New report details B.C.’s progress in implementing objectives of UN Indigenous rights declaration

By Ian Burns

Law360 Canada (July 10, 2023, 1:12 PM EDT) -- British Columbia has released a report which provides detailed information about progress achieved on implementing the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which follows up on a detailed action plan which was revealed last year.

In 2019, the province unanimously passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (Declaration Act), making the province the first jurisdiction in Canada to have passed legislation to formally adopt the internationally recognized standards of UNDRIP. The Act mandates government to bring provincial laws into alignment with UNDRIP, which defines the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, including ownership rights to cultural and ceremonial expression, identity and language, and to develop and implement an action plan to achieve its objectives in consultation and co-operation with Indigenous peoples.

The province followed up on its commitment last year with the Declaration Act Action Plan, which outlines 89 action items in the areas of self-determination and self-government, rights and title, ending anti-Indigenous racism, and enhancing social, cultural and economic well-being for Indigenous peoples.

And in the recently released 2022-23 Declaration Act annual report the province says that 32 actions out of the 89 are completed or underway, in areas such as developing a new distinctions-based fiscal relationship and framework that supports the operation of Indigenous governments, modernized emergency management legislation and issuing guidelines on civil litigation which involves the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Murray Rankin, minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation

Murray Rankin, minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation

“We were the first government in Canada to release an action plan dedicated to implementing [UNDRIP],” said Murray Rankin, B.C.’s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation. “It’s been one year since the launch of the Declaration Act Action Plan, and this annual report will be the first to begin detailing progress about the 89 specific actions to be taken over the five years of the plan.”

The annual report also details other legislative achievements over the past year, such as passage of the Health Professions and Occupations Act, which hardwires anti-discrimination measures, restorative processes and trauma-informed practices directly into health profession legislation, and the Indigenous Self-Government in Child and Family Services Amendment Act, which is aimed at moving the child welfare system in B.C. toward a multijurisdictional model that promotes prevention supports while respecting and facilitating connections to communities and culture.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), said the work done to implement UNDRIP is a “testament to the strength in collaboration between the provincial government and First Nations.”

“This approach, necessarily grounded in consultation, collaboration and free, prior and informed consent with respect to decision-making and governance, is a groundbreaking model due to the history of systemic racism and injustice in B.C. and beyond,” he said. “Despite the work that still needs to be done, the annual report and redesigned website demonstrates a clear understanding of the progress being made by all parties involved.”

Kate Gunn, a partner with First Peoples Law in Vancouver, said there is “cautious optimism” in the communities she works with about the progress which has been made on the Declaration Act.

“There has been a genuine will to make change, which is positive,” she said. “And also, there is the recognition that there are many layers of complexity in terms of arriving at solutions that bring the existing provincial laws into harmony with the principles of the declaration.”

But Gunn also said there is a perception that the report “doesn’t have as much specificity as I think many had hoped for, particularly in terms of the specific steps that need to be taken in order to align laws with those UNDRIP principles.”

“For a lot of the First Nations and Indigenous groups that we work with, a really important part of that is moving beyond implicit concepts that are still part of our provincial legislation and jurisprudence around doctrine of discovery and assertion of Crown sovereignty,” she said. “And the report shows that there have been some changes, but really at a lot of that hard work is around revisiting the underlying basis on which the province continues to exercise control over lands and resources — and there is not a lot in the report which speaks to what is being done to address that.”

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