Indigenous peoples across the world share a history of colonization, and of fighting for their rights to life, their lands and their cultures. Since the early 20th century, Indigenous leaders have brought concerns international attention to the United Nations to seek recognition and international pressure for governments to respect their rights.
In 1982, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations was established by the UN to develop a set of human rights standards for Indigenous peoples worldwide. For over two decades, Indigenous people, legal experts, and government officials from all over the world worked to develop the declaration.
UNDRIP was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007; however Canada was one of the few states with Indigenous peoples within their borders, which did not adopt it at that time. In 2016, the Government of Canada fully endorsed UNDRIP and committed to its implementation.
Categories of rights
UNDRIP contains 46 articles that fall under the following categories of rights. The full UNDRIP text can be found here.
Equality: Indigenous people have all the same human rights and freedoms as all other people. Indigenous people have the right to be free from discrimination and to have their human rights respected, especially any that relate to their Indigenous background and identity.
Self-determination and self-government: Indigenous peoples have the right to make their own decisions, including about how they govern themselves and choose their leaders. Indigenous people have the right to govern themselves on local matters on their own territories. They have the right to decide how they organize their own governments, and to resources to finance their own governments. Indigenous people can belong to Indigenous communities as well as nations. Indigenous people have the right to have their own strong political, legal, economic, social and cultural organizations and supports in their communities. They also have the right to fully participate as citizens in the countries they live in.
Security of the person: Indigenous people have the right to be physically and mentally safe and free. Indigenous people have the right to be free and safe as their own distinct group, and not experience genocide or any other act of violence from outside groups. This includes taking children away.
Culture and language: Indigenous peoples have the right to not experience forced assimilation or the destruction of their culture. Indigenous peoples have the right to use practice their cultures fully and to use customary laws to resolve conflict and make decisions in their communities. Indigenous people own their cultures and traditional knowledge. Outsiders can not use this information without free, prior and informed consent. Governments must protect Indigenous Peoples cultures against actions that destroy their cultures and repair any damage inflicted such as: denying their cultural values and ethnic identities, their lands territories and resources, forced relocation, forced assimilation, or promoting discrimination.
Education and media: Indigenous peoples have the right to develop and control their education systems and schools, and to be able to provide education in their own languages in their own culturally-based ways. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to access all levels of education, free of discrimination. Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which must be reflected in education and public information; and the right to their own media in their own languages. Governments must combat prejudice and discrimination and ensure that Government-owned media reflect on Indigenous cultural diversity.
Free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC): Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is the right to participate in decision-making about issues that impact Indigenous peoples, including the use of their land, territories and natural resources. Decisions must be made freely without coercion, intimidation or manipulation by other peoples, and Indigenous people must be fully informed with all necessary information early, so that decision-making influences plans. Indigenous people are free to say yes or no to planned projects that affect their lands and their lives. They can set conditions for consent based on their own collective decision-making. FPIC is needed for all decisions that may have serious effects on Indigenous peoples.
Economic and social rights: Indigenous people have the right to decide how they participate in economic activities, and to not be discriminated against. Indigenous peoples have the right to develop their own governance organizations and determine how those organizations operate. They have the right to develop their own social institutions and systems, and their own economies. This includes how they wish to develop socially and economically, including traditional land and culture based economies. Indigenous peoples have the right to improve their social and economic conditions including in areas such as: education, employment, vocational training and retraining, housing, sanitation, health and social security.
Lands and resources: Indigenous peoples have the right to live on their land and territories. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine how they care for and use the lands that they own. Governments must legally recognize and protect Indigenous lands and respect traditional land ownership systems, spirituality, knowledge and traditions. If these rights were disrespected, governments must work to fix this. If lands were taken, they should be given back or fairly compensated.
Treaties and agreements: Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their connections to each other across borders. Governments must support these connections. Indigenous peoples have the right to have their treaties respected and enforced by the Governments that entered into those agreements with. Nothing in the Declaration takes away from treaties or the rights within them. Governments, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples, must take measures, including the passing of laws, to implement the UN Declaration. Indigenous peoples have the right to resources and assistance from Governments, to implement this Declaration.
UNDRIP, Canadian law and modern treaties
The human rights outlined in UNDRIP are already part of international law and part of existing Canadian law. UNDRIP clarifies and highlights how these laws apply to Indigenous peoples individually and collective.
Some of the collective rights in UNDRIP, such as those that relate to self-determination, language, culture, and resources are not clearly part of existing Canadian law. At this time, international law in the area of Indigenous rights is evolving and could influence law. Further, implementation of UNDRIP in Canada could influence changes to Canadian law to be more in line with UNDRIP. UNDRIP cannot take away from any rights negotiated in treaties or other agreements, such as land claims, negotiated between Indigenous peoples and states. Article 37 of UNDRIP says that government has to respect, uphold, and properly implement the treaties and agreements they have negotiated with Indigenous peoples.
In June 2021, a federal government law, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, was passed by Canada’s Parliament and Senate. This law requires Canada’s federal government to review all federal laws and make them consistent with UNDRIP. This does not apply to provincial or territorial law, but in 2019, the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) made implementation of UNDRIP part of its mandate.
Why is UNDRIP important?
UNDRIP is particularly important to the Northwest Territories (NWT) because it exists on Indigenous land and has a majority Indigenous population. Furthermore, NWT communities are experience significant and rapid impacts from climate change, shifts in the economy, and other social and cultural changes. Implementing UNDRIP will help Indigenous nations protect and preserve land, water, culture, and language for future generations.
Indigenous governments and organizations in the NWT are already doing the work of implementing UNDRIP through their policies and programs that further their own agendas for the good of their people. Indigenous governments have been implementing UNDRIP in many ways, including through asserting and protecting land rights, establishing protected areas, asserting intellectual property rights to Indigenous knowledge, and ensuring the use of FPIC protocols and policies.
Read the full text of the UNDRIP articles here.