The Interplay of the National and International in Indigenous Affairs

November 5, 2012

A decade ago, a group of First Nations leaders from Canada traveled to Siberia to meet with Indigenous groups in the former Soviet Union. Squalid living conditions, limited health and education facilities and widespread poverty, combined with little respect for Indigenous rights, dismayed the Canadian visitors. At the end of the tour, responding to a journalist's question, one First Leader reportedly said, "I will never complain about the Canadian government again."

He did not keep the promise. Upon return to Canada, the reality of Aboriginal poverty, legal powerlessness and community despair immediately reminded him of the importance of continuing to pressure the Government of Canada. The Russian reality, sad and disappointing as it was, was not allowed to define Indigenous activism in Canada.

In the late 1990s, an international meeting on Indigenous rights was held in Canada. A First Nations leader gave an impassioned speech outlining why his group has walked away from a near-settlement of their land claim. The offer of tens of millions of dollars, limited self-government rights and a small portion of traditional territories was nothing less than insulting. A South American leader, speaking through an interpreter, responded, but as the First Nations speaker did not put in his earphone he did not follow the international visitor's comments.

The South American could not comprehend the First Nations' position, he said.  In his country, they faced police brutality, imprisonment of leaders and interference with economic activities. They could not imagine an offer anywhere near as extensive as what the First Nations had rejected. The two Indigenous leaders clearly passed in the dark, inhabiting very different political spaces and having difficulty comprehending the other's reality.

These two stories speak to one of the fundamental elements in Indigenous internationalism: the challenges of bridging the frequent gap between domestic and international situations. Aboriginal peoples are culturally rooted in their traditional territories, defined by themselves and others by their relationship to the land. Global outreach appears, superficially, to be the antithesis of local mobilization to overcome marginalization, poverty and discrimination.

It is not, of course, as opposite as this suggests.  Indigenous internationalism has been crucial in creating common cause; in building practical, cultural and emotional ties between Indigenous communities; in laying the foundation for practical application; and in providing political and legal models to support local action. International organizations, like the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, provide a crucial outlet for local and regional frustration. Indigenous groups blocked by local governments have capitalized on global interest and attention. This has been much more influential in democratic nations; Canada and Australia care much more about their global reputations than do Nigeria or Indonesia.

The interplay of Indigenous mobilization and global affairs has been hugely influential in shaping Aboriginal rights. The seeming contradiction between Aboriginal localism and Indigenous globalization is not a contradiction at all. Internationalism has given Aboriginal people a stronger voice, a broader canvas and great support for their causes.

The UNDRIP is not the end of the process.  It is, instead, only the early foundation for great action and engagement.

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.

About the Author

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.