Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives to the Crown First Nations Gathering with Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick).
Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives to the Crown First Nations Gathering with Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick).

In 1974, Canadian First Nations leader George Manuel (1921-1989) published The Fourth World, a searing indictment of the mistreatment of marginalized Indigenous and state-less peoples around the world. This powerful work, by the leader of the National Indian Brotherhood (predecessor of the Assembly of First Nations) in Canada, laid the intellectual foundations for the establishment of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in 1975. Manuel and his Indigenous colleagues from countries around the world brought a radically different perspective to international politics, one based on the shared experience of colonization, the often brutal suppression of Indigenous cultures, and a passionate determination to assert control over their future.

In 2012, it is easy to forget how marginalized Indigenous peoples were globally only forty years ago. In many democratic nations (e.g.,Canada, 1969), Indigenous residents had only recently secured the right to vote. Paternalistic governments, certain of their cultural, political and economic superiority, worked to undermine traditional economies, to draw Indigenous people into settlements (reserves) and to educate Indigenous youth in the ways of the “modern” world, including the now infamous Indian residential schools. In non-democratic nations, and in many quarters of the newly liberated, developing world, Indigenous peoples had difficulty gaining any attention for their needs and aspirations. The culture of progress that dominated the post-World War II era had little place for peoples who seemed locked into ancient traditions, non-economic life-ways, and social distance from the dominant society. 

Under these conditions, which obtained in many countries regardless of political ideology and government structure, Indigenous peoples experienced the full weight of discrimination, hostility and paternalism globally. Some peoples fought for the most basic levels of recognition, as in Japan where government refused for decades to acknowledge the Ainu as a distinct culture. Others wrestled with manipulative government programs that stripped them of their land and access to resources. Some faced truly brutal attacks, fleeing traditional territories in a struggle to stay alive. In many countries, a dark depression settled over Indigenous cultures, creating an unfavourable social pathology marked by language loss, cultural decline, unemployment and poverty and the related perils of cultural alienation, addiction, domestic violence, suicide, and incarceration. 

George Manuel’s message – of a common Indigenous identity and global connections – emerged at a fortuitous time. Indigenous leaders, many battling personal oppression in their own countries, started to work collaboratively to draw public, government and international government attention to the plight of their communities. Thus, started the long battle for recognition of human rights and cultural uniqueness at the national level and an equally difficult struggle for international recognition of the collective rights of Indigenous peoples. In some countries – Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the Scandinavian nations – liberal democratic values resulted in sizeable investments in Indigenous affairs and programs, even if core inequalities remained substantially untouched. In many other places, particularly in Latin America, South East Asia, South Asia and Africa, Indigenous people fought for mere recognition and for the most basic of rights and freedoms. In each instance, Indigenous groups discovered that finding common cause with other Indigenous peoples, and attracting international attention to their situation, brought greater government attention (albeit not always positive). Slowly, and largely through Indigenous groups working together and with the support of international aid, development and advocacy groups, the Fourth World movement gathered strength and authority.

It is here that we find ourselves in 2012. Indigenous peoples have a significant international presence.  They have the ear of global organizations, like the United Nations, and are attracting increasing amounts of financial assistance from international financial institutions. National governments know that they are being watched – and critiqued – by global Indigenous organizations and their supporters. A new body of national and international law is emerging that provides greater protection for Indigenous peoples with acknowledgement of collective rights to territories, resources, and cultural practices giving due recognition to the rights of self-determination and self-government. 

Much remains to be done, of course. Through this blog and through our connections with Indigenous groups in various countries, the Internationalization of Indigenous Rights and Governance group at CIGI will seek to document, support and understand the nature and authority of Indigenous internationalism. 

The story of Indigenous protest and activism is filled with tales of sorrow and accomplishment, struggle and cooperation, devastating cultural loss and impressive cultural renaissance. It is clear, however, that international engagement, largely through legal, political, cultural and social relationships, has strengthened and united Indigenous groups the world over. For peoples long known for their attachment to traditional territories and cut-off for generations from contact with other Indigenous cultures and nations, the development of Indigenous internationalism has provided hope, models for action, and visions of a better future. 

Indigenous peoples have a great deal to contribute to the nations within which they live and to the evolution of domestic and international governance in the 21st century. It will be our privilege to work with Indigenous leaders, organizations, academic and supporters to share the ongoing story of this remarkable political process and the realization of George Manuel’s vision of — the rise of the fourth world.

The development of Indigenous internationalism has provided hope, models for action, and visions of a better future.
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.

  • Terry Mitchell is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Indigenous Health and Social Justice Research Group at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on the impacts of colonial trauma, Aboriginal rights and governance issues. Terry is currently leading a collaborative research project on the internationalization of indigenous rights.