By Laurel Dykstra. This piece is part of a new anthology- Wrongs to Rights: How Churches can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
I am the priest of Salal and Cedar a community in the lower Fraser/Salish Sea watershed whose mission is to grow Christian’s capacity to work for environmental justice. In the language of the global Anglican communion, what we do is “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”
A couple of weeks ago members of our community joined a circle of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in our diocese to respond to the TRC Calls to Action and were struck by the heavy reliance of the calls on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The circle was made up of people who have been involved in the slow work of church-indigenous relationship-building before and after the Truth Commission, mostly from a justice perspective. Some are very grassroots, some have an abundance of credentials and degrees, but the only one of us who had read the full UNDIRP text was a University student in an Indigenous Feminisms class.
So the questions, for me and my community, and more broadly for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Christians who are seeking to address issues of global climate change and ecological injustice are these: How important is the declaration? What does it contain? How do we begin to engage with it?
I am not an expert. I am a person for whom the biblical mandate for justice, knowledge and love the plants and creatures of these Coast Salish territories, and powerful and humbling opportunities to learn from Indigenous land defenders, residential school survivors, cultural practitioners and historians, activists, and elders call me to stumbling and imperfect action for climate justice. I write to those who share that constellation of concerns and vocations out of a profound urgency—around the world Indigenous communities, northern communities, coastal communities are dying because their land and water are poisoned and leaders are killed when they speak out or organize community defense.
What I have to offer is a brief tutorial on the declaration and some observations what it might mean for Christians concerned with environmental justice.
First a quick and dirty look at UNDRIP from an environmental justice perspective. The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, in 2010 Canada endorsed the document as “aspirational” but not legally binding and in 2014 was the only nation to refuse to recognize it as an “outcome document.” Nearly half the declaration pertains to the relationships of Indigenous people to land. The preamble to the document emphasizes: colonization and removal from land; the right to land, territories, resources; the threat and opportunity of land development; and the militarization of indigenous land. After the “rights of indigenous people” the third most used word in the content of the declaration is “land,” the second is “develop,” and the fifth is “territory.” Nine articles refer explicitly to indigenous peoples’ rights and relationships to their land; one article is concerned with treaties. A further eight articles refer implicitly to land—the rights to practice traditional sciences, medicines and education, retain place names, access sacred sites, maintain cross-border relationships and even to speak indigenous languages all involve relationship to and control over land.
In terms of environmental justice the most important parts of the declaration are Articles 29, “the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources,” and Article 32, “the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources,” which includes the key phrase “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”
So what does it mean for Christians who are concerned about environmental justice?
Not everybody has time, inclination or capacity to read a 16 page, 42 article, lawyer-written, international body-generated, rights-based document that, unlike international trade agreements, is non-binding. Nor do they need to. To give just a couple of examples: many Indigenous clergy in my denomination serve isolated and geographically dispersed communities facing poverty, addictions, suicide, unemployment, while these issues have their roots in displacement from land, a UN declaration is far from addressing their practical and immediate needs. Some indigenous and land-defender communities find a European, rights-based model at odds with their understanding of relationship and responsibility to their traditional territories. But whether you read it or not it is helpful to know that the document exists and that it is profoundly concerned with land.
The declaration affirms many Indigenous rights, like the right to restitution for historic displacement, respect of treaties, access to healthcare, protection of women against violence, that have been violated historically and are in a state of regular and repeated violation in Canada today.
Indigenous people are actively practicing the principles recognized by the declaration and and have been for centuries, not based on the external authority of an international document but on the lived experience and authority of indigenous culture in relationship to land.
The emphasis on land makes it clear that is not possible to meaningfully engage with issues of environment, creation or the earth without relationships with indigenous people. But some of us persist in operating from a kind of residual terra nulis understanding of “the environment” as empty land. This combined with the Churches’ role in displacing indigenous people from land through “industrial” residential schools, promotion of farming, and outlawing of potlatch means that we have a great deal of work to do to become trusted conversation partners, much less co-conspirators in action.
Seven times the declaration affirms indigenous peoples’ rights to “free, prior and informed consent” to whatever happens to them and on their land: resource extraction, removal of people, seizure of land, development, hazardous material storage. It is this right which the Canadian government has refused to acknowledge. Anglican Indigenous Bishop Mark Macdonald has suggested that supporting Indigenous communities’ as corporations and governments try to short-cut their right to free prior and informed consent might be one of the most critical opportunities churches have to take action for reconciliation.
It is possible for churches and faith communities to build relationships and take action that supports indigenous communities in their land and environmental struggles without reference to UNDRIP.
For those who wish to study the declaration further, the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers) have compiled and produced some excellent resources and Indigenous UN delegates have created a 5 minute video version of the declaration.
But God’s kingdom of justice and mercy will not come when a critical mass of UNDRIP study groups have met. We need to combine our study of the declaration with learning from indigenous people where we live what their land issues are, following their lead, and supporting them financially, practically. When we plan solidarity actions we can follow local protocols for letting first nations know about our actions.
At the request of Haudenosaunee organizers Christian Peacemaker Teams witness and document anti-hunt protesters’ attempts to impede hunters treaty rights to hunt deer in Short Hills Provincial Park.
Streams of Justice and Grandview Baptist Church in Vancouver host fundraising and education events in support of the Unist’ot’en encampment on traditional lands in the pathway of several pipeline projects.
Christians need to balance being bold for justice with being humble in the face of indigenous knowledge experience. The situation is so dire and our shared history is so fraught that over-stepping, disagreements, and painful miscommunication are inevitable, but slowly, incrementally some within churches are growing the relationships and the skills for something that might look like reconciliation in action.