A Subtle Revolution: What Lies Ahead for Indigenous Rights?

What lies ahead for Indigenous Rights - banner poster with Sheryl Lightfoot.jpg

Event Report by Mike Larsen

September 13, 2017 marked the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a landmark statement that continues to serve as a reference point for campaigns and social movements. Canada, along with fellow settler-colonial states Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, initially voted against the Declaration. This stance shifted in 2016, when Canada formally removed its objector status. Since the adoption of UNDRIP in 2007, many governments have expressed vocal and enthusiastic support for its principles, but this rhetoric has rarely been reflected in practice.

To coincide with the 10th anniversary of UNDRIP, SFU’s Vanity Office of Community Engagement and the UBC First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program organized a panel discussion, A Subtle Revolution: What Lies Ahead for Indigenous Rights?, that took place at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on September 13 [http://www.sfu.ca/sfuwoodwards/events/events1/2017-2018-fall/ASubtleRevolution.html]. I had the opportunity to attend this event, and the rest of this post is based on the notes that I took during the conversation.

The event opened with a presentation by Anishinaabe scholar Sheryl Lightfoot, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Rights and Politics at UBC, and the panel was loosely organized around responses to her 2016 book, Global Indigenous Politics: A Subtle Revolution [https://www.routledge.com/Global-Indigenous-Politics-A-Subtle-Revolution/Lightfoot/p/book/9781138946682] . The central questions for the panel were:

what does implementation mean and what is required of federal, provincial and local government, political and social institutions, and civil society to make the UN Declaration a reality in Canada?

Lightfoot began her talk with a reading from the first chapter of her book, which provides a narrative account of the proceedings of the UN General Assembly on the morning of September 13, 2007, when UNDRIP was adopted. The state members of the UN occupied the centre of the room, with reserved desks and engraved name plates, while the delegations of Indigenous peoples from around the world - by whom and for whom the Decleration was created - were relegated to the side galleries. Some chose to create hand-written name plates to identify their nations, tribes, and communities. The member states voted on the final draft of the UNDRIP, and while the adoption of the declaration was heralded as a victory by the Indigenous delegates, they - unlike sovereign states recognized by the UN - had no right to vote on it. This account of the spatial organization and power dynamics that characterized the adoption of UNDRIP serves as an excellent starting point for reflection on the current state of Indigenous rights and the relationship between Indigenous peoples and municipal, provincial, and federal governments. Lightfoot went on to address three main themes: (1) The UNDRIP belongs to and was created through the efforts of Indigenous Peoples. It is an imperfect document, and its implementation has certainly been lacking, but it should be recognized as an important product of grassroots organizing; (2) States have always actively and creatively resisted the declaration, even (perhaps especially) while claiming to support it; and (3) The UNDRIP must be regarded as a legal and political tool to be used.

Following the opening presentation by Sheryl Lightfoot, a distinguished panel of speakers responded to and built upon the points that she raised.

Priscilla Settee (Cumberland House Swampy Cree First Nations), Professor of Indigenous Studies and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, spoke about post-WWII Indigenous rights movements around the globe. Drawing on her own research and lived experience, she situated contemporary Indigenous rights issues and anti-colonial organizing in relation to environmental movements and intersectional feminist theory. She spoke about the inseparability of the rights of Indigenous peoples and the protection of the earth, and she illustrated this point with a range of examples. I found her commentary on the juxtaposition of resource wealth (from a capitalist perspective) and undrinkable water in many northern Canadian communities and her discussion of Indigenous food security in a time of climate change and monoculture to be particularly compelling.

Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe), Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria, spoke next, and she offered a nuanced analysis of the significance and implications of UNDRIP. She noted that while the Declaration is viewed by many Indigenous peoples and movements as being based on teachings and meanings that are constantly evolving, it is viewed by states and governments as a legalistic statement that functions to ‘freeze rights in time’. Rachel Yacaaʔał George (Nuu-chah-nulth from Ahousaht First Nation) and PhD Candidate at the University of Victoria, continued the discussion by offering an excellent analysis of UNDRIP and Indigenous Rights movements in a context of neoliberalism. She offered a withering critique of recent statements by Canadian government officials that expressed symbolic and rhetorical support for UNDRIP and Indigenous Rights without providing meaningful commitments to action.

The final speaker for the event was Grand Chief Stewart Phillip (Okanagan Nation), President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. Before he spoke, Grand Chief Phillip asked a representative of the UBCIC to read from a prepared statement: “10th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Canada needs a legislative framework to fulfill the promise of this vital human rights instrument” [http://www.ubcic.bc.ca/10yr_undeclaration].

From the statement:

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a crucial framework to achieve reconciliation. Such a human rights-­‐based approach is essential to address the racism and discrimination that has caused such profound harm to Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world.  Violations include uprooting Indigenous peoples from their territories and resources, failure to honour Treaties, tearing Indigenous children from their families, and making Indigenous women, girls and two-­‐ spirited people the targets of unimaginable violence.


By approaching implementation of the Declaration through a legislative framework, there is greater assurance that crucial progress made will not be undone by a future government. Our organizations and Nations call on the federal government to embrace and build on the key elements of implementation already set out in Bill C-­‐262.

We appreciate that full implementation of the Declaration requires long-­‐term commitment and collaboration. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission repeatedly reminded us, “reconciliation is going to take hard work.”

This is the time to act. Public responses to the TRC’s Calls to Action demonstrate a profound desire among Canadians to build a just relationship between Indigenous peoples and non-­‐Indigenous Canadians. As the TRC itself stated, the Declaration provides the framework for doing so. However, putting this framework into place requires more than fine words. It requires concrete, effective action. 

Following this, Grand Chief Phillip spoke about his involvement in decades of Indigenous Rights movements, from the Red Power movement in the 1970s through to Idle No More. He described the contemporary context as being characterized by “the illusion of compliance”, masking “business as usual”. On this point, he noted that in many ways he preferred dealing with the overt racism and intransigence of the Harper government, rather than the current lip service and media-savvy equivocation of the Trudeau government (sweeping and eloquent speeches in support of Indigenous peoples coupled with formal approval for pipelines and extractive projects). He spoke passionately about the ongoing reality of genocide in Indigenous communities and the importance of understanding the global nature of current struggles. He emphasized the connections between Indigenous rights and the land - a thread that ran through all of the panel presentations. The residential school system sought to sever the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land, and contemporary struggles - in Burnaby, Standing Rock, and around the world - are intimately connected to the defence of land, water, and the natural world in the face of privatization, extraction, and the forces of capitalist violence. Finally, he expressed his belief that meaningful implementation of the promising parts of UNDRIP will not come from the top down, and that it is pointless to wait for governments and leaders to take action. Meaningful change, he argued, can and will come - as it always has - from diverse grassroots movements. To this end, he concluded the panel by encouraging everyone attendance to get involved and to show solidarity by marching and standing together.

Following the panel, the speakers and audience members repaired to the SFU Woodwards foyer to continue the discussion. I was impressed by the interdisciplinary nature of the academic portion of the audience: theatre and film studies, Indigenous studies, gender studies, sociology, political science, international relations, journalism, etc. (I was the lone criminologist …). A number of posters announced planned future events at the Woodward’s venue, and I encourage SJC members and readers to check them out: http://www.sfu.ca/sfuwoodwards/events.html .

- Mike Larsen