“The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of society.”Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Ten Principles for Reconciliation, Principle 1
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration) is at the center of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s vision for reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous people.
In fact, the very first of the TRC’s Ten Principles for Reconciliation states that the UN Declaration is the framework for reconciliation. Furthermore, the TRC’s Call to Action 42 calls on all provincial, territorial, municipal governments to adopt and implement the Declaration as the framework for reconciliation. In total, 16 of the 94 Calls to Action, refer to the Declaration.
For example, Call to Action 44 urges the Government of Canada “to develop a national action plan, strategies, and other concrete measures to achieve the goals” of the Declaration. Other Calls to Action encourage education about the Declaration across a wide range of professions.
The creation of the Declaration was an act of reconciliation
The Declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 13, 2007 as the minimum global standard for “the survival, dignity and well-being” of all Indigenous peoples, everywhere in the world.
The Declaration was created through the direct involvement of Indigenous leaders and advocates from around the world. This makes it the first international human rights instrument developed through the direct participation of the rights holders themselves. In this way, the creation and adoption of the Declaration can be seen as an act of reconciliation.
The Declaration repeatedly underlines the importance of states working in partnership with Indigenous peoples in a spirit of mutual respect. The opening section of the Declaration, its preamble, includes the statement that “recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples will enhance harmonious and cooperative relations.” The last line of the preamble proclaims the Declaration “as a standard of achievement to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect.”
The significance of the UN Declaration
The many different articles or provisions that make up the Declaration are varied, detailed, and wide-ranging. This reflects the diversity of Indigenous peoples around the world and their values, experiences, urgent needs and visions for the future.
The Declaration address issues such as culture, spirituality, language, education, justice, lands and resources, equality, protection from discrimination and forced assimilation, and the right to self-determination, including self-government.
The Declaration builds on other human rights instruments that came before it, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Declaration. The Declaration stands out for its attention to the human rights of Indigenous individuals as well as the collective human rights of Indigenous peoples as distinct Nations or societies.
Three themes central to reconciliation run through all the articles of the Declaration
The first theme: Racism and Discrimination
The first theme is confronting racism and discrimination, including recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of Indigenous peoples and individuals.
The preamble to the Declaration denounces “all doctrines, policies and practices” of racial superiority. Article 2 states that Indigenous peoples and individuals “are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination.” Article 15 states that the “dignity and diversity” of Indigenous “cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations… shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.”
The second theme: Protection from forced assimilation and destruction of culture
Second, the Declaration denounces and provides protection against many of the worst human rights violations that have been carried out against Indigenous peoples around the world, including the abuses associated with Canada’s residential school system.
Article 8 states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” Article 10 states that Indigenous peoples “shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories.”
The third theme: Self-determination
Third, the Declaration requires states to work with Indigenous peoples to undo the harm caused by colonialism, racism and assimilationist laws and policies.
Article 3 affirms the right of Indigenous peoples to make their own decisions about their own lives and futures. This right to self-determination is a critical thread throughout the entire Declaration.
Article 12 addresses the return of ceremonial objects and human remains. Article 13 calls for measures to revitalize Indigenous languages. Article 14 deals with education in Indigenous peoples’ own cultures and languages. Article 22 calls for “particular attention to the rights and special needs of indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities.” Article 27 calls for fair and effective settlement of disputes related to Indigenous land rights.
The power of the UN Declaration in Canada
United Nations human rights declarations represent solemn commitments made by the international community. In Canada, there is a clear expectation that all levels of government will honour such commitments.
In fact, courts and human rights tribunals take these commitments so seriously that they often use human rights declarations to help interpret and apply federal, provincial and territorial laws. The UN Declaration has already been used in exactly that way, including in the federal court and Human Rights Tribunal hearings related to First Nations child and family services.
In December 2020, the federal government began the process of adopting a new law to implement the UN Declaration. Bill C-15, which still has to be passed by the House of Commons and Senate, calls for the Declaration to be implemented through a plan jointly developed with Indigenous peoples.
The Bill states that the implementation plan must include measures to “address injustices, combat prejudice and eliminate all forms of violence and discrimination, including systemic discrimination, against Indigenous peoples and Indigenous elders, youth, children, women, men, persons with disabilities and gender-diverse persons and two-spirit persons.”
Bill C-15 also refers to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action for all federal, provincial and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the Declaration as the framework for reconciliation.
Putting the UN Declaration into action
The UN Declaration is the foundation for reconciliation. Indigenous peoples are promoting the health and well-being of their families and communities, by revitalizing and practicing their own traditions. The UN Declaration requires recognition and support for these efforts.
As the TRC set out in its Calls to Action, all levels of governments, plus many institutions such as schools and corporations, have a role to play in putting the UN Declaration into action. This includes working with Indigenous peoples to ensure policies and practices are consistent with the UN Declaration.
NCTR’s spirit name – bezhig miigwan, meaning “one feather”.
Bezhig miigwan calls upon us to see each Survivor coming to the NCTR as a single eagle feather and to show those Survivors the same respect and attention an eagle feather deserves. It also teaches we are all in this together — we are all one, connected, and it is vital to work together to achieve reconciliation.