Indigenous youth should lead Canada’s implementation of UNDRIP, experts say

A policy hackathon hosted by the Canadian Roots Exchange shows what’s possible when youth voices are at the table

Why It Matters

After its initial refusal in 2007, Canada endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People: a piece of legislation impacting everything from resource extraction to land disputes. With Indigenous youth being the future of their communities, it’s vital that UNDRIP be implemented with Indigenous youth policy leaders at the forefront, shaping what future legislation looks like in Canada.

This story is in partnership with CRE (Canadian Roots Exchange).

As an Indigenous youth advocate, Tia Kennedy has sat on a lot of different advisory committees. “(I’ve) had really bad experiences,” she says, sharing an example of one particular committee conducting research about a local Indigenous community.

Canada has a long and problematic history of researching Indigenous communities. From conducting research without permission to focusing on ‘damage-centred research’, which scholar Eve Tuck describes as documenting a community’s pain as opposed to how findings “might be used by, for, and with communities.”

In Kennedy’s case, the committee in question wanted to use surveys, despite Kennedy making it clear that this was unacceptable if they were used in isolation, or designed without community needs in mind. “It’s just not a way to do research with Indigenous peoples because of the bad experience we’ve had, and how people have always conducted research wrong,” she says.

The committee ignored Kennedy’s advice, which led to her stepping away from the project. “I was supposed to be there to advise, but they did not listen to me,” she says. “I was one of three Indigenous people at a table of 20 non-Indigenous people. It’s so hard for us to have a voice in these spaces when there’s only a few seats at a table.”


Giving up decision-making power is vital to reconciliation. 

And when it comes to research, that means having Indigenous people part of shaping the project from the start — and actively listening and learning from the guidance that’s shared. If the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) is to be effectively implemented in Canada, the kind of experience Kennedy had can’t be part of the process.

Indigenous people are the fastest-growing population in Canada — four times faster than non-Indigenous populations, with youth making up a large percentage. Indigenous youth are the future of their communities — and when it comes to implementing UNDRIP, it’s vital that they be at the forefront, shaping what that future should look like. 

“We are the future,” says Indigenous youth policy leader, Elizabeth McKay. “We need to be in these board rooms (making decisions about UNDRIP), we need to be front-line in these organizations. We need to switch from being helped to helping others.”


What exactly is UNDRIP — and how are Indigenous youth having their say?

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2007, UNDRIP recognizes the basic human rights of Indigenous people, and their right to self-determination. If implemented in Canada, it would impact everything from education to healthcare, land disputes and resource extraction.

To bring Indigeous youth policy leaders together, the Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE) recently held the first of its two Indigenous Youth Policy Hackathons, the first asking exactly how UNDRIP should be best implemented in Canada. 

Guiding one team of participants as a mentor during the hackathon, was Marley Fairfield. A member of the Mohawk nation, Turtle clan, Fairfield is from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. She is also a policy analyst for the Department of Justice, specifically working on files related to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and UNDRIP.   

For Fairfield, one the biggest things that will be impacted by implementing UNDRIP is the rights of Indigenous people over land and resources. “Moving forward, our participation and decision-making abilities will be protected through Free, Prior and Informed Consent” — meaning Indigenous people having the right to give or withhold consent on a project impacting their community or territory. Fairfield emphasizes that Free, Prior and Informed Consent isn’t arbitrary, but rather “necessary to protect and uphold fundamental legal rights to Indigenous people.”

Fairfield says the hackathon showed her how powerful Indigenous youth voices are for UNDRIP. In the generation before hers, she says, “it was scary to be Indian, it was scary to be Native. Now, it’s a little bit different. You feel almost a sense of inner power, reclamation and resilience being Native now.” She saw this first-hand at the hackathon. “A lot of these youth — they were hungry. They were hungry for work. They were so engaged, and they had questions.”


How do Indigenous youth want Canada to implement UNDRIP? 

Systemic discrimination caused by colonization has led to the injustices Indigenous people face today: in Canada, 1 in 4 Indigeneous people live in poverty. More than half of the children in the foster care system are Indigenous. And despite only making up 4.3 percent of the population, Indigenous women make up 16 percent of all homicide victims

For Fairfield’s team, implementing UNDRIP meant “dissecting those colonial barriers that have been set up [by] the Canadian government’s systems,” asking “what is that Nation-to-Nation relationship? How do we bring together Nations?” 

Their suggestions included deconstructing borders between provinces — distinctions that were decided by the government without Indigenous people present. Fairfield says that, in the ‘distinctions-based approach’, “We have our Inuit, our Métis, and our First Nations perspectives (which are federally-recognized groupings) — but our First Nations out in the west are completely different from our first nations in the east, or even central provinces.” 

Fairfield’s team’s solution included “implementing some sort of advisory or government body that was based on nationhood, and interconnectedness through the land” to advise the government from a ‘bottom up’ approach — with guidance shared directly from Indigenous communities — when it comes to implementing UNDRIP.

As a youth participant at the hackathon, Kennedy and her team tackled the underrepresentation of Indigenous voices in local government. Their solution was a pilot project with the City of Ottawa, that would create a sort of commission that moved beyond advisory committees on Indigenous issues, so Indigenous people would have “equal seats and equal say” like the local city councillors. “We also wanted to make sure that it was inclusive, so we developed the Commission of Seven Generations, to ensure that we’re thinking seven generations behind us and forward,” Kennedy adds.

When it comes to UNDRIP, Kennedy says that it’s unacceptable that Indigenous politicians are in the minority. “They’re probably so burnt out right now, trying to fight against a room full of non-Indigenous politicians, and trying to get them to understand the perspective of why (UNDRIP) is necessary,” she says. “To me, that in itself is not reconciliation — you are burning out our Indigenous politicians, you’re applying so much stress and pressure on them.”

To really make a difference, UNDRIP must be implemented in a decolonized way. “We’re trying our hardest to really make this an Indigenous-led process rather than a government-led process,” says Fairfield. “But we need co-development too, because we need everyone to collectively move this forward.”


Who will lead UNDRIP into becoming legislation? 

Co-development means ensuring equal partnerships between Indigenous communities and the federal government in passing UNDRIP into legislation. Youth policy leader Jessica Teiotsistohkwathe Lazare’s team outlined a process for this co-development, leading with the Five Rs of Indigenous research: respect, relationship, relevancy, responsibility and reciprocity. “We want a co-developed framework, so there’s a two-eyed seeing approach (integrating both Western and Indigenous ways of knowing to understand and solve a problem), where you’re taking the best of both worlds to do this,” she says.

Fairfield says that, as well as youth voices, co-development requires diverse Indigenous perspectives, including elders, Clan Mothers and matriarchs. “Those are the people that keep us grounded to the land — to who we are as the original people. Having that framework (of engagement) would really be the basis of our co-development process.”

For Fairfield, education is vital for Indigenous youth entering policy. Because UNDRIP is so complex, she says, “(it’s about) having the opportunity to really engage our communities, engage our youth, to really understand and analyze the articles within UNDRIP. The more we understand it, the more we can determine how we want to go forward.”

Indigenous youth will be the driving force behind the implementation of UNDRIP. “It comes down to that ancestral wisdom that they carry with them,” says Kennedy. “They all have unique gifts that they can offer. I think the next generation of Indigenous policy-makers is going to do some really amazing work.”