The UN Declaration has shaped my life for 25 years

CFSC staff have a book club. Recently we finished reading and discussing Realizing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Triumph, Hope, and Action. I co-edited this book with CFSC associate, and long-time legal counsel with the Cree Nation Government/Grand Council of the Crees, Paul Joffe, and then staff at the First Nations Summit, Jackie Hartley. We started work on the volume in 2008 and it was published in 2010.

As the book club was concluding our discussions, one of the staff asked what it was like for me to go back to the book all these years later. Therein lies a tale.

As long-time avid readers of Quaker Concern are aware, I spent much of the past 25 years working on the Declaration in one way or another. The book project came out of a symposium hosted by the BC Indigenous leadership and held a few months after the Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly (GA) in 2007. At the Symposium I presented on the role Quakers had played in the development and adoption of this human rights instrument.

“Human rights are not for cherry picking.”


When I look back over the journey, am I discouraged? Hopeful? Yes. It has never been an easy road, and the challenges are too many to document here. The successes are also too many to list! Indigenous leaders and advocates first went to the United Nations to have the international arena address the dispossession and discrimination that Indigenous peoples continue to face around the globe. CFSC represented Friends worldwide in this work and we faithfully supported our Indigenous partners with the priorities they laid out. We continue this work in many ways.

Where did we go?

So many places! The Declaration was globally celebrated when it was one of the first instruments adopted by the newly created UN Human Rights Council in June 2006, and later at the GA. Again there were celebrations in New York with the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014. Celebrations are fine. But implementation is another story.

Implementation can be so many things: implementation on the ground in Indigenous communities; political implementation—such as legislation; legal implementation such as Court decisions. Implementation is about decolonizing. Implementation is about addressing systemic discrimination. Implementation is about ensuring respect for human rights.

CFSC, with our partners in the Coalition of the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, worked tirelessly to have Canada change positions and endorse the Declaration—first begrudgingly in 2010, and more enthusiastically in 2016. We then set to work to achieve federal legislation to implement the Declaration—first with a private members bill (C- 262) and then a government bill (C-15). A key purpose of that legislation is to “affirm the Declaration as a universal international human rights instrument with application in Canadian law.” Next came Canada’s National Action Plan, released in 2022.

In the midst of these major milestones, never forget that CFSC went to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014 in the Tsilhqot’in Nation case to argue that the Declaration must be used when examining cases of land rights.

In 2015 we supported the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its 94 Calls to Action and 10 Principles of Reconciliation, the first being that the Declaration is the framework for reconciliation. In 2020, provincial legislation to implement the Declaration was adopted in BC. Paul and I travelled extensively to talk with Indigenous Nations and settlers about the Declaration, where it came from, what it means, and how to use it.

All of this work to see the Declaration respected and implemented was deeply challenging, always with governments and corporate interests pushing back on Indigenous peoples’ human rights.

Where are we now in 2024?

Ahhhh, I thought you’d ask. Well, some days it feels we have a step forward and then one back. Yes, we have absolutely moved forward in both law and policy in Canada and this forward movement continues to grow. There is no question, however, that much work remains. So much must be done to ensure that the journey of reconciliation has real meaning in Canada. Sometimes we see that governments, institutions, and the corporate sector appear to be embracing the Declaration, while quietly trying to avoid the harder elements. But human rights are not for cherry picking.

I am extremely encouraged by two recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions that have relied on the Declaration in the rulings. I’ll cite one, a reference decision concerning child and family services (Attorney General Quebec v Attorney General Canada). The Court states that, “…the Government of Canada ‘must, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples, take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the Declaration.’”

CFSC is a partner in a research project with others from the Coalition to work at the community level to see what comes next, what are the grassroots needs for Indigenous peoples (see our article on this research project). Indigenous Nations, organizations, and communities are using the Declaration widely in many ways to advance their rights and their realization of self-determination.

What’s next?

CFSC will continue to work in solidarity with Indigenous partners, supporting their priorities. Currently, this includes implementing the National Action Plan. Internationally, we continue to both promote advances and also hold Canada to account, most recently at Canada’s appearance before the UN Universal Periodic Review. Our work also includes the ongoing efforts to create and share resources on the Declaration.

So, what was it like to go back to the book I edited from 2008-2010? It was a pleasure to re-read and discuss with my colleagues. Much of the book is still relevant and not out of date. I wish I could say it is only relevant as a look at a point we’ve moved far beyond. I am frustrated where the violations and discrimination continue unchanged. I am also hopeful we have created change and will continue to do so.

Jennifer Preston serves as CFSC’s General Secretary and is a member of Hamilton Monthly Meeting. For a very long time she has coordinated the Indigenous rights program at CFSC. Realizing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Triumph, Hope, and Action is available online or through the CFSC office.

Image showing an older Hul'q'umin'num woman and a younger girl practicing making fish leather. Text requests a donate to CFSC's Reconciliation Fund to help support cultural revitalization projects like this.