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Image showing discussions with members of the Doig River First Nation

Giuseppe Amatulli, is an Honorary Fellow of the Department of Anthropology and a post-doctoral fellow at Carleton University, Ottawa. Here he discusses the potential benefits of an Action Plan, recently approved by the Canadian Federal Government, to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

The 2023 United Nations (UN) International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August) will be the first one celebrated in Canada after the historic approval of the UN Declaration Act Action Plan by the Federal Government. Passed on June 21, 2023 (National Aboriginal Day in Canada), the Act is an instrumental tool to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into the Canadian legal framework, according to what was established in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (UNDRIPA). The Action Plan sets out 181 measures that Canada must implement to advance Reconciliation in a meaningful way by addressing injustices, prejudice, systemic violence, and discrimination. Among the cross-cutting priorities mentioned in the Action Plan, relevant are the ones related to:

  • Self-determination and Self-government,
  • Recognition and implementation of Treaties,
  • Use of Lands and Resources by ensuring meaningful participation in decision-making while fully recognising and implementing FPIC,
  • Revitalize Indigenous languages, cultures, and legal systems.

Living Document

The Action Plan is defined as a living document continuously evolving according to the inputs provided by First Nations, Inuit, and Metis in order to reflect the priorities of Indigenous peoples.

Among its cross-cutting priorities, the plan establishes that: ‘Indigenous peoples exercise and have full enjoyment of their rights to self-determination and self-government, including developing, maintaining and implementing their own jurisdiction, laws, governing bodies, institutions and political, economic and social structures related to Indigenous communities.’  It also states that ‘Treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements with Indigenous peoples are affirmed and fully implemented.’

The Act also recognises the existence of Legal Pluralism in Canada, which reflects Indigenous legal orders. This means that Indigenous’ Inherent rights, including the right to own, use, develop and control lands and resources within their territories, are fully recognised.

Abolishing the Indian Act

Canada acknowledges that to implement UNDRIP in the Canadian framework properly, it is necessary to ‘take into account the diversity of Indigenous peoples and, in particular, the diversity of the identities, cultures, languages, customs, practices, rights and legal traditions of First Nations, Inuit and the Métis and of their institutions and governance structures, their relationships to the land and Indigenous knowledge.’ This also means that full implementation of what is established in the Action Plan cannot be performed without repealing or amending colonial laws, policies and practices that have interfered with Indigenous peoples’ self-government. This translates into the need to abolish the Indian Act.

The commitment of the Government to dismantling the Indian Act is clearly expressed among the cross-cutting priorities when it is affirmed that ‘colonial laws, policies and practices that have interfered with Indigenous peoples’ self-government are repealed or amended.’ This commitment is further reiterated at point 20 of the Action plan, where it is expressed the necessity to: ‘Include in the UN Declaration Act Annual Report on implementation a section describing progress towards dismantling the Indian Act and recognizing the self-determination of Indigenous nations.’

First step towards self-determination

Nevertheless, the approval of the Action Plan is only a first step towards the achievement of self-determination. As stated by former Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould during the annual gathering of the Assembly of First Nations held in Halifax in July 2023: ‘Nothing has changed yet. The passage of this legislation has not resulted in one piece of land being given back, treaty promises being upheld, a family lifted out of poverty, a nation moving out from under the Indian Act, or clean drinking water running in a home on reserve.’

For its part, current Justice Minister, David Lametti, said that the Action Plan ‘It is not a perfect document, nor is it finished in any way. Rather, it's a living road map. It will continue to evolve in consultation, in co-operation and in co-development with Indigenous peoples.

The implementation of the Action Plan requires time, intertwined with a specific political will to undertake structural changes to the way in which the Federal Government understands its relationship with Indigenous peoples. The fact that one of the objectives of the Act is to dismantle the Indian Act is a good sign, a positive step forward in a new way of envisioning the future, where Government to Government (G2G) relationships must be established between Canadian Indigenous peoples, Federal and Provincial Government. Inextricably, this is linked to a change that Canada may undergo in the next decades as regards its own organization as a state. From a nation-state, Canada can move toward a multinational state, multicultural and multilingual, in which several nations find adequate representations while actively contributing to the political life of the country.

Reshaping the organization of the state into a plurinational entity could allow Indigenous peoples to renegotiate their own sovereign governance. This would be a real step towards the full self-determination of Canadian Indigenous peoples while paving the way to get rid of the Indian Act once and for all.

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Image details: Doig River First Nation community members discussing the UNDRIP. Credit Giuseppe Amatulli.