Canada and UNDRIP: Moving Forward on Indigenous Diplomacy

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007, with 144 states in favour, 11 abstentions, and 4 votes against. Canada, like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, originally voted against UNDRIP, but eventually changed its policy. In the March 2010 Speech from the Throne, the Tory government announced its intention to endorse UNDRIP, which it did on November 12. At the time of Canada’s endorsement, the Honourable John Duncan, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development said, “[w]e understand and respect the importance of this United Nations Declaration to indigenous peoples in Canada and worldwide. Canada has endorsed the Declaration to further reconcile and strengthen our relationship with Aboriginal peoples in Canada.”

UNDRIP, the fruit of more than 25 years of indigenous work at the United Nations, has implications for an estimated 370 million indigenous people around the world. It is based on a concern that indigenous peoples have suffered injustice due to colonization, as well as by dispossession of their lands by new states that emerged from decolonization, leaving some ethnic groups in stronger positions than others. The 46 articles of the Declaration are based on the concept of inherent rights to self-determination within sovereign and independent states. The caveat is that these rights exclude the right to impair “territorial or political unity” of existing states (Article 46).

Amidst the cultural, linguistic, political and economic rights recognized in UNDRIP, one key concept is free, prior and informed consent. Indigenous peoples are entitled to processes of consultation and consent on relocation from their territories (Article 10), as well as use of their land or territories for storage of hazardous materials (Article 29), military activities (Article 30), or “development”, particularly of mineral, water and other resources (Article 32). Article 36 recognizes that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop contacts across international borders with their own and other peoples. States are called upon to facilitate these contacts, which can become nation-to-nation indigenous diplomacy.

The Asia Indigenous People’s Pact (AIPP) estimates that two-thirds of the world’s indigenous people live in Asia, even as most of the region’s states are only beginning to recognize the existence of indigenous peoples and their collective rights. The Asian states with the strongest legal, even constitutional, recognition of indigenous peoples are Japan, Nepal, the Philippines, and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Yet even without legal recognition of indigenous rights, the AIPP and other organizations have made significant progress in capacity building and promotion of indigenous rights in India and several ASEAN countries. It is thus important to reflect on what role Canada, as a Pacific Rim country with a significant Aboriginal population, can play in promoting indigenous rights in Asia.

Canada, in spite of many obvious shortcomings and its early vote against UNDRIP, is still widely perceived to be a leader in indigenous rights. In Taiwan, for example, the Council of Indigenous Peoples commissioned studies of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian Constitution (as well as indigenous policies elsewhere) with the goal of improving indigenous legal rights under their jurisdiction. The result was the 2005 Basic Law on Indigenous Peoples, which roughly aligned domestic legal goals with UNDRIP. Canada, like New Zealand, has signed an MOU with Taiwan for cooperation on indigenous affairs. Canada’s constitutional framework, based on the Royal Proclamation of 1763, inspires indigenous activists worldwide.

Yet, there is room for Canada to play a stronger role. In accordance with Article 36 of UNDRIP, Canada can encourage and facilitate the efforts of indigenous peoples to act as autonomous diplomatic actors. This is already underway, especially since such groups as the Grand Council of the Cree and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference already have consultative status at the UN. Canadian NGOs, such as Interpares, can also play a role due their ongoing work with Asian indigenous groups.

Considering that the world’s indigenous peoples live in some of the most vulnerable and marginal areas of the planet, Canada should support indigenous participation as equal partners in international institutions created to deal with climate change. Indigenous diplomacy can also ensure that security institutions in the Arctic are implemented in accordance with UNDRIP, as long as indigenous nations are included at negotiating tables as equal partners. Indigenous diplomacy could very well change the meaning of people-to-people diplomacy in areas ranging from the Americas to the Northern Pacific.

Of course, Canada’s ability to contribute to indigenous rights internationally depends on what happens at home. Some progress has been made recently, including Prime Minister Harper’s Statement of Apology to former students of Residential Schools, an apology to Inuit relocated in the High Arctic, the signing of a New Relationship between the Government of Canada and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee, and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Less prominent, but important to local communities, are improvements regarding economic development, drinking water, land claims, and legal reform. The success or failure of these initiatives to improve Aboriginal livelihoods will determine the amount of soft power than Canada can exercise internationally.

Canadian promotion of UNDRIP and indigenous rights regimes will benefit everyone, since social justice is a common good. The long term goal is the same for indigenous and non-indigenous people: real sovereignty in which local communities determine their own economic and political futures. Even relatively conservative economists suggest that effective Aboriginal self-government and the settlement of land claims can contribute to a stronger economy and a healthier investment climate. Yet, with limited resources on the ground, Canada cannot promote indigenous rights everywhere. Pragmatic choices have to be made. It thus makes sense for Canada to focus its indigenous diplomacy on parts of the world with significant Canadian investment and in which we wish to have a greater voice in emerging security institutions. Promotion of UNDRIP, combined with real progress at home, can only improve Canada’s global stature.



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