Marking Ten years of UNDRIP in Indigenous Historical Perspectives

August 8, 2017

Written by guest blogger, Mary Jane Logan McCallum.


I was invited to write this blog in celebration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, August 9th. August 9th was chosen for this commemoration because on that day, in 1982, the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights held its first meeting.  This event did not make it into public memory; indeed, until last week, I did not know that International Day of the World’s Indigenous People even existed. In this blog, I want to use it as an entry point for contemplating recent Indigenous history. This year’s celebration theme honours the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted by the General Assembly on September 13th, 2007. While UNDRIP made a lot of sense to Indigenous people here, Canada did not sign UNDRIP without qualification until May 10th, 2016.

Critical and evocative moments in modern Indigenous history coincide with this decade, 2007–2017. For example, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, implemented September 19th, 2007, included a number of individual and collective measures to address the legacies of residential schools including the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Over the years that followed, the Commission studied the history of the Indian Residential School system, Indian policy, and their long-term impacts.  It also produced an incredible archive of Indigenous history and its recommendations, in part informed by UNDRIP, have inspired many historians like myself, in our work.

Over the years that followed, the Commission studied the history of the Indian Residential School system, Indian policy, and their long-term impacts. It also produced an incredible archive of Indigenous history and its recommendations, in part informed by UNDRIP, have inspired many historians like myself, in our work.

Halfway through UNDRIP’s 10-year history, in November 2012, one of the most significant waves of activism in recent North American history, the Idle No More movement, was initiated by Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon, and quickly taken up by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across Canada and beyond.  Unlike the TRC, the Idle No More movement, and quite a lot of the writing and teaching that arose out of it, often turned away from the state.  It described and analyzed urban and rural racism in Canada, Indigenous principles of stewardship and sovereignty in cases where oil and gas pipelines threatened water and land, the vulnerabilities face by Indigenous women at the intersection of racial, gender and colonial dispossession and discrimination, Indigenous participation in provincial and federal elections and shameful inequity in Indigenous child welfare and education.  In Winnipeg, it seemed like there were new possibilities and over 2014 and 2015, the University of Winnipeg Students Association (UWSA) and the Aboriginal Student Council worked on a proposal for a new Mandatory Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR). During this past academic year, 2016-2017, the ICR was implemented.

While there has been some change with regards to Indigenous-state relations over the course of the decade 2007-2017, there has also been inertia.  In the months before UNDRIP was adopted by the General Assembly, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations and Family Caring Society, along with the Assembly of First Nations, filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against Ottawa, arguing that the federal government discriminated against Indigenous children living on reserves. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed, and in January 2016, ordered that the government remedy the situation. Since the ruling, however, the tribunal has had to issue three compliance orders to the federal government, with the latest being in May 2017; the federal government continues to unilaterally make child welfare policy.[1]

In a recent issue of the Canadian Historical Review[2] I look at how historians have analyzed and evaluated the history of federal Indian policies related to Indigenous health. (The article was also featured on Rick Harp’s Media Indigena: Weekly Indigenous Current Affairs Program.) There are, I show, four key words that emerge from this recent work that help to understand Indigenous-state relations in health history in Canada: starvation, experimentation, segregation and trauma.  These words characterize embedded systems of thought and identify the ways in which racial inequity, substandard health care, and Indigenous inferiority became common-sense in Canadian health care and health research. My article was part of an occasional feature called “Historical Perspectives” that provides multiple perspectives on particular issues, events and topics in Canadian history. Our installation of essays, written also by Brenda MacDougall, Lianne Leddy and John Borrows, indicates yet another important shift afoot, this time in the discipline of history. As CHR editors Suzanne Morton, Mary-Ellen Kelm and Dimitry Anastakis note, our essays in the March 2017 issue are among the only pages of the Canadian Historical Review to have ever been authored by Indigenous people over the course of its near 100-year history (Brenda MacDougall’s September 2006 article “Wahkootowin: Family and Cultural Identity in North-western Saskatchewan Metis Communities,” being likely the first).[3]

This year has been marked by many anniversaries.  We often use such events in history to discuss how we see our past selves and who we think we would like to become; we also use anniversaries to leverage change. In that light, consider reading or re-reading UNDRIP alongside Indigenous historical scholarship to learn about Indigenous people’s priorities and hopes for the present and future.



[1] Of the federal government’s new “Ten Principles guiding Indigenous-state relations” released earlier this summer, Blackstock and Sebastien Grammond argue, “Unless there is a strong political will to implement them, these principles risk joining, in the dustbin of history, other noble policy statements that had little practical impact.” Cindy Blackstock and Sébastien Grammond, “Reforming child welfare first step toward reconciliation: Opinion,” The Star 1 August 2017.  Accessed August 1, 2017 at:

[2] Mary Jane Logan McCallum, “Starvation, Experimentation, Segregation and Trauma, Canadian Historical Review, 98:1 (March 2017): 96-113.

[3] Dimitry Anastakis, Mary-Ellen Kelm, and Suzanne Morton, “Historical Perspectives: New Approaches to Indigenous History,” Canadian Historical Review, 98:1 (March 2017): 61.

Logan McCallum’s article of “Starvation, Experimentation, Segregation, and Trauma: Words for Reading Indigenous Health History“, appears in Volume 98, Issue 1 of the Canadian Historical Review, available to read here.

Share this post
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someonePrint this pageShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: