Bighouse and Ceremonial Canoe, Klemtu, BC. (Photo by A.Davey via Flickr CC)
Bighouse and Ceremonial Canoe, Klemtu, BC. (Photo by A.Davey via Flickr CC)

Public discussion of UNDRIP has been surprisingly limited, both in Canada and on the international scene. The dramatic two-stage passage of the agreement - ‎the initial positive vote by the UN General Assembly and the subsequent acceptance of the declaration by Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA - seemed to be a promising start that quickly lost political momentum. Aside from occasional mentions by Aboriginal leaders, the Declaration has languished on the pile of once-promising UN agreements, honored more in the breach than by concerted action.  

While national governments have taken refuge in the acknowledgment that UNDRIP is an aspirational document, without legal force, they appear to be missing a subtle but vital change in Indigenous thinking in Canada and internationally. UNDRIP has done more than enter into the Indigenous political vocabulary; it has become, with virtually no notice, a veritable pillar of the Aboriginal world view or, perhaps more accurately, a validation of Indigenous political thinking and aspirations.

Funny thing about aspirational documents: they tend to convince people that the aspirations and dreams are relevant, appropriate and, above all else, achievable. The codification of Indigenous historical grievances, contemporary challenges and socio-economic, political and cultural aspirations in UNDRIP has elevated the pursuit of Aboriginal priorities from localized agendas to global priorities. The United Nations, after all, has spoken. Clearly, national governments must respond.

Indigenous organizations, particularly but not exclusively in the former British colonies, have long counted on international appeals and global organizations to press their agendas. They sent emissaries (many of whom did not return due to fatal illnesses contracted in the Old World) to visit the imperial rulers. Delegations visited Kings and Queens, asking for recognition of Indigenous rights. Petitions reached London, Paris and other colonial headquarters, typically drawing attention to the need to protect Indigenous land and harvesting rights and to honour existing treaties or agreements with Aboriginal peoples. 

The pattern continued early in the 20th century. The Six Nations in Canada petitioned the League of Nations for support and recognition, with little practical impact. After World War II, Indigenous people made repeated overtures to the United Nations and routinely cited United Nations documents and declarations to support their demands for recognition, autonomy and social justice. Until the process that led to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples started in the early 1980s, these appeals were typically passed on to UN organizations concerned with minority rights, poverty or civil conflicts.  Starting in the 19th century, when assimilationist and Christian organizations concerned about the growing crises in Indigenous communities began to promote their causes, Indigenous peoples have also benefited from the attention of global organizations, including such groups as Cultural Survival International and the International Work Group of Indigenous Affairs. The global effort that led to UNDRIP, therefore, was not a new initiative, or the first effort by Indigenous peoples and their supporters to draw the attention of international organizations.  Indeed, the most locally-enriched of all peoples have long sought international, if not global, attention and support.

UNDRIP should be seen as the culmination of generations-long efforts by Indigenous organizations to get international attention, to secure recognition for their aspirations, and to generate support for their political agendas.  It should hardly be surprising that it has already started to work.  For decades, or not centuries, Aboriginal communities have fought for recognition, autonomy and self-determination.  They sought the tools – political, legal, economic and social – to achieve their primary objectives, control of traditional territories, linguistic continuity and cultural persistence.  They fought for the right to determine their own futures.

UNDRIP is resonating in Aboriginal communities in a way that few national politicians and government officials fully appreciate. The document, already largely ignored by national governments, as yet another toothless and aspirational document of the United Nations, has started to find deep traction with Aboriginal peoples.  Hundreds of Indigenous groups see themselves, their history and their futures in UNDRIP.  That their stories and dreams are shared by so many people around the world serves, in Indigenous communities, to provide both inspiration and hope that the global political system will right itself. 

In September 2013, a senior Aboriginal civil servant, working for a tribal council in Western Canada, outlined his strategy for rebuilding Indigenous education in a series of isolated northern communities. In the end, the impressive plan was comprehensive, innovative, dynamic and culturally-rooted. It was the kind of practical thinking and grand visioning needed to address the crisis in Indigenous education. 

What was most striking about a truly impressive description, however, was the first five minutes. The educational leader started with an extended discussion of UNDRIP, outlining how the document showed the global reach of racism and anti-Indigenous feeling, how Aboriginal people the world over shared a vision of local autonomy and Indigenous empowerment, and how the passage of the document meant that the world community had finally realized the full and destructive force of their occupation of Indigenous lands. For this leader, UNDRIP was an inspirational, not aspirational, document. It was an assurance that the Aboriginal perspective had been heard and that empowerment was only a matter of time. UNDRIP is having an impact, greater and more pervasive that most observers appreciate. The impact is not yet being felt by national governments, perhaps, but it is resonating powerfully with Indigenous peoples and communities.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and co-Director for the International Centre of Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan.  An expert in Indigenous-newcomer relations, rights and politics, and Aboriginal land and resource claims, he is currently contributing to collaborative research projects on East Asia-Arctic relations and the internationalization of indigenous rights.