POLITICS
12/03/2020 18:30 EST

Liberals Table UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Promising To Put Colonialism ‘Behind Us’

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde said the bill is not perfect and that he is concerned the deadline for completing the action plan is too far away.

OTTAWA — The Liberal government introduced long-awaited legislation Thursday to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Justice Minister David Lametti described as a significant step forward on the path to reconciliation.

“It has the potential to be transformational,” Lametti told a news conference after tabling Bill C-15 in the House of Commons.

“We’re at a starting line putting 150 plus years, longer than that, of colonialism and the impact of (it) behind us,” he said. “Let’s move to a different model.”

The proposed legislation, if passed, would require the federal government to work with First Nations, Métis and Inuit to do everything needed to ensure Canadian law is in harmony with the rights and principles contained in the UN declaration.

The Canadian Press
Justice Minister David Lametti delivers his opening remarks during an announcement about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in Ottawa on Thursday.

It would also have the federal government create an action plan for those goals as soon as possible and no later than three years after the bill comes into force.

Lametti predicted the bill will have wide support in the House of Commons and the Senate. 

“It’s a human rights issue. Who’s going to vote against human rights?” he said in a separate interview Thursday afternoon.

National chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations said the bill is not perfect and that he is concerned the deadline for completing the action plan is too far away.

“We’ve waited too long already,” he said at the news conference. “We don’t want wait for another three years.”

Lametti said the deadline is reasonable because consultation with Indigenous Peoples will take time.

“It is complex, working with indigenous leadership. You have national organizations. You also have each individual nation. Each individual nation has a chief or a leader of some sort who would expect to be consulted,” he said.

“We picked a date that was realistic but, that being said, the parliamentary process is the place where we can look at that.”

The Canadian Press

Bellegarde said the bill doesn’t provide clarity on which federal department will lead the effort to implement the UN declaration in Canadian law. “We would like to see a commitment to a periodic review, which is something any good legislation should have.”

The legislation doesn’t give First Nations anything new, Bellegarde said. “It acknowledges and affirms our rights under international law.” 

He said the bill condemns the racist and colonial doctrines and beliefs that have led to grave human rights abuses including the residential school system.

In a technical briefing provided to media, Justice Department officials said the bill includes a framework to create ways to align federal law with the declaration over time. It does not transform the declaration itself into law.

The proposed legislation builds upon a private member’s bill from former New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash, which the House of Commons passed two years ago. 

That bill stalled in the Senate, where Conservative senators argued it could have unintended legal and economic consequences, and then died when Parliament dissolved.

The UN declaration, which Canada endorsed in 2010, affirms the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination and to their language, culture and traditional lands.

The Canadian Press
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, right to left, Justice Minister David Lametti and President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed listen to a reporter asks question during an announcement about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It also spells out the need for free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples on anything that infringes on their lands or rights, but Bill C-15 doesn’t include a definition of such consent.

Lametti said it would be impossible to define a free, prior and informed consent because every consent requires a unique process that includes a dialogue with Indigenous Peoples. 

“This is something that is so contextual that will be different with each individual nation, with each project, with each with each level of government,” he said.

He said the need for consent doesn’t represent a veto. 

“Free, prior and informed consent is about respecting the human rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Lametti said. “The document itself is about human rights generally, your right to education, language and culture, self determination, (and these) are things that Canadians believe in.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2020.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.