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Recognition of Indigenous Rights at the CMHR

Friday, June 19, 2015

At the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) we tell the stories of human rights. For National Aboriginal Day, a day of celebration and recognition, I would like to discuss three different categories of Indigenous rights: original, Aboriginal and Treaty rights and those protected internationally, with reference to ways the Museum’s content highlights each area.

Indigenous rights mean many things. Indigenous peoples have rights that they have practiced long before Europeans came to Turtle Island (what is now known as North America). Some call these the original rights, though they can have other names. These rights are diverse and differ across the various and distinct Indigenous nations on Turtle Island. These are rights that concern economies, politics, and society and can be encoded (or held or written) in various forms. In the Museum, these rights are looked at in the “Indigenous Perspectives” gallery through rights connections to land; there are also many other ways in which these rights are held and expressed, including  oral history, ceremony, relationships, and so on.

There are many instances that these pre-existing rights have been recognized by Euro-Canadian laws. For example, the gallery “Protecting Rights in Canada” includes the Royal Proclamation, 1763 and Treaty One (1871). Both of these documents recognize the sovereignty (or nationhood) and lands of the Indigenous nations that these accords were made with. In fact, the Museum sits on Treaty One lands; Treaty One is a legal relationship between several First Nations and the Crown. 

Other types of Indigenous rights include those Aboriginal and Treaty rights in section 35.1 of the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982, which states: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.” This recognition in the Canadian constitution was the direct result of the efforts of Indigenous peoples in a political climate that had long suppressed these rights. This struggle is an integral part of the Canadian human rights story, which includes both violations and efforts to mobilize and entrench rights, and this is told in the introductory film to the “Canadian Journeys” gallery.

Still another set of Indigenous rights are those protected by international covenants, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which is explored in the gallery “Turning Points for Humanity.” UNDRIP demonstrates that while some Indigenous rights are protected by laws, others do remain unprotected or unenforced. One example can be found in the story “A school for Attawapiskat” in the Canadian Journeys gallery. This story explores Shannen Koostachin’s struggle for the equal right to education in First Nations communities, that same right which is afforded to all Canadians. 

Indigenous rights can mean different things to different people. These rights exist in Indigenous-centred laws and also as recognized by the Canadian state. These rights are distinct, collective, inherent, pre-existing, and bound by laws. These examples are just a handful of the many stories of Indigenous rights told at the CMHR, and in turn these stories told at the CMHR are also just some of the examples of the lived experiences of violations of rights and efforts of mobilization that are lived each day by Indigenous peoples across Canada.