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Wednesday, 9 August 2017

International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

Wednesday is the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Throughout time and across the globe, we as Indigenous peoples have had to fight for our lands, our languages, our cultures and often, our very survival, as explorers sought to conquer and colonize us. Armed with the Doctrine of Discovery, a decree issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, tyranny was the way most colonies were settled.

Canada was no exception. Despite treaties and agreements founded on partnership and sharing, early colonial governments set out to rule Indigenous peoples. Successive governments set up the Indian Act and the reserve system to break down our traditional ways of life. Governments created the residential schools system to destroy our languages, our cultures and families, and took decisions about development without our proper involvement as peoples with continuing pre-existing rights in our traditional territories.

Denial of our rights to self-determination and our right to benefit from the rich resources of our lands has led us to where we are today. A vast socio-economic gap grew between First Nations and Canadians resulting in a shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality, higher rates of chronic disease, incarceration, substance abuse and suicide.
In 2017, we are finally taking first steps toward meaningful change. Prime Minister Trudeau pledged to work with us when he said no relationship was more important to Canada, or his government, than the one with Indigenous peoples.

Of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 16 are tied to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The UN declaration recognizes that the rights of Indigenous peoples are human rights, and that countries, including Canada, have obligations to respect those rights. Through several UN General Assembly resolutions, Canada and the global community are committed to its full implementation. The next step is to work together to develop legislation and a National Action Plan for its implementation.

The declaration is a framework for reconciliation based on recognition of rights, as opposed to the many Canadian laws written to deny those rights. The Assembly of First Nations has called for a joint table to bring Canada and First Nations together to review laws, policies, and practices to ensure they align with the UN declaration. Canada’s Constitution must also be understood and interpreted in light of the UN declaration and the inherent and treaty rights it protects.

Our current effort to co-develop an Indigenous Languages Act is an example of partnership to repair the legacy of the past. Language is central to our songs, stories and ceremonies. Our languages are fundamental to our self-determination. Together, we must put the same amount of effort into revitalizing and maintaining our languages as Canada put into trying to eradicate them.

There is still much work to do. An urgent priority is ending the ongoing discrimination that causes our children to be taken from their homes and families in numbers that exceed those taken at the height of the residential schools system. Canada must immediately end its discriminatory underfunding of First Nations child welfare, discrimination that’s been proven and upheld by Canada’s own Human Rights Tribunal.

The UN Declaration is a framework for all this work, a path to progress and prosperity for all. Now is the time to commit ourselves to giving it life and full expression, to realize a new and transformed era in Indigenous-Crown relations.

Our history as the first peoples of this land is as old as human memory, older than the treaties and older still than our first meetings with the newcomers. We remember that history, and look forward to the great changes ahead. Changes that will see our rights and our potential finally, fully realized. On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, our message to Canadians is that these changes will benefit us all.

So when you hear of new laws and new approaches, rights and title, language legislation and land recovery, don’t fear these changes. Embrace them. They represent a new and long overdue chapter in our shared history and a path to a brighter future built on respect.

Perry Bellegarde is National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

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