“I intend to protect my home. Praying — not a curse— only the hope that my courage will not fail my love. But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the Earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save humankind.”
— Alice Walker (1982)
Some contemporary critics would go so far as to say that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is a lie. But I would not. The problem is not that UNDRIP is a lie, but that policy and frameworks like it are misleading and prevent the conversation about Indigenous right from moving toward meaningful implementation.
So who am I?
A two-spirit, Dene dream worker who sees through a plurinational lens, and who believes in a future that has overcome the toxic narrative that current western models of democracy and capitalism are the epitome of human realization. I foresee a future where United Indigenous Nations from around the globe unite to create inter-dependent, cooperative participatory democracies mirrored from our ancestors who have passed — futures where we may unite under banners of unity in sacred differences, not coercion or mistrust.
CONFLICT OVER DENE SOVEREIGNTY
The Dene Declaration was created by the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories in 1978 and asserted Dene Nationhood during a time of political tensions between the Dene Nation and the Canadian state. This declaration states,
“The challenge to the Dene and the world is to find the way for the recognition of the Dene Nation. Our plea to the world is to help us in our struggle to find a place in the world community where we can exercise our right to self-determination as a distinct peoples and as a nation.”
The Dene Nation’s rejection of the UNDRIP and CANDRIP is an invitation to take a closer look with a compassionate and critical lens at our legal wording, and how it impacts our collective future.
Negotiating agreements with the Canadian federal government was considered, at a minimum, to be focused on four factors. The first is self-determination: the right to govern themselves through institutions of their own choice that are used to meet the needs of the Dene Nation. The second factor is guaranteed long-term political security, in which if the Dene survive as a people, they will be assured of continuing control over their land and political affairs, especially related to any political and economic development taking place in the Northwest Territories.
According to the Dene Nation, their self-determination is impossible without economic independence, which is the third factor and requires complete control of all resources on the Dene land. A resource base is also necessary to preserve the Dene Nation’s right to choose economic alternatives designed to meet their own development needs. For example, the Arctic Gas Pipeline violates economic independence in eyes of the Dene Nation. The fourth and final factor is cultural survival, where the Dene Nation demands to be recognized as a distinct people who have the right to chart their own course and development.
Yet, Article 46 of the UNDRIP states:
“Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, people, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the Charter of the United Nations or construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States.”
The UNDRIP was drafted over the course of six years by cooperating with Indigenous Peoples from around the world, but it was not until 2007 that the original declaration was presented to the world. As a show of good faith and inclusion, Canada passed its own legislation called CANDRIP to incorporate UNDRIP into its domestic laws, which is a routine practice for common law countries.
CANDRIP adopted Article 46 in its entirety.
In July of 2022, the Dene National Assembly of First Nations unanimously passed a resolution demanding Canada repeal Bill C-15 or CANDRIP. The resolution #22/23-006 was unanimously passed by the Dene National Assembly and presented by Chief Kele Antoine of the Liidlii Kue First Nation. According to the Dene National Assembly, CANDRIP “contained language designed to integrate Dene lands and territories into the state of Canada in complete violation of our internationally recognized Peace and Friendship Treaties.”
Resolution #22/23-006 further states:
“The Dene National Assembly rejects Canada’s Act respecting the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People in its entirety, and demands that Canada repeal the act and engage in processes that respect our treaties and our right to free, prior and informed consent, including following up within the United Nations process, include the United Nations Human Rights Commission resolution 48/7 ‘negative impacts of the Legacies of colonialism on the enjoyment of human rights,’ and participating in the conference to discuss the impacts of colonialism on the Dene.”
With this historic resolution, the Dene National Special Assembly and its members sent a message to the international community saying they could, under no circumstances, support CANDRIP in its current form. The Dene Nation is also drawing attention to the UNDRIP’s limitations.
CHALLENGING LANGUAGE AND LEGAL FRAMEWORKS
In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established to “document the history and lasting impacts of the Indian Residential School System on Indigenous students and their families.” Released in 2015, the final report states that UNDRIP provides “the necessary principles, norms, and standards for reconciliation to flourish in 21st-century Canada.”
In 2022, when Canada passed Bill C-15 to implement the UNDRIP, the Justice Department of Canada’s website stated that this legislation “provides a roadmap for the Government of Canada and Indigenous peoples to work together to implement the Declaration based on lasting reconciliation, healing, and cooperative relations.”
But Article 46 in both the UNDRIP and CANDRIP highlights glaring issues about watered-down policy and legislative frameworks. These words are intended to support the realization of Indigenous sovereignty and freedoms, but as written and implemented, these laws undermine Indigenous communities worldwide. Regarding the Dene Nation, the Canadian state protects its own interests and jurisdictions within the UNDRIP, rather than implementing the rights and independence of its Indigenous Peoples.
Both the UNDRIP and CANDRIP are also contrary to the Royal Proclamation (1763), which is still considered to be the first legal recognition of Indigenous Rights. It states:
“And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them… .”
In other words, Dene sovereignty is protected and must be honored. The Dene Nation has equitable relations with the Crown and is not subject to local or state governments. More importantly, any negotiations with the Dene are to be done on a nation-to-nation basis.
The Dene have never ceded their territory to the state but the CANDRIP implies a surrender of title to the state — a nation is considered “within” Canada and lacks sovereignty. In passing Resolution #22/23-006, the Dene are informing the international community of its rejection of both the UNDRIP and CANDRIP. As Dene elders say, “This is Denendeh, Land of the Dene Nation as long as the sun shines, the river flows, and the grass grows.”
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR REFLECTION
Love, Caring, Sharing, and Respect: These are the core Dene Values that are shared by elders when speaking of political and personal relations. Long ago, Dene prophets spoke of times in the future when the coming of new eras and peoples might bring destruction to Dene lands and offered the Dene Nation insight on how they might survive it in story and law.
It is from this heart and mind — through a lens of love, caring, sharing, and respect — that this is written today. Not to create chasms between nations but continue to form mutually beneficial braids of understanding, evolution, and respect in the hopes of more cooperative times ahead.
The Dene Nation’s rejection of the UNDRIP and CANDRIP is an invitation and opportunity to take a closer look with a compassionate and critical lens at language — and the subtle but profound impact our legal wording has on the shape of our collective future. After all, when Dene Elders speak of love, caring, sharing, and respect, it refers not only to actions as individuals — in behaviors or personal choices — but in politics, policies, and the world left behind for generations to come.
The policy of tomorrow is being written today, and everyday choices are either affirmations of life or death and of creation or surrender. To live with the conviction of love does not always mean to be passive, nor must it mean acts of destruction. In this case, it is an ideological upheaval that is being demanded collectively of global nations — an upheaval that challenges how humans perceive the political past, future, and present. As social justice advocate Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Cassandra Blondin Burt is a two-spirit Dene journalist, artist, and plant medicine maker living in Chief DryGeese Territory, Akaitcho Region, Denendeh.