UNDRIP: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Treaty 2 Territory – “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of society.”

The Declaration was developed on September 13, 2007, through a multi-decade process of negotiation at the United Nations. What’s important to note, is that the Declaration was the first international human rights instrument developed through the direct participation of the rights holders themselves.

Indigenous leaders and advocates from around the world worked with representatives of national governments to craft the content of the Declaration. As a result, the articles in the Declaration represent the real-world experiences and needs of Indigenous peoples.

The Declaration is wide-ranging, addressing rights to culture, language, education, justice and lands, among others, as well as protection from discrimination and forced assimilation. A key thread through the entire Declaration is the right to self-determination – the right of Indigenous peoples to make decisions for themselves, free from the imposition of programs and policies that would threaten their cultures and identities.

Sixteen of the TRC’s Calls to Action call for implementation of the UN Declaration including through measures such as public education and professional training.

In December 2020, the Government of Canada introduced legislation to implement the Declaration. If passed by Parliament, the legislation will provide a roadmap for the Government and Indigenous peoples to work together to fully implement the Declaration.

“I remain strongly convinced of the potential for the UN Declaration to be the framework for reconciliation; as a set of standards created by Indigenous peoples for Indigenous peoples, and as a reminder to nation-states like Canada, that we are still here, and we not only deserve but we demand the rights that have been denied us for so long.” Romeo Saganash, residential school Survivor and former Member of Parliament

The creation of the Declaration was an act of reconciliation

The Declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 13, 2007 as the minimum global standard for “the survival, dignity and well-being” of all Indigenous peoples, everywhere in the world.

The Declaration was created through the direct involvement of Indigenous leaders and advocates from around the world. This makes it the first international human rights instrument developed through the direct participation of the rights holders themselves. In this way, the creation and adoption of the Declaration can be seen as an act of reconciliation.

The Declaration repeatedly underlines the importance of states working in partnership with Indigenous peoples in a spirit of mutual respect. The opening section of the Declaration, its preamble, includes the statement that “recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples will enhance harmonious and cooperative relations.” The last line of the preamble proclaims the Declaration “as a standard of achievement to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect.

The significance of the UN Declaration

The many different articles or provisions that make up the Declaration are varied, detailed, and wide-ranging. This reflects the diversity of Indigenous peoples around the world and their values, experiences, urgent needs and visions for the future.

The Declaration address issues such as culture, spirituality, language, education, justice, lands and resources, equality, protection from discrimination and forced assimilation, and the right to self-determination, including self-government.

The Declaration builds on other human rights instruments that came before it, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Declaration. The Declaration stands out for its attention to the human rights of Indigenous individuals as well as the collective human rights of Indigenous peoples as distinct Nations or societies.


The first theme: Racism and Discrimination

The first theme is confronting racism and discrimination, including recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of Indigenous peoples and individuals.

The preamble to the Declaration denounces “all doctrines, policies and practices” of racial superiority. Article 2 states that Indigenous peoples and individuals “are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination.” Article 15 states that the “dignity and diversity” of Indigenous “cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations… shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.”

The second theme: Protection from Forced Assimilation and Destruction of Culture

Second, the Declaration denounces and provides protection against many of the worst human rights violations that have been carried out against Indigenous peoples around the world, including the abuses associated with Canada’s residential school system.

Article 8 states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” Article 10 states that Indigenous peoples “shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories.”

The third theme: Self-determination

Third, the Declaration requires states to work with Indigenous peoples to undo the harm caused by colonialism, racism and assimilationist laws and policies.

Article 3 affirms the right of Indigenous peoples to make their own decisions about their own lives and futures. This right to self-determination is a critical thread throughout the entire Declaration.

Article 12 addresses the return of ceremonial objects and human remains. Article 13 calls for measures to revitalize Indigenous languages. Article 14 deals with education in Indigenous peoples’ own cultures and languages. Article 22 calls for “particular attention to the rights and special needs of indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities.” Article 27 calls for fair and effective settlement of disputes related to Indigenous land rights.

The power of the UN Declaration in Canada

United Nations human rights declarations represent solemn commitments made by the international community. In Canada, there is a clear expectation that all levels of government will honour such commitments.

In fact, courts and human rights tribunals take these commitments so seriously that they often use human rights declarations to help interpret and apply federal, provincial and territorial laws. The UN Declaration has already been used in exactly that way, including in the federal court and Human Rights Tribunal hearings related to First Nations child and family services.

In December 2020, the federal government began the process of adopting a new law to implement the UN Declaration. Bill C-15, which still has to be passed by the House of Commons and Senate, calls for the Declaration to be implemented through a plan jointly developed with Indigenous peoples.

The Bill states that the implementation plan must include measures to “address injustices, combat prejudice and eliminate all forms of violence and discrimination, including systemic discrimination, against Indigenous peoples and Indigenous elders, youth, children, women, men, persons with disabilities and gender-diverse persons and two-spirit persons.”

Bill C-15 also refers to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action for all federal, provincial and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the Declaration as the framework for reconciliation.

Putting the UN Declaration into action

The UN Declaration is the foundation for reconciliation. Indigenous peoples are promoting the health and well-being of their families and communities, by revitalizing and practicing their own traditions. The UN Declaration requires recognition and support for these efforts.

As the TRC set out in its Calls to Action, all levels of governments, plus many institutions such as schools and corporations, have a role to play in putting the UN Declaration into action. This includes working with Indigenous peoples to ensure policies and practices are consistent with the UN Declaration.

The adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was the result and highlight of many years of work. For the approximately 370 million indigenous peoples in some 90 countries around the world, UNDRIP is an expression of their rights and place in the global community.

The cultural and linguistic heritage of indigenous peoples contributes to the world’s diversity. Their knowledge and practices have enhanced respect for the environment and the natural resources of the world’s communities, food security, health and education. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of traditional medicines, for example, has contributed immensely to protecting the health of both indigenous and non- indigenous peoples.

UNDRIP is the most advanced and comprehensive Declaration on indigenous peoples’ rights.