Reconciliation requires repudiation of an unjust past

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In April, NDP MP Romeo Saganash introduced Bill C-262 in the House of Commons. The private member’s bill calls for a legislative framework for full and comprehensive implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It highlights the importance of harmonizing federal laws and creating national action plans, consistent with the UN Declaration.

Bill C-262 provides the opportunity to review all the unjust laws and policies that have historically served to keep our Peoples in a state of poverty and dependency, most notably, the Indian Act. The UN Declaration lays out a path to redress the historic injustices suffered by Indigenous Peoples.

If implemented properly, the Declaration can lay the foundation for the elimination of poverty, land and resource dispossession, and the kinds of intolerable living conditions that produce epidemic suicides among our youth. This is an opportunity to rescind all unjust laws and policies that are inconsistent with the UN Declaration. This is how true reconciliation will begin in Canada.

Last December, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued its Final Report. It included some 94 “Calls to Action” – measures that would be required to bring about genuine reconciliation between Indigenous Peoples and Canadian society. Among the most important was a call to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as “the framework for reconciliation.”

In fact, the TRC included the Declaration in 16 of its Calls to Action. Prime Minister Trudeau agreed to implement all of them and repeatedly declared his support for the UN Declaration. This past May, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett also made unqualified statements at the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in favour of the Declaration.

However, in an address to the Assembly of First Nations July 12, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould suggested that “simplistic approaches, such as adopting the UNDRIP as being Canadian law are unworkable.” The UN Declaration as a whole was demeaned publicly in the media as “unworkable,” even if that was not the intent.

However, it is the unjust laws and policies that have been in place for far too long that are unworkable. They have produced Third World conditions in too many Indigenous communities across Canada.

We have not put forward a position that legislation should have the intent or effect of immediately codifying the entire UN Declaration as part of Canadian law. Nor does Bill C-262 take such an approach. In my view, principled implementation of the UN Declaration would involve responsibilities on the part of both the federal government and Indigenous Peoples. Both have their own distinct roles.

By endorsing Bill C-262, we fully support the call for a collaborative process between Indigenous Peoples and the federal government. The Bill repudiates doctrines of superiority. It also rejects colonialism in favour of a contemporary approach based on good faith and on principles of justice, democracy, equality, non-discrimination, good governance and respect for human rights. These are all critical elements in achieving lasting reconciliation.

Since her address to the AFN, the Justice Minister has clarified her position with respect to the UN Declaration. She has stated that for her government the question is not if the UN Declaration will be implemented, but how.

However, a legislative framework for implementing the UN Declaration is the best way forward. It will contribute to ensuring that any future government will not easily reverse progress made. As the Minister herself stated to the House of Commons April 12: “We need to develop a national reconciliation framework in partnership with indigenous communities. That reconciliation framework needs to survive the life of one government.”

By building on such common perspectives, we can fully and effectively implement the UN Declaration in a way that will be positive and “workable” for the benefit of present and future generations of our Peoples.

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