Our whole lives have been about our human rights

Dalee Sambo Dorough

Subject of Contrast

Subject of Contrast, Brendan Forward


Our whole lives as Indigenous persons, as who we are, have been about our human rights. We didn’t spray that English term into the air, but if you think about it, our whole lives have been about our human rights. Before contact we were busy exercising them, we were busy enjoying them, we were doing everything that has been captured in the form of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, that’s what we were doing. Everything that my parents stand for, everything that my grandparents stood for, and before them, really that is what this conversation on human rights has always been about.

With contact, the exercise and enjoyment of these inherent rights got complicated. Indigenous Peoples across Canada have had to make this a legal issue, taking it to the Courts, as the Tsilhqot’in people had to, for example. My own people at home are demanding recognition of their land as “Indian country” as well as their corresponding role and authority over management, use, and control of such lands, territories, and resources. However, if one thinks about this issue and a wide array of other issues plaguing Indigenous Peoples, the defence of our human rights has been our entire history.

We have to arrive again at that day where we are truly exercising and enjoying our human rights in the way that we know them. This exercise and enjoyment may not always look precisely consistent with the UN Declaration because, frankly, in complex negotiations some of the language can turn out rather inelegantly. For example, the language on free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in Articles 19 and 32 of the UN Declaration could have been a little more eloquent. In drafting this text, you are sitting at the table being badgered by governments and trying to negotiate the best possible language to capture the essence of something that is really profound. No one sitting across the table from you has ever felt what you are trying to say in this language. This is why the language of human rights is sometimes clumsy.

However, these negotiations are an example of a dynamic process – one where you are trying to take these important stories being expressed by Indigenous Peoples and turn them into legal provisions and language. This language is somehow going to protect your future, but it is being negotiated with people that don’t understand your past or present circumstances, and they sure as hell do not have a clue about your future. In terms of what you want, what is in your mind’s eye, what is in your heart, in terms of what you want for the future, these complexities must all be expressed in legalistic language to protect your rights.

On top of this there are, I believe, the important aspects of nationhood including land, laws, peoples, governments, and languages, and there is also a sixth item we must consider. This is the desire, in your mind and in your heart, to maintain who it is that you are as a person, as a nation, and as a People. We Indigenous Peoples, we have that desire. We experience it every day when we wake up with our families, we know it; we feel it. This desire is really powerful. It is an indescribable feeling, but we see it and we feel it. We see it in the suffering of those people in other countries who aren’t as fortunate to have a legal system to take these issues to, who do not have the avenues to pursue self-governance, land claims, and other issues. There are Indigenous Peoples in parts of the world that do not have a shred of that, where the rule of law doesn’t exist. We are fortunate to have the law as well as the desire. We know what this desire for self-determination is, and we know what it is when we see it amongst others.

Despite the limitations imposed by negotiations and language, we know that the UN Declaration and FPIC are sourced in our inherent right to self-determination. Starting from this inherent right to self-determination, there are all kinds of possibilities as far as FPIC is concerned. One example is the direct involvement and inclusion of Indigenous representatives in dialogue and debate about industrial development that has the potential to adversely impact their lands or territory. The UN Declaration is one of the opportunities for creating the future that Indigenous Peoples want, for taking the next step, and to really breathe life into the words embraced within it. Even more significant than the words of the UN Declaration is that spirit that goes beyond the UN Declaration itself.

The UN Declaration is a starting point, and it is a continuation of what we as Indigenous Peoples have always been doing in order to arrive at that day when we are genuinely able to exercise and enjoy our inherent rights.

Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough (Inuit-Alaska) holds a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law (2002) and a Master of Arts in Law & Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University (1991). Dr. Dorough is currently Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Alaska Anchorage; Expert Member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; Alaska Member of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Advisory Committee on UN Issues; and Member of the International Law Association Committee on Implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Dr. Dorough has a long history of direct involvement in the discussion, debate, and negotiation of the UN Declaration.  She was an active participant in this work from 1985 up to adoption of the UN Declaration by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007.  She specializes in public international law, international human rights law, international relations, and Alaska Native self-determination.  In addition, she has experience in the administration, management and coordination of statewide, national and international organizations as well as estimating and oversight of federal, state and private construction contract

Photo Credit: Brendan Forward

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