Mr. Speaker, today, I speak from the Mi'kmaq traditional territory of Unama'ki in the Eskasoni First Nation.
It has been over 400 years since my Mi'kmaq ancestors met European travellers on the shores of Mi'kma'ki. This moment thrust generations of transformation and struggle that led to the conflicts, diplomacy and eventually treaties that have shaped Canada and its Constitution. That struggle and those relations continue to this day across Canada.
Today's debate is the next step on this journey and the generational struggle of indigenous peoples in Canada. With Bill C-15, we turned a page on colonial narratives entrenched within the Indian Act and moved on to a new chapter founded on the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous People.
This past week Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild reminded me that indigenous leaders have been fighting for recognition of their basic human rights entrenched within UNDRIP for over 40 years. The fact that this government act is in Parliament today is an achievement of the possible in the realm of the improbable.
Today, I would like to share a perspective on Bill C-15 that is personal, but also shared by many indigenous people in this country. My father, Sákéj Henderson, one of the original drafters, wrote that UNDRIP is a process whereby, “Thousands of Indigenous peoples participated over thirty years in the development of Indigenous diplomacy.”
Before the 1982 Constitution, long before the recognition in the Supreme Court of Canada, Kji-keptin Alexander Denny and a delegation of Mi'kmaq went to the United Nations to seek justice for Mi'kmaq based on the UN covenants available to them at the time.
There, they met several indigenous leaders from around the world who were all advocating for the right to be recognized as humans and protected by the rights that came from the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. At the time, there was no UN mechanism whereby the rights of indigenous peoples, as humans, could be protected. In fact, the first meeting of the UN working group referred to indigenous populations because of the fear of recognizing them as a people.
Despite the objections and fears, indigenous leaders persevered, and on September 12, 2007, more than 143 countries affirmed the recommendation to extend human rights and fundamental freedoms to indigenous people. Canada voted against that. That decision by the Harper-led Conservative government to deny indigenous people human rights and freedoms brings us to where we are now. Today, we can undo that mistake.
In a divided world, UNDRIP is a global vision. The longest, most comprehensive human rights instrument negotiated at the United Nations, fought and won by thousands of indigenous leaders speaking 100 different languages from all corners of the globe. The 46 articles within UNDRIP give clarity and understanding of the inherent rights recognized in section 35 of our Constitution, also known as aboriginal rights. It addresses what is meant by fair, just and consensual relationships between indigenous people and government.
Our Liberal government has already shown our commitment to implementing the human rights of indigenous peoples, entrenching these principles into our Environmental Assessment Act, the Indigenous Language Acts and the indigenous children, youth and family act.
However, the time has come for all political parties to stand up for the inalienable human rights of indigenous people in this country. Let us be clear: The human rights of indigenous people have been and continue to be denied in Canada. UNDRIP is a vital and necessary part of the remedy to this generational injustice. The 1876 Indian Act codified this injustice and colonial framework stating that the term “person” means an individual other than an Indian unless the context clearly requires another construction.
From the moment Canada legally denied Indians the rights of persons, it became necessary to create this declaration and to confirm the inalienable human rights of indigenous persons. With great humility, I add my name to those who wish to be recognized as persons as well in Canada. I am humbled in the knowledge that so many other indigenous MPs have spoken in this House, advocating for human rights to extend to indigenous people as well.
Let me be clear: Bill C-15 would not create new rights. It affirms rights actively denied to indigenous peoples for generations. Bill C-15 rejects colonialism, racism and injustices of the past. It affirms familiar human rights norms and minimum standards that Canada and Canadians have long supported.
It places two interrelated obligations on the federal government, in consultation and co-operation with indigenous peoples of Canada. The first obligation is to take all measures necessary to ensure the laws of Canada are consistent with the declaration. The second obligation, which is just as important, is to establish an action plan to achieve the objectives of the declaration within three years. These obligations are necessary for establishing a just framework for reconciliation and fulfilled promises, to generate better lives for indigenous peoples.
Critics of Bill C-15 have tried to use words like uncertainty and unintended consequences to slow, stall and create fears of UNDRIP. However, in reality they are doing nothing more than perpetuating colonial notions that for generations have benefited them and exploited indigenous peoples.
Former Justice Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, in response to fears that Bill C-15 would slow down the economy, stated:
It is fearmongering to suggest that somehow the rights of indigenous people will make the Canadian economy not work and to point to British Columbia and say that is particularly laughable and inaccurate.
Bill C-15 is about fair, just and consensual relations among legally recognized people. Bill C-15 is another step to guarantee indigenous people a dignified life and a meaningful economic future. Whether supporter or skeptic, all Canadians will benefit from recognizing and exercising our shared humanity. The passing of this bill into law would require, inspire and enable Canadians to maintain the promises of a better nation.
In closing, I would like to thank Romeo Saganash for his leadership on his private member's bill, Bill C-262. I would also like to thank my father, Sákéj Henderson, and Russel Barsh for their wise counsel and their tireless efforts to help the Mi’kmaq over the years; as well as the many indigenous leaders within the Assembly of First Nations and the Indigenous Bar Association who have advanced my education on UNDRIP over the years; as well as all the indigenous leaders from coast to coast to coast whose tireless efforts have led to government legislation on Bill C-15.