Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights

UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Credit: Norway Delegation.
CFSC (Quakers) Indigenous Rights Icon Small

The oppression and injustices that Indigenous peoples face are not just historical, but ongoing. All settlers in Canada are responsible for doing what we can to right these wrongs.

Quakers have been concerned about the dispossession of Indigenous peoples for centuries, and the conflict in 1974 between the Ojibway people and the police and colonial powers near Kenora, Ontario, cemented Canadian Friends Service Committee’s commitment to ongoing work for justice for Indigenous peoples.

These events prompted Friends to be present and to hear firsthand the long-standing grievances concerning land rights, housing, medical care, education, Indigenous spirituality, and child welfare in Kenora, and elsewhere.

Since that time, CFSC has used the Quaker tradition of ‘quiet diplomacy’ to become a fixture in domestic and international work to recognize, promote, and protect the human rights of Indigenous peoples.

Our Approach

Through careful consideration and consultation with Indigenous partners, CFSC focuses our work on two areas: implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and promoting and learning from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

We work in these areas by:

  1. Working with Indigenous partners to educate ourselves and the wider Canadian society on the concerns of Indigenous peoples, and to stimulate active participation in supporting those concerns;
  1. Providing small grants from our Reconciliation Fund to grassroots Indigenous groups working for self-empowerment;
  1. Supporting Indigenous peoples in their efforts to have their human rights recognized. This includes:
  1. Engaging in dialogue with governments, corporations, and international organizations such as the United Nations;
  1. Cooperating with coalitions engaged in the work of securing Indigenous peoples’ individual and collective human rights.

International Indigenous rights forums

UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP)

Established in 2007, the Expert Mechanism exists to provide the UN’s Human Rights Council with expertise on the rights of Indigenous peoples. EMRIP consists of seven independent experts. CFSC attends the meetings of EMRIP as one of the key international forums where we can support the advancement of Indigenous peoples’ human rights. EMRIP has a standing agenda item on the implementation of the UN Declaration.


UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

The Permanent Forum is an advisory body with the mandate to:

  • Provide expert advice and recommendations on Indigenous issues to programs, funds, and agencies of the United Nations,
  • Raise awareness and promote the integration and coordination of activities related to Indigenous issues within the UN system, and
  • Prepare and disseminate information on Indigenous issues.

CFSC has attended the Forum since its inception in 2002 and works with partners to raise issues of concern, particularly as related to the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and human rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada.


UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In 2001, the UN created the position of UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to:

“Examine ways and means of overcoming existing obstacles to the full and effective protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous people…”

The Special Rapporteur also works in close cooperation with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. CFSC follows the work of the Special Rapporteur and, as appropriate, engages with him/her.


Universal Periodic Review

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was created in 2006 as a cooperative process that reviews the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States once every four years. The UPR provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they’ve taken to fulfill their human rights obligations.

CFSC works with partners to make joint submissions to the UPR on Canada’s performance on Indigenous peoples’ human rights.


UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is the committee of independent experts that oversees the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the UN adopted in 1965.

CFSC has supported Indigenous partners with participation in sessions of CERD, in the review of Canada’s compliance with the Convention. Canada has a legal obligation to ensure that the Convention is implemented.


Historic work

Tsilhqot’in Nation’s title case

Protest in support of Tsilhqot’in Nation on the steps of the BC Legislature
People show support for Tsilhqot’in Nation on the steps of the BC Legislature. Photo credit Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.

What is at stake is nothing less than justice for the Aboriginal group and its descendants, and the reconciliation between the group and broader society.”

—Court’s statement

In an unanimous decision delivered June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the right of the Tsilhqot’in people to own, control and enjoy the benefits of approximately 2,000 square kilometres of land at the heart of their traditional territory in central British Columbia.

Amnesty International and Canadian Friends Service Committee had made formal interventions in the Tsilhqot’in title case to encourage the Court to adopt an approach to Indigenous land rights that would be consistent with international human rights standards, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In its decision, the Court advised, “Governments and individuals proposing to use or exploit land, whether before or after a declaration of Aboriginal title, can avoid a charge of infringement or failure to adequately consult by obtaining the consent of the interested Aboriginal group.”
Read Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia in plain language. This document explains: Why did the Tsilhqot’in have to go to court? What did the lower courts say before the case reached the Supreme Court of Canada? What did the Supreme Court decide? What are some of the problems with the Supreme Court of Canada decision? Why is the decision important for the Tsilhqot’in people and all Indigenous peoples?

Grassy Narrows River Run at Provincial Legislature building in Toronto, 2019.

Grassy Narrows

Concerns about mercury poisoning affecting the Ojibway communities of Grassy Narrows and White Dog in Ontario in 1974 galvanized Canadian Friends. The Grassy Narrows community continues to seek justice for their mercury poisoning as well as unauthorized development on their traditional territory

For many years CFSC has joined many organizations in urging the government of Ontario, forestry companies, and other corporations to respect international human rights standards that require the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples for decisions that affect their land and resource rights.


Impacts of industrial projects on women and children

CFSC is deeply concerned by the impacts of resource development projects on many aspects of Indigenous peoples’ human rights. We recommend reading this study, looking at what happens in remote Indigenous communities when industrial camps are set up. Findings include increased rates of sexual assault, addictions, sexually transmitted infections, and family violence. The study was initiated by Lake Babine First Nation with the Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation.


Doctrine of discovery

The doctrine of discovery comes from a series of Papal Bulls (formal charters from the Pope) and extensions, originating in the 1400s. These were used as legal and moral justification for colonial powers to dispossess sovereign Indigenous nations during the European “Age of Discovery.” Christian explorers claimed lands that they “discovered” for their Christian monarchs, who could exploit those lands, regardless of the original inhabitants.

The doctrine is racist. It is based on the notion of the racial superiority of European and Christian peoples and individuals. This false belief has been used to dehumanize Indigenous peoples, and to exploit, subjugate, and dispossess them of their most basic rights. This ideology has led to practices that continue through modern day laws and policies in Canada.

The doctrine of discovery is still used in interpretations of law by Canadian courts in modern times (in 2012 the BC Court of Appeal referenced the doctrine of discovery while interpreting their decision in Tsilhqot’in. The decision was later unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada).

The Supreme Court stated in its decision, “The doctrine of terra nullius (that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty) never applied in Canada, as confirmed by the Royal Proclamation (1763).”

Many faith-based groups are examining discovery and repudiating it. The World Council of Churches has done so. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has called on all faith bodies to repudiate the concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples.

When Friends met at Canadian Yearly Meeting in 2013, we were in deep and immediate unity that the doctrine of discovery must be repudiated by Quakers as a religious community, as well as by the government of Canada.

Read the full statement from Canadian Yearly Meeting, prepared by Canadian Friends Service Committee. You can also read further background materials about the doctrine of discovery.

For simple and easy-to-share information about this important issue download Frequently Asked Questions about the Doctrine of Discovery (PDF).

CFSC produced the following video of a panel discussion we participated in at the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada