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Indigenous Rights are Human Rights

My favourite part of my job is leading the Blanket Exercise. I love seeing a light go on for people as they learn parts of Canadian history that they never learned in school and realize how we came to the broken place we are today. I love learning from participants in the sharing circle afterwards, especially when they speak about Indigenous people that they know. I love how it helps our intellectual, brainy denomination to learn with our hearts as well. I love seeing people take a step towards seeing the image of God shining through Indigenous people. Perhaps more than anything, the Blanket Exercise reveals the fundamental lack of respect that Canada has shown for that image of God in Indigenous people and Indigenous cultures.

One of the many things I’ve learned about from the Blanket Exercise is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by Canada in 2010. It’s quite a mouthful, but the meaning of the Declaration boils down to this: Indigenous peoples are entitled to the same human rights as everyone else. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

But did you know…

…that 50% of First Nations children live in poverty, compared to 17% of other Canadian children?

…that young Indigenous women in Canada are five times more likely to die under violent circumstances than other Canadian women of the same age?

…that the funding gap for education on- and off-reserve is 30-50%, depending on the province?

….that in  2015, Canada ranked 6th in the world on human development, but if First Nations communities were considered separately from other Canadians, they would rank 63rd in the world? (UN Human Development Index, 2015)

Or if you’re American, did you know that at least 40% of the people living on the Navajo Nation reservation don’t have access to clean running water? Or that the Declaration of Independence refers to Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages”? Or that Native Americans are the racial group most likely to be killed by police?

Indigenous rights are human rights. It may seem self-evident, but it needs to be said. Indigenous peoples are still not being treated as equals in our societies. We need the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

So what should you know about the Declaration? Here are the basics:

  1. Written by Indigenous peoples — Written by Indigenous people for Indigenous people, the Declaration communicates a consistent message—Indigenous peoples have the same rights and freedoms to make choices for themselves and their communities as other peoples do. Indigenous people aren’t voiceless—they’re speaking. The Declaration is one way others can listen.  
  2. It’s a roadmap forward – After following along with the stories from survivors of Canadian residential schools told at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Canadians and especially Christian Canadians want to know: how can we turn away from the broken ways that our peoples have related and live together on this land in a better way? One of the Commission’s answers, woven throughout its 94 calls to action, is living out the respect for Indigenous peoples outlined in the Declaration.
  3. This is what mutual respect looks like — What might new respect for Indigenous peoples mean for our churches? Unfortunately, the North American church has habit of automatically dismissing any expression of Indigenous cultural and spiritual practice as pagan and savage. Indigenous Christians have often been met with accusations of syncretism when praying in their own Indigenous way or drumming. When we safeguard religious freedom for Christians, we must realize that Indigenous peoples are also entitled to choose their spiritual practices and that some of those practices may have much to teach us. Thankfully, we have a beautiful model for appreciating Indigenous cultures and their contributions to our understanding of God in the urban aboriginal ministry centres in Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Regina.
  4. Adopted by the CRC in Canada — Following the recommendations of the TRC, the Christian Reformed Church in Canada has just adopted the Declaration and is putting plans in place to implement it. The CRC in Canada has been involved in ministry to and with Indigenous people for more than 40 years and adopting the Declaration flows out of what we’ve learned together, as well as previous statements the CRC has made about the need for renewed covenantal relationships with Indigenous peoples in Canada. What will implementing the Declaration look like? CRC leadership has promised to begin working together with churches to understand and appreciate the Declaration; continuing to discern what the Declaration means for the way we practice mission and social justice; and honour Indigenous self-determination, diversity, and rights through education and advocacy work. But that’s just a beginning--how do you think we can better honour Indigenous rights?

Shalom: we can only truly flourish when we all flourish. When one part of the Body suffers, the whole Body suffers with it.

So listen to the Declaration Imagine what our churches and countries could look like if it were fully implemented. Indigenous peoples already contribute in beautiful, imaginative ways to our societies—imagine how much more we would all benefit if more Indigenous children grew up well-fed, well-respected, well-educated, well-rooted in their cultures.

Imagine what Shalom—a true, just peace—could look like in our churches and countries.

[Image: Flickr user marksontok]

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