Changing the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canadians has fallen backwards once again, as Canada slips back into the comfortable, foggy colonial amnesia of its genocidal history.
There’s no denying that Canada has committed genocide against Indigenous Peoples. It has stolen our lands and our children. It has suppressed our languages and our laws. It has turned its back on the safety of our women and girls. And despite the rhetoric of reconciliation among federal and provincial politicians, the reality is that Indigenous Peoples persistently suffer under a colonial state — be it through racist laws or systemic racism. The years of effort to stir real change within a decolonial framework has been stifled under the rhetoric of reconciliation, while the status quo Treasury Board fails to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ human rights.
This is the context in which we have to understand Bill C-15, the proposed new federal law to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
I have great admiration for all those champions who continued this fight, year after year, until UNDRIP became a consensus document at the UN.
What resulted is the first international human rights instrument to clearly recognize what we have been saying all along — that Indigenous Peoples have the inherent right to self-determination. Throughout its provisions — there are 46 in total — the Declaration sets out in detail the obligations of nation states, public institutions, corporations and more to honour and respect our inherent rights in situations ranging from child and family services to language preservation and economic development.
Like most Indigenous land defenders, I view anything the government does with skepticism. We have witnessed many Indigenous-led movements that spark resistance to colonialism be quelled by promises that wind up broken. Recommendations to improve and respect the inherent human rights of Indigenous Peoples — such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls To Action or various Supreme Court decisions (albeit narrowly defined) — fail to be implemented.
As a piece of government legislation, Bill C-15 deserves our skepticism. But considering what we have to deal with under the Indian Act, many see Bill C-15 as a positive development. I feel strongly that its passage into law would represent the best chance we’ve seen in a very long time to actually break with the colonial status quo.
My support for Bill C-15 is not based on any faith in the Trudeau government. I have felt first-hand the disregard and disrespect of the government’s words and actions through the contemptuous manner in which Indigenous land defenders are treated.
My support for Bill C-15 comes from a place of conviction concerning the Declaration, and all the years that Indigenous Peoples worked to bring the Declaration to life. The Declaration represents a clear expression, for the 21st century, of what Indigenous Peoples have been fighting for all along: our right to live in peace and dignity, to overcome the impacts of colonization through exercise of our rights to self-determination, and to have our own Indigenous laws and traditions respected, instead of vilified.
Bill C-15 states that it is not attempting to turn the UN Declaration into Canadian law. It doesn’t place the Declaration beneath Canada’s fatally flawed framework of the Indian Act, nor Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, nor the duty to consult. If passed by the House of Commons and the Senate, Bill C-15 will legally oblige governments to uphold higher standards of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. It will require the federal government to work together with Indigenous Peoples, including land defenders, to change Canada’s laws and policies so that they live up to the requirements of the Declaration.
An earlier bill, C-262, sought to ensure Canada’s laws would align with UNDRIP. For advocates of Indigenous sovereignty, UNDRIP itself is not without limitations. It was, however, authored by long-standing Indigenous human rights advocate Romeo Saganash and has the support of most Indigenous people, including grassroots activists like myself.
Bill C-262 died in Parliament in 2019 after a group of senators used every trick in the book to delay its passage. It failed to reach royal assent before the final parliamentary recess of the government’s tenure began, and was left to die. That tells you something as well.
Passing Bill C-15 into law would give Indigenous Peoples the ability to defend their lands without being criminalized. It would require governments to change racist, discriminatory laws that deny Indigenous Peoples the ability to create solutions to colonial-rooted problems.
Overcoming colonial oppression is about restoring Indigenous law, languages, culture and customs, and beginning the process of addressing and unravelling the multigenerational trauma caused by genocidal acts like the residential school system. Indigenous laws would help Indigenous Peoples care for and protect their lands and resources in ways that promote the rights of Mother Earth and all our relations.
It takes the hierarchy out of authoritarian Indian Act entities such as band councils, and gives the power to decide back to the people. While UNDRIP is controversial in its own right, it remains the most comprehensive international human rights instrument available to us, directly addressing the historical injustices caused by racist ideological doctrines.
Like most Indigenous activists, I know that “reconciliation” has not begun. Colonization has been repackaged with slick semantics and ribbons to disguise it. Most critically thinking Indigenous Peoples are painfully aware of the fact that colonial laws are dressed up in “reconciliation,” woven into financial arrangements, or hidden through incremental policy changes that stall real change. The status quo attitude entrenched in the entities under which Indigenous Peoples find themselves continue to reflect the archaic, racist subliminal message embedded in laws and policies: that Indigenous Peoples are inferior and defective and we cannot make decisions for ourselves.
For all the various commissions addressing the impacts of colonization — rupturing our family units and attempting to destroy our languages, customs and traditional forms of governance — it is now time for us to actually have the tools to stop the madness that is colonialism.
Climate change is real, and Indigenous Peoples have offered the world the tools to help us survive it. We are still struggling against illegal land theft that has been protected under the Indian Act. Justice is needed to address the genocide inflicted upon our ancestors — our family members — under Canadian and provincial laws based on racist ideations.
It is my hope that the passage of Bill C-15 will help halt the colonial machine that continues to confine Indigenous Peoples within the Indian Act box. We need to be active participants in protecting the enjoyment of our human rights. We have witnessed how systemic racism, which remains the norm in our society, continues to destroy lives, simply because the education systems and institutions are blissfully oblivious to Canada’s colonial history.
We must eradicate this norm and Indigenous Peoples must be provided with the tools to protect our human rights. Canada’s education system must change to include the truth of its genocidal history, which targeted Indigenous nations, their families and everything about our identities.
My hope is that Bill C-15 will provide the opportunity for us to begin a process of decolonization. I remain hopeful — I do not have a choice.
Skén:nen – wishing you peace.
Ellen Gabriel has been an Indigenous human rights and environmental activist since 1990. Her honourable work as a spokesperson for the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation during the “Oka Crisis” brought her into the public eye and was only the start of her activism. Since then, she has continuously fought for Indigenous rights to self-determination, cultural and language rights and Indigenous women’s rights. Ellen is an artist with a BFA from Concordia University, majoring in Studio Art. She is a board member of the Mohawk Language Custodian Association working to preserve the language, and is part of Indigenous Climate Action’s steering committee.