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Teaching Canadian History After the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) II

Published on March 9, 2020

By Allyson Stevenson[1]


A Structure, not an Event.

Settler colonialism in Canada, like elsewhere, is a structure; it is not an event.[2] It lives on today in manifestations of overt violence against Indigenous peoples, lifeways and lands, in the neglectful treatment of Indigenous rights, and the withholding of necessities of life. As we continue to reclaim our own stories, ways of governing, and expressing Indigenous sovereignty we will need new stories to understand our shared past that accounts in a meaningful way for Canada as it is—not as some might wish it to be.

In fact, this rethinking is imperative and forms the basis for reconciliation moving forward. As a profession, historians must reflect on the historically-specific meaning and significance of TRC Call to Action 43 under Reconciliation that states: “We call on federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.”[3] Understanding the international forces that drove mercantilism, colonization, and Confederation and diverse Indigenous resistances, responses and accommodations provides an important context for moving forward by situating UNDRIP and the struggle for Indigenous rights in both a global, and Canada-specific context.

Understanding UNDRIP and what it means for the restructuring of the relationship between Indigenous and settler society is why I chose my current department. UNDRIP rejects the premise of colonialism and settler colonialism. The preamble lays out the underlying historic challenges faced by Indigenous peoples since initial contact while identifying, and then overturning, ideologies of conquest:

Affirming further all doctrines, policies and practices based on advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust,

Reaffirming that indigenous peoples, in the exercise of their rights, should be free from discrimination of any kind,

Concerned that indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests,

Recognizing the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic, and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to lands territories and resources,

Recognizing also the urgent need to respect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples affirmed in treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements with States …[4]

UNDRIP, adopted by the United Nations on September 13, 2007 “constitutes the minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of indigenous peoples of the world.” (Article 43)[5] It places the responsibility on states and their citizens to respect, affirm, acknowledge and adhere to the principles of laid out in UNDRIP that enables Indigenous peoples as non-state peoples to right to exist as Indigenous. This is so not only when it is expedient or comfortable. Political scientists, legal scholars and others are grappling with the substantive questions that have arisen in the age of reconciliation and the adoption of UNDRIP.[6] It is incumbent upon historians to find teaching approaches that situate Indigenous peoples, rights, and presence in these territories as fundamental to all topics and areas of Canadian history. Most importantly, historians need to understand that Indigenous peoples are here whether or not they understand that history and will continue to resist dehumanization in the struggle for justice.

So to return to the story at the beginning.

One can only understand the resistance to George Elliot Clarke if one understands the Justice for Stolen Children Camp. If one understands the Colton Boushie murder. If one understands the Tina Fontaine travesty. If one understands the Pamela George murder. If one understands the murder of Leo LaChance (to highlight only some of the most high-profile examples of injustice on the Prairies.)   What each one of these cases speaks to more broadly is the persistent dehumanization of Indigenous peoples, and the dehumanizing conditions many Indigenous peoples navigate on the Prairies specifically. Tasha Hubbard’s award-winning documentary nîpawistamâsowin: We Will stand up (2019) connects the history of racism and the dehumanization of Indigenous peoples on the Prairies that fuels the injustices we see today.

Plains Cree/Metis scholar Cree-Métis scholar Emma LaRocque argues that “The dehumanization has been effectively advanced through what I have come to call the civ/sav dichotomy which provides the framework for ‘interpreting’ White and Native encounters.” [7] The vestige of this ideological (de)formation continues to permeate Indigenous-settler relations in 2020. We don’t have to look too deep into our historiographical past to identify its origins and proponents.  UNDRIP acknowledges the ideological, material, and spiritual legacies of the colonial past, but through the collective efforts of the word’s indigenous peoples captures the necessary conditions for envisioning a different future.

[1] I would like to thank the CHA teaching committee Jo McCutcheon, Danielle Kinsey and Carly Ciufo for their encouragement and helpful feedback in preparing this piece.
[2] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native: Journal of Genocide Research (2006), 8(4), 390.
[3] TRC Calls to Action, 43, 4.
[4] UNDRIP 1-2.
[5]Sheryl Lightfoot, Global Indigenous Politics: A Subtle Revolution.  Routledge, 2018.
[6] Eds Michael Asch, John Borrows, and James Tully, Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relations and Earth Teachings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018 and John Borrows, Larry N Chartrand, Oonagh E Fitzgerald and Risa Schwartz, Braiding Legal Orders: Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Waterloo, ON, Canada: Centre for International Governance Innovation 2019.
[7] Emma LaRocque, “Native Writers Resisting Colonizing Practices in Canadian Historiography and Literature.” (PhD Diss., University of Manitoba, 1999) 80.