The shift: Indigenous Rights in Canada

January 18, 2013     
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The past few weeks in Canada have seen a serious shift in the relations between Indigenous people and the rest of Canadians. The ostensible evidence of this has been first the flourishing across the country of a series of protests, declarations and demands by primarily young, grassroots activists, inspired by the hunger strike of Chief Spence of Attawapiskat. The ensuing meeting of chiefs with the Prime Minister resulted in an agreement to build a new relationship around the treaty system, and the Indian Act. Meanwhile the Idle No More movement continues. And its raw, spontaneous, evocative message is breaking through the veil of indifference in the traditional media and is thus showing up on nightly newscasts and on the front pages of mainstream newspapers.

Adding momentum to the paradigm change has been the federal court decision that declared Metis and non-status Indians as “Indian” under the Constitution Act, and therefore under federal jurisdiction. Gone are the days when Ottawa and the provinces can play ping pong over who has responsibility. The buck stops at the Rideau Canal.

Disappointingly, there appears to be a “hardening” of attitudes and shortage of empathy around these issues amongst non-Indigenous Canadians. A recent poll suggests that a majority of Canadians harbour a sense of distrust when it comes to First Nations’ leadership and financial accountability and there is a general sense that Treaty issues remain thoroughly misunderstood within the general population.

So what to do?
Clearly there needs to be an agenda of reform to match the new reality. And there must be an increased public awareness to generate support for this reform. This is not just a responsibility of government. It must include business, academics, civic groups, churches, and a wide swath of Canadians. We need to overcome the fracturing of interests that presently cancel our ability as a country to envision broad sweeping change. As Wab Kinew and I wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed earlier this month, this is not a zero sum game. In fact, the well-being of all Canadians is dependent upon a major series of improvements in housing, education, employment, health of Indigenous people.

In figuring out a pathway to follow, there is strong guidance to be had from an emerging set of new international norms and practices. In a graduate class I am teaching, as part of the University of Winnipeg’s Masters in Development Practice program, we’ve been examining the way in which international initiatives have a strong bearing on domestic practices. Canada just recently became a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which sets out a series of criteria for resetting relationships with Indigenous communities. Of particular interest, it outlines set of criteria on how to deal with the heavily contested topic of mineral and resource rights on Indigenous land — an issue that was at the heart of the chiefs’ presentation to the federal government last week.

Recent history has provided us with a series of decisions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that have set out the principle of Indigenous participation in decisions affecting their land. This goes beyond the present rulings by our own Supreme Court on the right to be consulted. Here is a standard that needs to be incorporated in resource developments in Canada.

There has been an increased attention in the field of development to the principle of Legal Empowerment as a tool to tackle poverty, based on a UNDP sponsored Commission that reported in 2007. It makes the definitive case that improving property, labour, political rights and insuring their implementation is a significant way to enable disadvantaged communities and individuals to realize their potential. It is important to build these lessons into the reform agenda for Indigenous people in Canada , as they incorporate precedents, best practices, a respectful recognition of rights and a set of beacons for us to move forward. There is of course much more to these ideas than the brief description I’ve offered. But, I hope this encourage some of you to respond with commentary and suggestions. This is a time for all of us to be involved.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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