by Gary Porter
After decades of struggle by indigenous peoples world-wide, the United Nations adopted in 2007 a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It was adopted by 144 countries, with 11 abstentions and 4 countries voting against it — Canada, the USA, New Zealand, and Australia. Since 2009 Australia and New Zealand reversed their positions and now support the Declaration. In 2010, the United States and Canada did likewise, however lukewarm that endorsement may be. It remains the world’s most comprehensive official statement of the rights of aboriginal peoples.
Twelve years later, after continuous efforts by leaders of the indigenous peoples, the British Columbia New Democratic Party government tabled a bill in October 2019 that, if passed, will make B.C. the first province in Canada to legally implement UNDRIP and amend all BC Acts to comply.
Indigenous peoples in Canada, and everywhere have struggled bravely and ceaselessly since the invasion of white settler colonial forces in the early 1600s. Opening up the continent to settlers meant seizing indigenous land and resources, forcing the first peoples onto reserves and denying their right to have any effective say over where and how they live. Compensation, if any, was pitifully small. Promises of food, clothing and other supplies were routinely broken.
Hundreds of thousands died from starvation, diseases brought by the whites, by acts of violence and desperation. Their children were seized and placed in church-run ‘residential schools’ to beat the “savage” out of them.
But it was the white settler state that was savage, racist, and homicidal. Indigenous women and girls are still attacked, raped and murdered by whites, including police, almost with impunity.
Since B.C. committed to legislation more than a year ago, a team from the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation began to work with the First Nations Leadership Council to draft the current historic bill.
Many Indigenous leaders were present in the B.C. Legislature on the occasion it was tabled. Four gave speeches from the floor of the house, including Grand Chief Edward John from the First Nations Summit, and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
Cheryl Casimer, an executive member of the First Nations Summit and a citizen of the Ktunaxa Nation, described a relationship with the Crown “that has been mired in racism, denial and, therefore, conflict and adversity.”
“The provincial government has a long history of denying the very existence of Indigenous peoples of this land and of our rights,” she said. “This denial is reflected and deeply embedded in laws enacted by the government and the corresponding policies and practices in its daily business of the province. As a result, our relationship has developed primarily in the courts, where First Nations have sought to be recognized and to protect their rights by challenging these denial-based laws and policies.”
The new legislation includes the concept of self determination for indigenous people. It requires their consent for any development of resources on their land, or for any roads, dams, pipelines, etc., on their traditional territory. With experienced indigenous lawyers and many militants willing to fight on, life is certain to get much more uncomfortable for the greedy, polluting corporations that have ridden roughshod over indigenous rights in Canada for centuries. No more could a government decide to change rules arbitrarily, at least not in BC, it seems.
The BC Federation of Labour issued a celebratory news release. It represents 500,000 unionized workers, many of them Indigenous. The BC Fed has long supported this step and pointed the way toward a powerful alliance of Indigenous people and the working class as a whole.