UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Bill C-15 would require the government to work with Indigenous peoples to ensure respect for and implementation of our human rights under international law, including the right to self-determination. These rights have been affirmed by The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration).

To become law, Bill C-15 must pass both the House of Commons and the Senate before the end of June 2021.

Bill C-15 is the latest of several efforts to get such a law passed. In 2019, a similar bill (Bill C-262) was passed by the House of Commons (with the support of all but one of the federal parties). However, Bill C-262 but was prevented from coming to a vote in the Senate by the procedural tactics of small number of Senators.

On June 16, 2021 – after decades of advocacy by First Nations  – the Parliament of Canada passed The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (formerly Bill C-15). The Act received Royal Assent June 21, 2021.

The Act sets out Canada’s obligation to uphold the human rights (including Treaty and inherent rights) of Indigenous peoples affirmed by the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration). These include the right of self-determination and the right to have Treaties respected and enforced.

The UN Declaration contains international human rights standards that Canada and all members of the UN have affirmed, and re-affirmed, many times.

The Act does not create new rights. Nor does it take away, diminish or redefine any rights. This is all about taking long overdue action to respect and implement rights First Nations already have.

What the Act does

Importantly, the Act requires the Government of Canada to work with Indigenous peoples to review and reform the laws of Canada, and to work in cooperation and consultation with Indigenous peoples to develop a National Action Plan.  The first action plan must be complete in two years and include measures to:

  • “address injustices, combat prejudice and eliminate all forms of violence, racism and discrimination, including systemic racism and discrimination”
  • “promote mutual respect and understanding as well as good relations, including through human rights education”; and
  • “measures related to monitoring, oversight, recourse or remedy or other accountability measures with respect to the implementation of the Declaration.”

The Act explicitly confirms that the UN Declaration can be used to interpret Canadian laws. (Canadian courts already have been using the UN Declaration in exactly this way.) The Act will promote greater compliance and awareness of the work required to respect and implement the human rights of Indigenous peoples.

The Act also requires regular reports to Parliament that will be made public. In addition, the Act commits the government to explore additional accountability measures.

History of the Act

For many years, First Nations pressed for federal legislation to affirm the rights in the UN Declaration and ensure their implementation through a jointly developed action plan.

Former MP Romeo Saganash’s private Member’s bill to implement the UN Declaration, Bill C-262, was broadly supported by First Nations and passed by the House of Commons in 2018. Chiefs-in-Assembly passed a resolution calling on Parliament to adopt Bill C-262.

When Bill C-262 was blocked by filibuster tactics in the Senate, AFN Chiefs-in-Assembly passed a resolution in December 2019 calling for a government bill modelled on Bill C-262. AFN Resolution 86-2019 states that a government implementation bill must be at least as strong as Bill C-262.

How C-15 was built

Commitments to develop such legislation were made by Canada in the 2019 and 2020 Speeches from the Throne.  Federal Justice Minister David Lametti tabled Bill C-15 on December 3, 2020, following a short engagement period in the fall and early winter of 2020.

Bill C-15 was built on the implementation model set out in Romeo Saganash’s private Member’s bill. Discussions over the Bill took place at AFN’s AGA in December 2020 as well as a two-day National First Nations Leadership Forum on Bill C-15 (February 10-11, 2021). Hundreds of First Nations leaders discussed this important legislation from a diversity of perspectives.

C-15 built on the foundation of C-262, while adding greater detail and clarity, as well as a more robust preamble. The AFN’s team of expert legal advisors concluded that Bill C-15 met the mandate to support government legislation that would be at least as strong as Bill C-262. In fact, C-15 is stronger than former Bill C-262 in several ways. Input from the AFN during Parliamentary hearings calling for amendments responsive to First Nations concerns resulted in these improvements.

First Nations National Leadership Forum on Bill C-15, February 10-11, 2021

Review report

Federal Legislation to Implement UN Declaration Major Step Toward Addressing Racism and Discrimination in Canada, June 16, 2021

Review press release

Myths and Misrepresentations on implementing the Declaration

Review myths

“This legislation to implement the UN Declaration on the Right of indigenous Peoples in Canada can be a pathway to reconciliation, guided by our inherent and Treaty rights. Its full implementation will see First Nations rights respected and implemented and is essential to addressing all forms of racism and discrimination in Canada.”

National Chief Perry Bellegarde, June 16, 2021

Canadians widely support the UN Declaration

About the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The UN Declaration   was adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007.

The Declaration was intended to close a critical gap in the international human rights system by explicitly affirming a wide range of universal human rights that have, in practice, been widely denied to Indigenous peoples. This includes the right to self-determination and collective rights to lands, territories and resources, culture, and identity.

The Declaration is especially important because Indigenous peoples were active partners in its drafting. This included First Nations leaders and grassroots advocates.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) called the Declaration “the framework for reconciliation.” Canada embraced all of the TRC Calls to Action. Both the TRC and the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls called for Canada to implement the Declaration through law, policy, and action. States and Indigenous peoples from around the world worked together for decades to achieve this success. First Nations played a key role. Many of our people are acknowledged globally as international law experts.

The UN Declaration does not create new rights. It affirms pre-existing or inherent rights of Indigenous peoples. These human rights include the collective right to self-determination. The UN Declaration sets out minimum standards that are necessary to uphold these rights and ensure ‘the dignity, survival and well-being’ of Indigenous peoples around the world.

Canada is now part of numerous consensus resolutions of the United Nations affirming the UN Declaration and calling on states to work with Indigenous peoples to develop national action plans and other measures to support implementation.

Providing a framework for reconciliation

In addition, Call to Action 43 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) calls on federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the UN Declaration as the framework for reconciliation. Call to Action 44 calls on Canada to develop a national action plan and other measures to support the implementation of the UN Declaration. The federal government has expressed its support for all 94 Calls to Action of the TRC.

The National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also called for implementation of the UN Declaration as part of a rights-based response to the horrific violence faced by First Nations women, girls and two spirit persons.

Every day, First Nations are exercising rights affirmed in the UN Declaration, including the right to self-determination. First Nations also frequently reference the UN Declaration in decision-making, policy statements and in exercising inherent and Treaty rights.

The UN Declaration already has legal effect in Canada. The AFN has used the UN Declaration in litigation to ensure that domestic laws are interpreted consistently with the provisions of the Declaration. In critical cases concerning issues such as services to First Nations, Canadian courts and tribunals have looked at Canada’s Constitutional obligations and the interpretation of other domestic laws through the lens of the UN Declaration.

“The passing of Bill C-15, now the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, means we now have a process that requires laws and policies to change so that First Nations rights are respected and implemented. First Nations will determine their own priorities and how they wish to work with Canada. And I urge all governments in Canada to work to ensure full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde, June 16, 2021

Resource Materials

“Advancing reconciliation requires bringing Canadian law and policy into line with international human rights law, which has condemned doctrines of superiority, including discovery and terra nullius, as colonial and racist. Yet the racist assumptions and impacts of these doctrines live on in aspects of Canadian law and policy. They are evident in underlying assumptions that assume First Nations are “claimants” in our own lands and that treat First Nations as somehow lacking sovereignty. The assumptions and impacts of these racist doctrines must be uprooted. The path forward will require Canada to acknowledge the truth of our pre-existing and continuing sovereignty as self-determining peoples.”

National Chief Perry Bellegarde

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Policy Analyst


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Celso CercadoImplementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples