Canada on Thursday introduced a bill designed to “chart the course to full implementation” of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The federal government’s Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, seeks to honour – albeit belatedly – a central commitment of the Liberals’ 2019 election campaign.
During the 2019 federal election, the Liberals promised legislation formalizing the declaration in Canadian law would be delivered within a year of forming a new government. Tabling of the bill was, however, postponed in February 2020 during the crisis involving RCMP action on Wet’suwet’en territory.
Ottawa says the bill introduced on Thursday provides a legislative framework for Canada to advance implementation of the declaration in partnership with Indigenous peoples.
The bill requires that a federal action plan for implementation of the declaration be developed as soon as possible and no later than three years from the time the bill is passed. That action plan will be expected to address prejudice, injustice, and violence against Indigenous peoples.
The bill doesn’t place the declaration itself into Canadian law but creates ways for federal law to be aligned with the declaration’s clauses, and allows the declaration to be used to interpret and develop Canadian law.
Officials stressed the legislation was designed to result, ultimately, in the implementation of the UN Declaration.
Attorney General David Lametti said a prior attempt at implementing the declaration led by the NDP’s Romeo Saganash had been instrumental in developing the Liberal bill.
“We are not done. This is a dialogue that continues and will need to continue for us to not only implement the framework but create a better Canada,” said Lametti, who called for “urgency” in passing the bill.
“I believe implementing the declaration offers hope for a stronger, more equitable future for Indigenous peoples.”
Lametti was joined by Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, who said “Indigenous rights continue to be misunderstood [and] the impacts of denied rights have had serious consequences and unacceptable gaps in health, social, and economic outcomes.”
Bennett said the bill would “formally entrench the rights” of Indigenous people in Canadian law.
The two ministers appeared alongside National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations. Bellegarde said the bill “doesn’t give us anything new but it recognizes, acknowledges and affirms our rights under international law” and would “put the UN Declaration into practice.”
Also speaking on Thursday were President Natan Obed of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and National Spokesperson David Chartrand of the Métis National Council.
First adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, the declaration affirms an array of legal, political, social, and economic rights for Indigenous peoples.
Among them are the rights to self-determination and self-government, freedom from discrimination, and “free, prior, and informed consent” regarding development projects on traditional territories.
That consent clause, in particular, is opposed by some – and welcomed by others – as it hands Indigenous governments significant power to block resource development projects.
Thursday’s bill does not in itself attempt to define what exactly free, prior, and informed consent means. The federal government says that definition should evolve in discussion with Indigenous governments.
Four countries – Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia – originally voted against the declaration at the United Nations, citing concerns with the principle of consent. Canada dropped its objector status in 2016.
To date, British Columbia is the only Canadian jurisdiction to formally incorporate the declaration into legislation.
The Northwest Territories plans to follow suit, with Premier Caroline Cochrane’s government making adoption of the declaration a stated priority. MLAs have formed a committee designed in part to advance that work, but there is so far little clear timeline for the declaration’s implementation in the territory.