A Critical Plan with its share of Criticisms: Canada’s UNDRIP Implementation Action Plan

Yesterday, June 21, 2023 – Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Canada tabled its United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act Action Plan. The Action Plan is intended to provide a framework for implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the “UN Declaration”) and was developed in “consultation and cooperation” with Indigenous peoples.

What’s in the Action Plan?

The Action Plan sets out “measures” to address injustices, promote respect, and provide accountability for implementing the UN Declaration. This is what the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (the “Act”) requires the Action Plan to do. Despite its name, the Action Plan contains few specific and measurable commitments. Much of the text commits the government to do things it is already doing. There are also skewed imbalances: for example, the Action Plan contains a chapter dedicated to modern treaty priorities, however, only contains two measures relevant to upholding historic treaty priorities. We highlight a few measures here, acknowledging that there are 181 total measures reflecting different Indigenous partners’ priorities and submissions.

Commitments to continue actions Canada is already doing

As mentioned, the Action Plan contains numerous measures committing Canada to actions the government is already taking, including:

  • Co-develop a comprehensive approach to combat anti-Indigenous racism in support of Canada’s new Anti-Racism Strategy (Chapter 1, Measure 4). This is an improvement upon earlier drafts that simply said “continuing to implement the anti-racism strategy” without any new perspective.
  • Continue to implement the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families which affirms the inherent right of self-government, including jurisdiction in relation to child and family services, and sets minimum standards in relation to the delivery of culturally appropriate and Indigenous led services with the aim to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care and ensure they remain connected to their families, communities and culture. (Chapter 1, measure 29). This references federal law in place since 2019.
  • Continue to address issues related to the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system (Chapter 1, Measure 60 and 61). These measures feature multiple bullet points about things that the government will continue to do.
  • Continue work underway with First Nations partners on a new fiscal relationship to provide sufficient, predictable, and flexible funding (Chapter 2, Measure 1). This references a process that began in 2016.
  • Continue to reform the specific claims tribunal program (Chapter 2, Measure 3)
  • Continue to support lifting of short and long-term drinking water advisories in First Nation communities (Chapter 2, Measure 16). This is of course a campaign promise that remains unfulfilled. The Trudeau government has been talking about lifting drinking water advisories since 2015, yet 28 remain in place as of the date this blog was published.

These are hardly transformative, precedent-setting moves.

Non-measurable measures

The government also makes many laudable, but general and vague commitments, which will be difficult to gauge progress on in the coming months and years without further specifics attached, including the following excerpts:

  • Pursue amendments and reforms to fisheries legislation, regulation and policies to support self-determination (Chapter 1, Measure 36)
  • Modernize the Canada Water Act to reflect Canada’s freshwater reality, including climate change and Indigenous rights (Chapter 2, Measure 49)
  • Fully implement Joyce’s principle (Chapter 1, Measure 6)

How will the government achieve these goals? By when? What reforms would they implement and by what mechanisms? What specifically do they mean by Joyce’s Principle, there is no defining document or plan, and are they committing to eliminate Indigenous-specific healthcare discrimination? How and with whom?

Where is the accountability?

The government commits to establishing an independent Indigenous rights monitoring, oversight, recourse or remedy mechanism or mechanisms. This measure has the potential to be quite transformative, however, lacks the detail required to address the urgent need for justice respecting historic and ongoing Crown breaches of Indigenous and treaty rights. However, no measures in the Action Plan expressly engage treaty breaches or other disputes with respect to Indigenous rights, which would be required to actually implement articles 27 and 37 of the UN Declaration.

Land back, restitution, and other title and rights priorities may have been discussed in a process appropriately convened by Canada over the last two years, but Indigenous governments did not have a willing partner to create an action plan measure that would have been as central to the future relationship of Indigenous Peoples and Canadians.

Developing this Action Plan

Canada released a draft action plan on March 20, 2023, and made several changes to the final version, including:

  • Adding a fifth chapter, “Modern Treaty Partner Priorities”, that changes the existing structure of the document, which had been based on the legal distinction of Canada’s three groups of Indigenous peoples: First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.
  • Adding more language linking this Action Plan to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and existing plans to end violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQIA+ people.
  • At some measures, improving language supporting implementation. For example, adding a measure forming an Action Plan Advisory Committee for implementation (Chapter 1, Measure 22).
  • At some measures, reducing accountability and removing timelines to have things done. For example, removing “by June 2024” as a timeline to provide educational materials at Chapter 1, Measure #18.

Reception from Indigenous Peoples

With the final version of the Action Plan just released, we await the perspectives of Indigenous peoples from sea to sea to sea. We will work to amplify their voices as they share their opinions and provide their feedback, including in this blog series.

So far, there is widespread criticism of the consultation with Indigenous Peoples. As earlier drafts were released and the timeline crystalized, the Assembly of First Nations called for more time to consult on the draft Action Plan before it was tabled. Last week, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples said that it has been excluded from the consultation process. On June 21, 2023, Alberta Treaty First Nations Chiefs held a joint press conference to say they were not consulted.

What we know about the “Implementation Phase”

Canada has committed to publicly reporting on progress implementing the Action Plan in an annual report to Parliament (Chapter 1, Measure 20). Canada has stated that all submissions it receives from Indigenous partners will “inform the next phase of our implementation work together”. Canada describes its Action Plan as an “evergreen roadmap” which can be renewed and updated throughout the implementation process. Canada has stated it will “co-develop and implement a process to review and update the plan every five years, and a process for making amendments to the action plan” (Chapter 1, Measure 21). As such, the Action Plan is expected to be reviewed and amended from time to time, although Canada has not committed to any particular way in which this review will occur, or how it will involve Indigenous partners.

Stay tuned to the JFK blog as we release more in-depth blog posts about specific topics addressed in the Action Plan, including:

  • Action Plan and Treaties
  • Action Plan and Free, Prior, and Informed Consent
  • Action Plan and Addressing Socio-economic and/or Services Gaps
  • Action Plan and Dispute Resolution, Accountability, Monitoring