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Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks during an announcement about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in Ottawa, December 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Perry Bellegarde is the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

On this National Indigenous Peoples Day, it seems fitting we recognize Canada is now firmly on the path to implementing the global human rights standards set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). When it receives royal assent, it will establish a clear and undeniable obligation for the federal government to uphold the declaration and work with Indigenous peoples to develop concrete implementation plans.

This is good news for First Nations who have long fought to bring UNDRIP to life in Canada. I also believe the prospect of concrete, meaningful implementation is good news for all Canadians. Polls tell us that the vast majority of Canadians support a better, more just relationship with First Nations based on respect for our human rights. The new legislation, which will establish a framework for aligning Canadian law with the declaration, will help get us there.

UNDRIP exists because of decades of hard work by Indigenous peoples from around the world who took their concerns and vision for realizing human rights to the United Nations. I want to acknowledge and lift up these champions. Through their efforts, we are fortunate to have a global human-rights instrument that truly reflects Indigenous perspectives and priorities, the wisdom of our old people, and the world that we want for our children and grandchildren.

Open the declaration to any page and you will see a pragmatic and principled response to the terrible human-rights violations that have torn apart Indigenous families and communities and excluded us from enjoying a fair share of the wealth of our own lands. Among many other provisions, UNDRIP recognizes and upholds the right to practise our cultures and traditions, to live free from violence and discrimination, and to maintain our unique relationship with our traditional territories.

To me, however, the heart of the declaration has always been Article 3, which affirms Indigenous peoples’ inherent right to self-determination. This is the right to make our own decisions based on our own values, through our own governance institutions. To appreciate the importance of this right, consider for a moment the horrendous harm that has been done to First Nations children, families and communities through decisions forcibly imposed on us throughout Canada’s history.

One of the challenges with international human-rights instruments is that they are often championed at the global level only to go unimplemented at home. I represented the Assembly of First Nations at the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples where consensus was reached on the importance of national implementation of the declaration. Since then, the United Nations has passed numerous other consensus resolutions all calling for national implementation. Canada now becomes one of the first states in the world to make a firm commitment in its own national law to ensure that the declaration is actually implemented domestically.

Bill C-15 mandates the federal government to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the requirements set out in UNDRIP. The Act also requires the federal government to develop a concrete, co-ordinated national action plan to implement UNDRIP, including through policies and programs. Both these implementation measures are to be carried out in co-operation with Indigenous peoples.

No one expects the Act will result in overnight change. However, this collaborative process represents a profound improvement over Canada’s long history of denial and antagonism toward Indigenous rights.

Forcing First Nations to go to court to prove our rights over and over again means that our rights continue to be denied and unfulfilled while expensive litigation drags on for a generation or longer. This has caused grave harm to our young people, many of whom simply want the opportunity to prosper in our own homelands and within the cultures and traditions of our people. Overreliance on the courts also promotes conflict and uncertainty that ultimately harms everyone. A co-operative approach to law reform and rights implementation is clearly preferable.

The federal implementation legislation didn’t arrive out of thin air. Like the declaration itself, Bill C-15 was the product of years of advocacy and negotiation to build political will and momentum. And the work is not over.

Developing a national action plan will not be easy; the issues are complex and there are a great many voices that need to be heard. I am grateful, however, that Parliament agreed with the Assembly of First Nations and set a two-year deadline for carrying out this urgent task. I am also confident that skills and expertise demonstrated by Indigenous peoples in getting to this historic moment will continue to serve us well as we now move into the new era of implementation.

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