The UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights: A Climate Justice Issue

By Tasha Peters

Earlier this week was National Aboriginal Day.  This day marks an opportunity to reflect the contributions of Indigenous peoples in Canada, their history, culture, and resistance to the genocidal impacts of colonialism that I read about in my history textbook.  However, Indigenous peoples are not just in history books.  They are real people. With real stories – human stories – that continue to be undermined by our government every day.  The picture being put forward by the government declaring “National Aboriginal Day” implies that somehow justice for Indigenous peoples has been achieved.  However by looking a bit more closely, it quickly becomes clear that this is far from the case.  For years, Indigenous peoples have been advocating for their land and treaty rights to be recognized, their basic welfare to be upheld, and to live free from discrimination.  Finally, in 2007, due to consistent hard work by Indigenous activists and their allies, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) was passed.

Canada, a country that, despite assertions otherwise by our Prime Minister, has a long and deeply ingrained colonial history, refused to sign the declaration at the time.  Luckily, the people in Canada did not agree.  Our communities know that justice and the basic dignity of human beings,  enshrined in both the UN Declaration and the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition’s Demands , are essential.  This is why in November 2010 the Canadian government finally ceded to popular pressure and signed UNDRIP.  But once again, this was merely a step taken to give the appearance of justice, while actually moving in the other direction.  First Nations high schools still get $2000 less per student, over 600 Indigenous women have gone missing in the past 15 years, and 116 First Nations communities are currently under boil water advisories.  No steps have been taken to stop this injustice.  Instead funds are wasted on fighter jets and subsidies for destructive projects built on Indigenous lands without their consent.

The notions put forward in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are far from “radical”.  In fact, many claim that the Declaration does not go far enough and still allow for the colonial systems that have been at the heart of injustice

towards Indigenous and other peoples to continue.  However, following through with UNDRIP is  still an important step towards achieving the basic values that most people in Canada hold, like justice and dignity for all people.  Ellen Gabriel, an Indigenous activist from Kanesatake  explains that the UN Declaration  ”contains political, social, cultural, spiritual and environmental rights necessary to prevent the further dispossession and marginalization of Indigenous people which remain under current laws and policies practiced by the government of Canada.”

As a youth and climate justice activist, I know that the rights of Indigenous peoples are essential to achieving a healthy, just, and sustainable future for me and my children.  Inuit elders began to notice climatic changes far before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came to a consensus that human induced climate change is happening and will bring devastating impacts.  Indigenous peoples around the world are among the most impacted by climate change and are also among the fiercest advocates for a sustainable future.  Traditional lifestyles, that are now being threatened by longer shoulder seasons, polluted waters, and species extinction, are among the most sustainable in the world.  Furthermore, the destructive projects that are standing in the way of a safe climate future, such as the tar sands and mega-mining projects, are only possible due to the systematic ignoring of Indigenous land and treaty rights, as well as poisoning of Indigenous bodies.  Being an advocate for sustainability and an end to human induced climate change must also mean being an advocate for Indigenous rights.  This is why, in conjunction with Indigenous  and other organizations, youth climate activists were among the first to push for Canada to sign UNDRIP.  We must continue to keep this in mind as we advocate for a just and sustainable future – solutions to climate change should be about rethinking relationships with Indigenous peoples, rather than further marginalizing them.

On Monday, after recognizing that people in Canada “want action on Indigenous rights and on the declaration”,  Kairos Ecumenical Justice Initiatives joined with other organisations to push Canada to follow through with its choice to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples last November.   This national event called “Roll with the Declaration” was about celebrating the Declaration, as well as calling on the government to effectively implement it in order to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights, including rights to lands, territories and resources, livelihoods, health and self-determination.  Under the banner of this one event, they brought together  people from diverse backgrounds to tell the government it is time to follow through on its word and make justice a priority.

As people in Canada – especially youth who want to see a safe, just, and sustainable future – it is our responsibility to join with Kairos and Indigenous peoples to support the  full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  I hope that on National Aboriginal Day you joined in celebrating the Indigenous peoples in Canada.  But, for the other 364 days of the year, let us not forget that Parliament Hill is still on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory.

Get involved to create a just and sustainable future for everyone!  Find our more about Kairos’ “Roll with the Declaration” campaign, the CYCC’s “Wings of Change” campaign, and the work of our partners at the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Tasha Peters is a Campaign Coordinator with the CYCC, an organizer with Climate Justice Ottawa, and a member of the CYD-Durban.



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