Manitobans can be proud of our role as leaders in Indigenous reconciliation. Winnipeg was home to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and now hosts the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Last year, the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law organized an international conference to explore how the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is being implemented around the globe.
That declaration was wisely recognized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the "framework for reconciliation." To drive home that point, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation distributes pocket-sized booklets that list the commission’s Calls to Action followed by the inspiring text of the UN declaration.
If Canadians want to prevent the heartache, danger, confusion and economic disruption of future blockades when resource projects are foisted on Indigenous nations without their consent, the best way forward is for Parliament to implement the UN declaration or UNDRIP. When the human rights of affected peoples are respected from the earliest planning stages, projects that are mutually beneficial should proceed peacefully.
It is disappointing to find Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister advocating exactly the opposite in a recent column published in a national newspaper. He asks the Canadian government to back away from implementing UNDRIP, which both Liberal and Conservative federal governments agreed years ago to support. If we don’t put this declaration into practice, Canada will have an international reputation for more talk than action on human rights and peaceful governance — amplifying a reputation for more talk than action on climate change.
Indigenous peoples have not yet enjoyed the same exercise of their rights as other Canadians. The evidence for this abounds in ongoing crises of water, health, education and economy.
Those regions around the world that have started implementing UNDRIP demonstrate the kind of progress Manitoba needs — including healthier environments for Indigenous children to reach their full potential and become tomorrow’s leaders. The Centre for International Governance Innovation will publish a report this spring on case studies highlighted at the University of Manitoba’s UNDRIP implementation conference.
The declaration can help prevent natural resource disputes, but it’s about so much more than that, including language, health, education, culture and employment.
Let’s not turn our backs on all of that potential based on anxiety about the phrase "free, prior and informed consent," in UNDRIP. It does not hand Indigenous peoples a new right to withhold consent from projects not in their best interests.
Consent is already recognized by Canada’s courts as part of the government’s duty to consult and accommodate Indigenous peoples. In 1997, the Supreme Court held that the full consent of an Indigenous nation is required "when provinces enact hunting and fishing regulations in relation to aboriginal lands."
The Supreme Court clarified in 2004 that consent may be required even in relation to asserted but not yet proven rights. In 2014, the Supreme Court said that "once Aboriginal title is established, section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, permits incursions on it only with the consent of the Aboriginal group." The Court restated that requirement this year. Meanwhile, other international human rights treaties to which Canada is a party already recognize Indigenous peoples’ right to consent.
We need to turn the long-standing narratives that have plagued this country from the outset on their head. UNDRIP will not create problems but, if implemented, is actually a harm-prevention tool. For example, the residential school system would not have been possible with UNDRIP in action. As a society, we need to reflect on the cost of repairing the harms from such human rights violations.
Challenges may arise, but let’s remember that implementing many of the rights all Canadians enjoy today, such as a 40-hour work week or the right of women to vote, were originally perceived as significant problems.
Manitobans need to tell our MLAs that getting this province back on a genuine reconciliation track starts by implementing UNDRIP in Manitoba — as B.C. is doing — and supporting federal implementation. Manitoba can help Canada fulfil its potential to create the kind of human-rights-affirming stability that allows all citizens to prosper.
Brenda Gunn is a citizen of the Manitoba Metis Federation and a law professor at the University of Manitoba who specializes in the international human rights of Indigenous peoples and constitutional law. Ry Moran is director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Helen Fallding manages the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba.
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