National Chief Perry Bellegarde
Indigenous Peoples have an inherent right to self-determination in our traditional territories. This has been clearly affirmed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration) which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007. This means we have a fundamental right to maintain and develop all the key aspects of our existence as peoples — our cultures, our languages, our laws, our governance systems, our systems of land tenure, and our responsibilities to the land that flow from our spiritual, cultural, and legal traditions. The Declaration also makes clear that the full enjoyment of our human rights (such as the right to live free of all forms of discrimination) is dependent on, and inextricably connected to, realizing our right as peoples to self-determination.
Self-determination necessarily involves autonomous decision making by peoples free from oppression, free from outside interference, and free to determine their own development priorities — while working with other peoples in peace and equality to ensure the needs of everyone are met.
The principle of free, prior and informed consent is an aspect of the right to self-determination. Consent principles reflect our right to determine our own future and to thrive in our own territories. Consent principles recognize that our very existence as peoples is rooted in the land.
Decisions about the land cannot be made without us. Decisions about laws intended to apply to us cannot be made without our consent. In the context of land and resource decisions, the principle of free, prior and informed consent reflects our inalienable human right to maintain our relationship with our lands and waters and to rely on those resources to determine our economic, social, cultural, and political development. As many First Nations and human rights experts have pointed out, the adverse impacts of some projects on Indigenous Peoples can be severe and far-reaching; and such situations reinforce the need to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of affected Indigenous Peoples in any given case.
Resource extraction projects often trigger consent issues because of potentially serious negative impacts, and also because First Nations have the right to benefit economically from their lands and resources, and to decide what happens in their territories. Many First Nations see resource development as a vehicle to speed their way out of poverty. In other cases, First Nations have deliberated just as carefully and decided against particular projects in their territories – despite the offer of large sums of money. In all cases, First Nations are exercising their right to self-determination and their rights must be factored into project approvals processes — not as stakeholders or after-thoughts — but as sovereign peoples with jurisdiction, title and rights.
In Canada, the new federal government has embraced its international commitments, and especially the Declaration. It seems we are finally on the cusp of developing adoption and implementation plans for this vital human rights instrument. To implement the Declaration in Canada there are some immediate steps that need to be taken. In the federal sphere, Canada should immediately begin the process to adopt and implement the Declaration starting with federal legislation (to assure consistency with its international commitments). We also need to launch a joint law and policy review to ensure alignment with landmark decisions like Tsilhqot’in Nation, with Treaties, and with the Declaration. Mechanisms need to be in place to include Indigenous Peoples in the design, development, and drafting of law and policy affecting the lands and waters. We also need remedies and independent review processes in Canada to monitor progress in meeting the standards and fulfilling the rights set out in the Declaration.1
The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has made an invaluable contribution to the dialogue between First Nations and Canada by emphasizing the importance of the Declaration as a guide in developing any framework for reconciliation. It is simply not possible to discuss approaches to reconciliation and rights recognition without relying on the Declaration as a vital human rights lens and statement of minimum standards. We must bring a human rights frame to decision making of all kinds in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The Declaration speaks to the human rights violations that First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples — as peoples and as individuals — have suffered through policies and legislation that reflect colonial mentalities and norms. The Declaration must be a part of every significant policy discussion going forward.
The Declaration is a consensus human rights instrument. It sets out minimum standards “for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous Peoples of the world” (Article 43). Canada is part of the global commitment under several UN General Assembly resolutions2 that both affirm the Declaration and commit States to its implementation. Implementing the Declaration must be seen as a non-partisan issue – as reconciliation is a responsibility of all Canadians. First Nations look forward to working with our Treaty partners and all governments to address Canada’s most pressing human rights issue. ◉
Perry Bellegarde was named AFN National Chief on December 10, 2014. He is from the Little Black Bear First Nation, Treaty 4 Territory. He served as Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and Saskatchewan Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations. He has also served as the Tribal Chair of the Touchwood-File Hills-Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, Councillor for the Little Black Bear First Nation and Chief of Little Black Bear First Nation.
National Chief Bellegarde is the recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal (2012), Saskatchewan Medal (2005), Queen’s Jubilee Medal (2002), and Confederation Medal (1992). He has been honoured by several Chiefs and Elders who have acknowledged him as their adopted son. He honours them by carrying their teachings forward as he works diligently toward the implementation of Inherent Aboriginal and Treaty rights, self-determination and a shared vision for the future.
- United Nations. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Concluding Observations on the sixth periodic report of Canada. E/C.12/CAN/CO/6 , 4 March 2016.
- United Nations. General Assembly. A/61/L.67, 7 September 2007 (United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples); United Nations. General Assembly. A/RES/69/2, 22 September 2014 (Outcome document of the high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples); United Nations. General Assembly. A/RES/70/232, 23 December 2015 (Rights of Indigenous Peoples).
Photo courtesy of the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers) and Tracey Lynne Photography.