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editorial

Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Chris WattieCHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould went to the United Nations on Monday to fulfill a campaign promise, by signing on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The UNDRIP is a sweeping resolution about the rights of indigenous peoples across the globe, but it does not actually rank as a convention or treaty, like, say, the Convention on Refugees, or the Convention on the Law of the Sea. It's not a law, but rather a "non-binding text." The previous Conservative government called it an "aspirational document" – and did not aspire to sign it.

The Harper government declined to make it an act of Parliament; critics said that was characteristically grudging and mean-spirited. But the UNDRIP, whether as an aspirational text or a binding commitment, imposes obligations or at least expectations on current and future governments. Canada's Constitution already contains broad guarantees of aboriginal rights. Much of it is both confusing and contested, resulting in extensive litigation and negotiation. The Harper government had reason to be reluctant about further complicating matters by throwing a UN text into the mix.

For example, the UN Declaration's preamble says that indigenous peoples have a right to self-determination and "to freely determine their political status." To some, that could mean that First Nations, Inuit and Métis have as much right to unilateral declarations of independence as, say, the independence of the United States from Britain – or for that matter, more than any Canadian province's right to do so, thanks to Stéphane Dion's Clarity Act of 2000.

Ms. Bennett said in New York that the government will remove what is called Canada's permanent objector status on the UNDRIP. She has not yet explained what Ottawa will do beyond that. Will a bill be introduced in the House of Commons, turning the principles of the UNDRIP into Canadian law?

Ms. Wilson-Raybould for her part said on Monday that "reconciliation requires laws to change and policies to be rewritten." In principle, that's obviously true. But what does it mean in this case?

In promising to sign on to the UNDRIP, the government made a big, fuzzy election promise. It needs to say more about how it is going to fulfil it.