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Bill C-15: UNDRIP as cover for ongoing colonialism

Brian Champ

January 22, 2021

Last February an unprecedented movement of Indigenous land defenders, along with Indigenous and settler allies, blocked rails, ports and roadways from coast to coast to protest the RCMP invasion of unceded Wet'suwet'en territory. Two weeks into the #ShutDownCanada movement that erupted in solidarity, $425 million in goods were being stranded each day, described by the business lobby in frenzied terms as a “catastrophe” for the economy. Trudeau, who came to power in 2015 vowing to make Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples his number 1 priority, lectured that "patience was running out" and that the blockades "must come down", making clear the determination to continue colonial practices that had tested Indigenous peoples' "patience" for centuries.

Upside down Canadian flags with "Reconciliation is Dead" scrawled upon them at blockades and solidarity events denounced the Liberal hypocrisy. Symbolic of this was the image of RCMP officers chainsawing through a gate into Unist'ot'en camp marked "Reconciliation" that was widely shared. Only the Covid-19 pandemic saved the Liberal government from a militant movement that was growing in strength and mobilizing increasing numbers of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, across Canada.

Almost a year later Trudeau tried to revive the Liberal reconciliation project. As reported by Russ Diabo, an Indigenous leader from the Mohawk nation at Kahnawake: "On Dec. 3, the Trudeau government, in its trademark style of symbolism over substance on Indigenous policy, and after only six weeks of selective behind the scenes 'engagement' with National Indigenous organizations, the provinces and industry, introduced Bill C-15, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) Act, into Parliament. Left out of this process, as they always are, were Indigenous rights holders—the actual Indigenous Peoples from across the country. They were not consulted or even shown a draft before the Bill was tabled and now the Trudeau government is planning to rush Bill C-15 though the House of Commons in breakneck speed when it resumes in January 2021." 

The Liberals hoped that the conditions of the pandemic will allow them to slip this legislation through quickly and uncritically when Parliament resumes on January 25th. But "a group of experts from several Indigenous Activists Networks, including lawyers with constitutional and international experience" analyzed the bill and have concluded that "once you look past the flowery words of the preamble, Bill C-15 is not only full of empty promises, it actually delivers the opposite of what the government and its team of Indigenous salespersons are promising."

This is because this legislation uses the term Indigenous peoples as defined under section 35 of the Canadian Constitution (1982); similarly the bill "is construed as upholding and affirming" the Rights of Indigenous peoples as defined under the same section 35 "and not as abrogating or derogating from them."

Section 35 of the repatriated Canadian constitution is an important product of past struggles for Indigenous self-determination: nevertheless it "is heavily based on the colonial Doctrine of Discovery, which strips Indigenous people of their land ownership and land rights", subsuming them under crown land.

BC Bill 41, very similar legislation, was passed just months before the RCMP invasion of Wet'suwet'en territory, but the BC government claimed that it could not be used to stop the CGL pipeline. It leaked out later that in reality the BC government had called in the RCMP under the guise of a provincial emergency. These laws are intended to paper over ongoing colonialism, not usher in a new era of peaceful coexistence.

The fact that the Trudeau government feels compelled to pursue such legislation is a testament to the determination of Indigenous peoples' struggles for their land over centuries against French and British imperialism and, since 1867, against the intensified colonialism of the settler colonial state of Canada. These nation building efforts on stolen land forced Indigenous peoples' onto marginal reserve lands, assimilated Indigenous children through residential schools and the sixties scoop, accompanied by justifications based on anti-Indigenous racism that is ruled the settler colonial state of Canada. At every step there was resistance.
Like father like son: Pierre Trudeau's White Paper

In 1969, a previous Trudeau government release the White Paper which called for the "extinguishment" of Indigenous peoples' land rights and for their assimilation into Canadian society within 5 years. A grassroots rebellion in Indigenous communities immediately set out to oppose these genocidal measures and re-assert Indigenous rights and sovereignty. Because of this resistance, In the early 1970s, the federal government was forced to bury the extinguishment/assimilation policies in the short term, but these goals have never been abandoned by Canada's rulers, rather they are now couched in terms that are less politically explosive: Instead of "extinguishment" of Indigenous peoples' land rights, now what is sought is "certainty" for investors, which amounts to the same thing.

The Indigenous movements that emerged out of this opposition to the White Paper included waves of occupations of Indian Affairs offices by Indigenous Youth against the policies coming down from the federal government. Indigenous activists also developed connections with Indigenous peoples around the world to counter the power of the settler-colonial nations. George Manuel of the Secwépemc people in BC was a leading force in pulling together the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) that brought the struggle for Indigenous rights to the international stage. The wording of UNDRIP was greatly influenced by the submissions to the UN in 1977 by the WCIP. Indigenous activists were involved in every step of the way in developing UNDRIP, including forcing a Canadian delegation to back down when they proposed weakening the language of the declaration.

There are limitations to the usefulness of the declaration, given the contradictory nature of the UN. Far from being an organization that is able to bring harmony to the world, it's security council concentrates the world's most powerful nations to deliberate and plan actions for maintaining their own dominance. Because each security council member has veto power, any decisions that counter any of the interests of these powerful nations will lack force. The General Assembly is certainly a place where broader debates occur, and where UNDRIP was passed. But General Assembly declarations lack an enforcement mechanism, and the fact that the nations that oppress Indigenous peoples have prominent seats there creates barriers for meaningful implementation.

Despite this, UNDRIP is an ideological tool for Indigenous land defenders and their allies to wield against ongoing colonialism. The demand for "free, prior and informed consent" makes sense to wide layers of settler society who are more and more aware of the disastrous history of colonialism in Canada and are looking for solutions that put people and the planet before corporate profits. Therefore it matters that we oppose Bill C-15 and any other attempt by Canada to bury UNDRIP under crown land, where Indigenous rights are superceded by resource industry profits. For consent to be meaningful, Indigenous peoples must have the right to refuse these developments on their lands.

We have to remember that section 35 of the repatriated constitution was only made possible by the grassroots mobilizations led by a minority of radical Indigenous activists driven to preserve Indigenous conceptions of "land as a system of relationships and obligations" in opposition to ongoing colonialism, that demanded their rights be protected. Similarly, UNDRIP was only made possible by mobilizations coordinated by Indigenous peoples from all over the world. 

Building Solidarity

Under pandemic conditions, the support that was mobilized for 1492 Landback Lane in Caledonia, for the Mi'kmaq fishers under attack in the Bay of Fundy and for the Algonquin nation denouncing the destructiveness of the non-Indigenous Moose Hunt on their lands proved that this movement hasn't gone away.

There are many fronts in the struggle for Indigenous rights, including the struggles for justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit People; the fight against the anti-Indigenous racism of the courts, the police and the prisons; the fight against deadly racism in healthcare and other social services. An important impetus for the struggles today was the rise of the Idle No More movement in 2012 that has emboldened new generations of Indigenous activists to engage in a militant struggle against ongoing colonial development.

Crucially, fighting for Indigenous rights means building support in communities and workplaces for the continuing struggles of Wet'suwet'en land defenders against the CGL pipeline, those of Secwépemc land defenders against the TMX pipeline and of all Indigenous nations who are fighting for self-determination on their lands and in so doing struggle against the settler colonial capitalism that rules Canada. 

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