In December 2020, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti introduced Bill C-15, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which, if passed, will require the government of Canada to align the country’s laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The declaration, which was adopted by the UN in 2007, is not legally binding. Canada endorsed the declaration as an “aspirational document” in 2010, and officially adopted it “without qualification” in 2016.
Modelled after the private members bill introduced in 2018 by then-MP Romeo Saganash—which passed the House of Commons but failed in the Senate—Bill C-15 would require the government to “take all measures necessary to ensure the laws of Canada are consistent with the Declaration”; “prepare and implement an action plan to achieve the Declaration’s objectives”; and “table an annual report on progress to align the laws of Canada and on the action plan.” These actions are to be taken “in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples,” according to the backgrounder on the bill.
To hear more about what Bill C-15 could mean for Indigenous communities, the Journal spoke with Bishop Isaiah Beardy, former member of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples and current suffragan bishop of Northern Manitoba Area Mission who has served as a councilor and chief in his home community of Tataskweyak Cree Nation (Split Lake, Man.).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bill C-15, if it passes, requires that Canada’s laws align with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is that right?
Yeah, that’s my understanding. It will become law. If it’s passed at Parliament through two levels of government, the House of Commons and the Senate.
There was a similar bill, Bill C-262, which didn’t pass the senate. Do you think this new bill is going to be able to pass both houses?
I think there’s going to be a more secure process with the bill, because the other one was tabled by an individual. This one is tabled by, actually, the federal government in power.
The other bill ran out the time. There were a lot of stall tactics by the opposition—they delayed it and ran out of time. So it didn’t have the chance to get approved. But this one, I understand, it’s going to have a royal assent.
What are people on the ground doing to further this bill?
Well, I sat in on an Assembly of First Nations virtual gathering talking about the UN declaration. I also sat through an educational forum that was put together by the University of British Columbia—because I understand the government of BC has already adopted, through legislation, the declaration.
[Chief Wilton] Littlechild, who has been working on the declaration since 1977, spoke about how it has evolved and how it was received by the world, how it developed—it was very fascinating how he outlined it. One of the things that really rung out in my understanding of what he was saying was, individual nations—including First Nations in Canada—they can embrace the declaration. They don’t need to ask anybody. They can go ahead and implement it in their own community. Because First Nations are self-determining—we’ve always had self-determination, even though people don’t recognize it.
At the ground level, for my community, it really hasn’t been talked about. But it’s been around. I’ll give you an example. I was teaching at the school, the high school. We talked about the UN declaration article by article with the high school students, and looked at what it meant. What we started doing—we haven’t finished—we started translating it to the language.
I wanted them to know what their rights are in the world, and also what the nations of the world are declaring about their rights. Basically I wanted to plant a seed in the young people about this declaration, supported by the world, and that their rights are very important to them.
So that’s what’s happening at the local level. We hear from outside that Canada is trying to pass a bill that’s going to support this declaration, which is good—but it’s a long time coming, eh? I think Littlechild said that it was passed in the United Nations in 2007. That’s 13 years ago, you know? Where is Canada?
But our people are living it out every day. Our people are waiting for Canada to live up to our nation-to-nation relationship that’s spelled out in the treaties.
Canada signed on to the UN declaration, but it’s not legally binding. This bill would make Canadian law consistent with the UNDRIP—what does that mean to Indigenous communities?
Well, my understanding, according to what I’m hearing from the minister of justice, he said the declaration is already being used in the courts. They’re already using it, in different parts of legislation. They utilize it as a framework to settle issues already. But I guess once it’s passed as law in Canada, it might replace—or we might have to re-look at—policies like the Indian Act. Are these policies helpful? Are they living up to the declaration?
The Indian Act has really affected the lives of our people, especially on reservations. We can’t do things without the consent of the government. The government has a veto on our people, whatever we want to do. If we want to develop, we have to get approval. So the declaration, in my understanding, will be an instrument to look at all legislation that affects Indigenous people.
You’ve had many years of experience working with the government. Is it hard to stay hopeful? Do you feel like there’s a lot of hope in this process?
Where I live, in northern Manitoba, there’s been a lot of hydro development. And I know probably the provincial government and even corporations are very concerned. But we have signed agreements with the government that there has to be consultation before development could happen. Because as late as 1957 there was no consultation about hydro development in our area. And it was not until 20 years after that, we signed the Northern Flood Agreement, where our people had to be consulted before any development happens.
But the sad thing about that today is governments like Manitoba are now reneging on what they signed. They don’t want to listen to the Indigenous people. They say “it’s not our responsibility, it’s a federal responsibility,” and sometimes they bully us. They come in and do whatever they want, and then we have to do road blocks and things like that to get things across. And then the governments and the corporations, they file court injunctions to try to remove us off our land.
Those things are still happening. It’s a reality. And I think governments, especially provincial, it shows a sign of, I guess, insecurity. They don’t know how to have a relationship, a treaty relationship with Indigenous people on the land.
So this bill will help push back on that?
Should help, yeah. I haven’t heard if it has to be passed in all the provincial legislatures, but there’s going to be a federal law—that’s going to impact everything.
What do you think the bill’s biggest impacts would be?
Probably development. Northern Canada, it’s an area where there’s going to be a lot of development happening. Right now we have hydro development, but when I go outside and I look around there’s mineral exploration happening. In the future, there may be more mines—gold mines, and in the North there’s a lot of diamond drilling, diamond mines. So there’s all this extraction, and I think that’s going to really affect the people.
But along with that, when you have development you have to deal with social and justice issues. Hopefully with the declaration it would be used as a framework to work together in Canada to address that: how best to deal with development, with social and justice issues for people who are affected.
When you talk about a billion-dollar project, a lot of that money is siphoned out, extracted from the area. There’s no supports. In some cases, local people, especially women, have been raped, and this is kept in the dark until 50 years later. So you need a lot of healing.
My people have been traumatized for a long time by government policies that have taken away children. We have to deal with that, and we need the churches and spiritual leaders to help out with that. And I’m looking to the federal government, I’m looking to the corporations, to help us out with that. In my area, I’m looking for support in healing, in spirituality, in sacred spaces, in training. And also capital. We need structure still to help us with that.
These are the kinds of things that I hope the declaration will help people in our communities to address—a colonial system that has been with us for hundreds of years.
I think the declaration is going to help us do that. I think the term is, Canada’s going to “decolonize.” But in our terms, that means healing. Canada needs healing. Not only our people, but all of Canada. All of Canada needs to look at decolonizing the systems that have been hurting us.