The Government of Canada has introduced Bill C-15, as a piece of legislation that is supposed to harmonize Canada’s laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The bill passed third reading in the senate with a vote of 61-10.
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations called the Bill concrete action and history in the making. However, other Indigenous leaders are concerned that this legislation is just another attack on Indigenous sovereignty and will erode efforts to implement self-determination.
UNDRIP was originally rejected by Canada when it was voted on in the United Nations in 2007. Finally, in 2016 Canada officially removed its objections to UNDRIP.
Bill C-15 was introduced in the House of Commons after a brief period of consultation with National Indigenous organizations, but analyst Russ Diabo says this process was exclusive to organizations that are funded by the Canadian government and did not include the Indigenous rights holders, “the actual Indigenous Peoples.”
Diabo, along with others from Indigenous activist networks across the country, have analyzed the bill in detail and have concluded that if the legislation is passed, Bill C-15 will be used by the government of Canada, “to reinforce the status quo because the Bill makes it clear that existing national laws, many of which violate Indigenous rights—will prevail over UNDRIP.”
Diabo says the Bill will set out a precedent where Crown sovereignty will be imposed over Indigenous Peoples. This was an issue of contention during the Constitutional talks, where Indigenous people argued that Indigenous rights and title pre-date confederation, so the state had no authority to confer rights to Indigenous peoples.
Diabo states, “The main sections of Bill C-15, particularly section 2, maintain the common law interpretation of section 35(1) and section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which is heavily based on the colonial Doctrine of Discovery, which strips Indigenous people of their land ownership and land rights. The primacy of the Doctrine of Discovery means Canadian courts will continue to adjudicate using existing case law based on section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, and these rulings have caused major harm to the daily life for Indigenous Peoples and Nations…”
The Doctrine of Discovery, is the legal framework that was used as a basis for European imperial powers to colonize countries around the world. It comes from a series of Papal statements, which assert that Christians could claim ownership of lands if the inhabitants of those lands were not Christians. It set out the premise that the people living in these lands, if not Christians, were merely occupants, and had no title. It established the concept of Terra Nullius, which essentially means empty lands.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted in its final report that the Doctrine of Discovery has been cited in decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada as recently as the 1990s.
The TRC has recommended that the Government of Canada repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. The federal Liberals promised to pass the legislation by the end of this term.