism for ongoing independent oversight and accountability to ensure implementation of the Action Plan;
- Implementation requires a focus on Indigenous self-determination. This means that implementation will look different in different places. Efforts of governments or other actors cannot prescribe, define or determine Indigenous peoples’ own priorities. The government must be prepared to appropriately resource Indigenous peoples in their self-determining initiatives;
- Moving forward, tangible steps on the ground are needed to turn words into action (and our report offers some recent positive examples); and
- The government should undertake public education and outreach to raise awareness of the UN Declaration in BC, within the public service, the school system, and among the general public.
Fully implementing the UN Declaration in BC must be done without fear from shifting from outdated colonial notions. It is the right and necessary thing to do. And doing so will provide a foundation for government to government relationship including addressing economy uncertainty, social injustices and systemic discrimination within BC. Now is the time to truly realize this commitment.