The Grand Council of the Crees

Private bill is a chance for Canada and indigenous peoples to move forward

Posted: 2016-04-20

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) brought to light past Canadian policies and practices toward indigenous peoples that remain in urgent need of redress, as the recent suicide epidemics underscore.

A private member’s bill to be presented to Parliament Thursday by NDP MP Romeo Saganash presents an opportunity to reject the colonial past in favour of a contemporary approach based on justice, equality, respect for human rights and good faith. The bill calls for the adoption of a legislative framework to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf.

The Trudeau government has promised to implement the UN declaration. The new ministers of Indigenous Affairs and Justice have shown leadership in House of Commons discussions, particularly in the emergency debates on suicide.

The real test now is whether the new government is prepared to enact a legislative framework.

The TRC called upon the federal government to “fully adopt and implement” the UN declaration as “the framework for reconciliation.” There are 16 calls to action that include the UN declaration. The prime minister has agreed to implement all of the TRC's calls to action. The commitment to the UN declaration is part of the journey needed to understand the legacy of colonialism and provide new pathways to healing. The human rights of so many indigenous peoples in Canada have been and continue to be routinely trampled, even though existing aboriginal and treaty rights are enshrined in Canada’s Constitution.

Throughout Canada’s history, federal and provincial governments have lined up to oppose indigenous rights to lands, territories and resources. This is racial discrimination. As indigenous peoples, we require full and effective affirmation, protection and fulfilment of our human rights. Evidence of the commitment to bring about fundamental and long-lasting change — which is required to address the unacceptable living conditions in most indigenous communities — will require measures that give expression to comprehensive implementation of the UN declaration. What is required is a fundamental structural shift, and this shift will only occur through special legislation.

A legislative framework for implementing the UN declaration would affirm its central significance in the process of national reconciliation. It would also highlight the importance of ensuring that federal laws are consistent with the declaration, which among other things recognizes indigenous peoples' right "to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development" and obligates states to co-operate with and consult indigenous peoples "to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them."

The Saganash bill would see implementation of the declaration achieved through a collaborative process. A national action plan would also be developed and implemented. To monitor progress, the Indigenous Affairs minister would report annually to Parliament. Within a legislative framework, intergenerational trauma, deterioration and loss of identity and culture, suicide epidemics, impairment of mental and physical health, debilitating poverty and profound loss of hope can receive the attention they deserve. This is what is required to address the deep-seated injustices committed against indigenous peoples.

On April 12, the minister of Justice emphasized in the House of Commons: “It is not easy to remove the shackles of 140 years of life under the Indian Act … the Indian Act is not a suitable system of government. It is not consistent with the rights enshrined in our Constitution, the principles as set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.”A legislative framework for implementing the UN declaration should also hasten the repeal of the Indian Act. Such an implementation will help ensure that future governments will not reverse advances in Indigenous human rights.

The response of the Trudeau government to Saganash’s bill will be evidence of the depth and sincerity of the commitment to a genuinely new relationship — one that will fundamentally set a new direction for indigenous peoples in Canada.

Matthew Coon Come is grand chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee and former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.