The road to reconciliation starts with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

And yet it remains the only international human rights standard in Canada still up for debate

Chief Jimmy Lulua of the Xeni Gwet’in
Chief Jimmy Lulua of the Xeni Gwet’in was elected in a 2018 landslide victory and is continuing the band’s decades-long fight against Taseko Mines’ proposed New Prosperity Mine at Fish Lake. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded its work almost four years ago, it provided a road map for Canadians to follow. That road map, the 94 Calls to Action, aims to “revitalize the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples and Canadian society” after more than 100 years of the traumatic and systemic removal of Indigenous children from their families.

Call No. 43 underpinned all others, according to the commission. The commission urged federal, provincial and territorial governments to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They called it “the framework” for all reconciliation measures “at all levels and across all sectors of society.”

It’s extremely rare for international human rights standards to even be mentioned in the Canadian policy debate. However, when Canada voted against the declaration in 2007 at the United Nations, it was the first time that Canada had ever stood in opposition to an international human rights standard.

It remains today the only international human rights standard in Canada up for debate.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology for residential schools in 2008. However, my ongoing study on state apologies to Indigenous Peoples demonstrates that apologies without clear policy shift are typically rejected as “empty gestures.”

International standards of justice require that those responsible for human rights violations must do more than acknowledge and apologize for the harm that has been done. They must go further. They must take every reasonable measure to set things right and to prevent any recurrence of harms.

A closer look at the history of the declaration and its unique framework for human rights protection underscores the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s wisdom in highlighting its indispensable role in reconciliation.

…With the adoption of the declaration, the famous words “We the peoples of the United Nations” at long last became inclusive of the realities of Indigenous Peoples. It made way for Indigenous Peoples who seek a multiplicity of new relationships with UN member states within whose boundaries our territories and nations have been divided and subsumed.

The declaration reinvigorates the themes of self-determination, decolonization and anti-discrimination that are the foundations of the United Nations.

In its preamble, the declaration refutes the doctrines of racial superiority that have been used to justify the dispossession of Indigenous peoples around the world. In its provisions, the declaration calls for concrete remedies for the harms that have resulted from this dispossession. MORE