Opinion: Canadian implementation of the UNDRIP would benefit all treaty people in Atlantic Canada


In 2018, I taught a course at Cape Breton University on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or UNDRIP. All of the students in my class were Mi’kmaq. Throughout the course, we examined specific provisions of UNDRIP and analyzed what it would mean to implement these provisions in their own communities.

The main objective of the course was to get these students to think about UNDRIP as an international legal instrument to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples and how that could be applied to local Mi’kmaw communities in Unama’ki (Cape Breton) or Mi’kma’ki (now known as Atlantic Canada, the Gaspe regions of Quebec and a part of Maine).

I wanted my students to see how the declaration’s provisions on self-determination and self-government could provide opportunities for Mi’kmaw people and to have a more meaningful input on decisions that affect our daily lives. I also wanted them to see pathways for breathing new life in our traditional models of inclusive, community-based decision-making.

One of my students, Donna Stephens, noted that the UNDRIP’s provisions on lands and resources was key to overcoming poverty and restoring the health of our communities. In one of her assignments, she wrote, “I believe regaining access to our resources in Mi’kma’ki is key to overcoming poverty which in turn can lead to an improvement in the overall health of the Mi’kmaq Nation.”

I have been thinking about that class, the students and their insights as the proposed law to implement the UNDRIP winds its way through Parliament. If passed into law, Bill C-15 would set out a clear legal requirement for the federal government to work cooperatively with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples to put the provisions of the UN Declaration into concrete practice.

UNDRIP, Bill C-15 protects rights in treaties, other documents

For Mi’kmaw communities and for Indigenous peoples across Canada, recognition and implementation of our rights has almost come about only through a long, expensive and adversarial struggle. It’s been 22 years since the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the Mi’kmaw treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from the fisheries yet its implementation has not been given practical recognition or support by Canada. Bill C-15 offers the prospect of a different approach that is based on collaboration and guided by the shared framework of the UNDRIP.

It is important to clarify that Bill C-15 will not create new rights nor does it threaten to take away rights. The UN Declaration and Bill C-15 are both clear that the rights of Indigenous peoples are inherent rights and that implementation measures cannot be used as an excuse to alter or diminish those rights. The UNDRIP and Bill C-15 provide explicit protection for the rights already affirmed in the treaties and other documents.

Bill C-15 has two key elements. Firstly, the proposed legislation recognizes that Canada’s existing commitments and obligations under international human rights law have legal weight and that, as a consequence, federal laws must live up to meet the standards set out in the UN Declaration. Secondly, the bill requires governments to work collaboratively with Indigenous Peoples to create a concrete national action plan to implement the UN Declaration, including measures to address systemic racism and all forms of discrimination.

The implementation processes required by Bill C-15 will not happen overnight. However, if passed into law, Bill C-15 has the potential to unlock the important potential that my students recognized in the UN Declaration.

The creation of the UNDRIP and its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2007 was a landmark achievement. The declaration is the first global human rights instrument created with the direct participation of the very people whose rights are at stake.

For decades, Indigenous leaders from around the world worked with each other, with human rights experts and with senior officials from governments like Canada to craft what would eventually be recognized as the global “minimum standard for the survival, dignity and well-being” of Indigenous peoples.

As someone working both for the betterment of my own community, and to promote the human rights of all people, I am convinced that implementing the UNDRIP will benefit Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. Our original treaty relationships were about mutual respect and peaceful co-existence. The UN Declaration is informed by the same spirit as our original treaties. Its implementation is one of the best tools we have to put that spirit into practice.


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About Cheryl Knockwood 1 Article
Cheryl Knockwood is Mi'kmaq from the Indian Island First Nation in New Brunswick. She is currently the Chair of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. She is also the Governance Coordinator for the Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia. Cheryl has a law degree from the University of British Columbia. She also has a master's degree in law from the University of Arizona where she specialized in Indigenous law and policy.