UNDRIP: When a Country Doesn't Care

The "Walk the Talk" teaching held this past June at Hope Mennonite Church. The host was Steve Heinrichs (left). The guests (from left to right): Romeo Saganash, Leah Gazan, Wab Kinew, and Kathleen Vitt.

The "Walk the Talk" teaching held this past June at Hope Mennonite Church. The host was Steve Heinrichs (left). The guests (from left to right): Romeo Saganash, Leah Gazan, Wab Kinew, and Kathleen Vitt.

Over the past 6 years, I’ve learned more about our Canadian history and the relationship between settler and Indigenous people than I ever wanted to know. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. Why? Because after knowing, I have no choice but to do something about it.

I’ve been blessed to walk with people and groups who’ve taught me so much about reconciliation, forgiveness, justice, and friendship. From engagements in Ottawa at the closing session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to Winnipeg’s relationship with Shoal Lake 40 First Nation (the source of Winnipeg’s water supply), to our church’s relationship with the community of Cross Lake. I’ve been stretched and challenged, and I know I’ve grown.

Seeing myself as a “treaty person” was a foreign concept to me 6 years ago. But after learning that treaties implicate all people who live in Canada, I now know that the privileges I enjoy are because of that history. The reason I can be on this land is because of the treaties that this country was built on. Not all of them are ancient, some have only been developed in the last 30 years. These covenants outline the relationship of all people in Canada.

With all the good things that have been going on, with all the progress in reconciliation we have started to see, I have for the first time felt something that so many Indigenous people and allies have felt: disappointment. 

Until now I’ve always had hope, seeing what can happen when people join their voices for change. But recently my hope has been washing away, as it has for many generations of Indigenous people who realized they are wards of Canada under the Indian Act.

I feel like the grandson of Stuart Redsky, who after walking from Shoal Lake to Winnipeg to inform people that they don’t have clean drinking water, told his grandfather “We walked for nothing.” 

It’s not that I’ve lost all hope, but I have come to realize just how little our country cares about reconciliation. We talk a good talk, but we don’t walk the walk. I hate to say it, but when it comes down to it most people just don’t care about the cultural genocide which has happened in this country. The laws and institutions put in place to keep Indigenous people down and the third world conditions that many Indigenous people live in seem to not matter to most Canadians. When they hear that another Indigenous woman went missing, or another 12 year old kid took their own life, they just go on with their day, not realizing that these are systemic issues.

I’ve felt like this for a few months until I went to an event called “Walk the Talk” in Winnipeg this June. The guest speakers were Leah Gazan, Romeo Saganash, Wab Kinew, and Kathleen Vitt. Two are politicians, one is a university professor, and the other works with at-risk youth. Two of the speakers walked on the 600km Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights.

The focus of the teaching was the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a declaration adopted by the UN in 2007. Canada was one of the four countries to vote against it and still hasn’t taken the steps to implement it in our own systems.

One of the calls to action of the TRC is for Canada to use UNDRIP as “the framework for reconciliation” (Call 43). But even with apologies from our government and promises to work together, there has been little decisive action to implement changes. This is a battle that has been waging for over thirty years. Romeo Saganash, a member of parliament, was part of the UN committee that created UNDRIP and recently proposed a private member’s bill (C-262) that would see the TRC call to action fulfilled.

As the speakers at “Walk the Talk” discussed this bill and UNDRIP, I saw the importance of Canada implementing it. If anything, this document speaks to the basic human rights that anyone should enjoy. However, Indigenous people have often been treated as less than human and have not enjoyed the same rights that we do. This declaration provides a basic structure that protects language and culture, freedom from discrimination, and the right to self-determination (among other things).

As they spoke, I kept thinking about my own feelings and my lack of hope. I kept thinking that even if we do adopt UNDRIP, most Canadians will still not care. So I asked them. I wanted to know what difference they thought it could make. We can’t legislate people to care for something they don’t. So why all the trouble?

Leah took on my question and answered in a way I didn’t expect. She said I was right. It’s probable that most Canadians don’t know about UNDRIP or Bill C-262, and that most people don’t care about Indigenous rights in the first place. UNDRIP does not help people care. Only education and experience can do that. What UNDRIP does, she said, is create a safety net for Indigenous people precisely because most people don’t care.

In other words, Romeo spent 30 years working on UNDRIP, Kathleen and Leah walked from Kitchener/Waterloo to Ottawa, and Wab entered politics, because legislative changes make the difference when people’s apathy lead to harm and destruction. The power of these changes assures basic rights from the legal perspective when simple good will, or Christian love, isn’t present. That’s why they continue even though people don’t care. It’s not to change people’s attitudes (although that is a hope), it’s to change a country’s actions. 

Slavery didn’t end in America because most slave owners changed their attitudes. It ended because small groups of people stood up to make powerful changes that saw the protection of African Americans even when most people couldn’t care less. 

In that teaching I caught a spark of hope once again, a reason to keep going. My role may be a small one, but my voice, with thousands of others, can make real change in our efforts for reconciliation. Even when it seems like most people are on a different page, don’t give up hope fighting for human rights. Don’t stop spreading the love of our Creator. Don’t feel like you don’t matter in the sea of apathy. Your voice could make all the difference.

After I finished writing this blog, my uncle sent me this article. How much more of this until we really start to care enough to make changes?