Laws, Rights - Poetry, Land

Today, on National Indigenous Peoples’ day, it is a good time to mention that Bill C-15 has passed and royal assent is coming soon. To quote the bill’s summary, it will require that the government of Canada “take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),” a human rights instrument focused on Indigenous rights.

Photo by Andisheh A on Unsplash

The bill is based on a previous private member’s bill put forward by Romeo Saganash, a Cree lawyer who was an MP in Quebec between 2011-2019. Saganash, during a recent Citizens for Public Justice webcast, quoted both passages from UNDRIP and a poetry book. The melding of legal knowledge and poetry proved a powerful combination!

The poetry Saganash quoted is from “Lifting Hearts off the Ground: Declaring Indigenous Rights in Poetry,”* a book that matches each article of UNDRIP with a poem. It was published in 2017 but the poems, penned by Lyla June Johnston and Joy De Vito, are as heartbreakingly relevant and compelling today. 

A line from one of the poems on Article 27....

"Traditions forced into one legal system

lose their life."

Joy De Vito

Article 27 from UNDRIP reads....

“States shall establish and implement, in conjunction with Indigenous Peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process, giving due recognition to Indigenous Peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognize and adjudicate the rights of Indigenous Peoples pertaining to their lands, territories and resources, including those which were traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used. Indigenous Peoples shall have the right to participate in this process.”

A line from one of the poems on Article 8...

"He is crying.

He is crying."

Lyla June Johnston

Article 8 from UNDRIP reads....

  1. “Indigenous Peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.
  2. States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:
    (a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;
    (b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;
    (c)Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;
    (d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration;
    (e) Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them.”

These two UNDRIP articles and poems cast both the historical and ongoing violation of Indigenous rights in sharp relief, including at 1492 Land Back Lane in Ontario, where Haudenosaunee land defenders continue to face arrest warrants and in Tḱemlúps te Secwépemc territory, where the remains of 215 children were found at the former Kamloops Residential School. 

No wonder Saganash spoke up recently, saying that Prime Minister Trudeau still does not really care about Indigenous Peoples, that he makes promises but does not fulfill them. No wonder that 1492 Land Back Land spokesperson, Skyler Williams, says that the toppled statue head of Ryerson, who helped create the residential school system in Canada, is remaining on its pike at 1492 Land Back Lane. 

Referring also to the Sixties Scoop, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and ongoing, disproportionate separations as a result of the country's child welfare system, Williams makes a strong link between the land-back movement and residential schools, saying, "When we're talking about land back, we're also talking about being able to invite those people home, those people who have suffered enough and need to have an opportunity to grow back into their communities."1 

With the passing of Bill C-15, government now has two years to create an implementation plan in consultation with Canadians and most importantly, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples. It is critical that Canadian laws are aligned with UNDRIP

In the words of Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs President, “No longer can Canada hide behind the archaic and racist 'doctrine of discovery' and 'terra nullius'. Turtle Island belongs to the Indigenous Peoples who were here prior to colonization. We must provide our free, prior and informed consent on any projects that happen in our territories.”2

MP Jaime Battiste, who represents Sydney-Victoria, also sees the chance for positive change, saying that “[f]or Indigenous Canadians, I think the biggest thing is that the old colonial way of doing things, of the government or the Crown simply imposing its will on Indigenous People, like the Indian Act or residential schools and centralization here in Nova Scotia, those days are gone forever."3 

While words are not nearly enough to repair or even express the grief and trauma experienced by Indigenous families now and in the past, the poems, the words of Saganash, Williams and other people working for Indigenous rights, are strong, they move and inform and hopefully will open hearts and minds. It's long past time for real change. It's time for actions that give substance to flimsy apologies and dormant promises.

*Lifting Hearts Off the Ground: Declaring Indigenous Rights in Poetry, by Lyla June JohnstonJoy De Vito, ed. Steve Heinrichs, Book, 2017, 200 pp

You can rent or buy a copy here:

UNDRIP: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

Other References:

1Quote from a June 10th CBC article by Sebastian Leck, The head of the statue of Egerton Ryerson now on a spike at Land Back Lane in Caledonia, Ont.

More about the significance of these events here: Ryerson Statue Head on spike at Land Back Lane small 'token' of justice says Skyler Williams, Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs and Allana McDougall, June 12, 2021,

2June 17, 2021 First Nations Leadership Council news release, "FNLC Celebrates Passing of Bill C-15 in Canada’s Senate."

3 "Mi'kmaq representatives in Ottawa call Bill C-15 an important step in reconciliation," Ardelle Reynolds,, posted on June 18, 2021.

Some things you could do:

More information about UNDRIP and Bill C-15:

Read about the declaration on the page United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Indigenous Peoples 

Romeo Saganash Wants to Set the Record Straight on Bill C-15, Romeo Saganash,, June 4, 2021

The Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples website.

How Canada's UNDRIP Bill was Strengthened to Reject the Racist Doctrine of DiscoveryBill C-15 will see the Canadian government reject the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius, Theresa Wright,  Jun. 20, 2021 9:25 a.m