Principles respecting the Government of Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples

The Government of Canada is committed to achieving reconciliation with Indigenous peoples through a renewed, nation-to-nation, government-to-government, and Inuit-Crown relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership as the foundation for transformative change.

Indigenous peoples have a special constitutional relationship with the Crown. This relationship, including existing Aboriginal and treaty rights, is recognized and affirmed in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Section 35 contains a full box of rights, and holds the promise that Indigenous nations will become partners in Confederation on the basis of a fair and just reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Crown.

The Government recognizes that Indigenous self-government and laws are critical to Canada’s  future, and that Indigenous perspectives and rights must be incorporated in all aspects of this relationship. In doing so, we will continue the process of decolonization and hasten the end of its legacy wherever it remains in our laws and policies.  

The implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples requires transformative change in the Government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. The UN Declaration is a statement of the collective and individual rights that are necessary for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous peoples around the world, and the Government must take an active role in enabling these rights to be exercised. The Government will fulfil its commitment to implementing the UN Declaration through the review of laws and policies, as well as other collaborative initiatives and actions. This approach aligns with the UN Declaration itself, which contemplates that it may be implemented by States through various measures.

This review of laws and policies will be guided by Principles respecting the Government of Canada’s Relationship with Indigenous peoples. These Principles are rooted in section 35, guided by the UN Declaration, and informed by the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)’s Calls to Action. In addition, they reflect a commitment to good faith, the rule of law, democracy, equality, non-discrimination, and respect for human rights. They will guide the work required to fulfill the Government’s commitment to renewed nation-to-nation, government-to-government, and Inuit-Crown relationships. 

These Principles are a starting point to support efforts to end the denial of Indigenous rights that led to disempowerment and assimilationist policies and practices. They seek to turn the page in an often troubled relationship by advancing fundamental change whereby Indigenous peoples increasingly live in strong and healthy communities with thriving cultures. To achieve this change, it is recognized that Indigenous nations are self-determining, self-governing, increasingly self-sufficient, and rightfully aspire to no longer be marginalized, regulated, and administered under the Indian Act and similar instruments. The Government of Canada acknowledges that strong Indigenous cultural traditions and customs, including languages, are fundamental to rebuilding Indigenous nations. As part of this rebuilding, the diverse needs and experiences of Indigenous women and girls must be considered as part of this work, to ensure a future where non-discrimination, equality and justice are achieved. The rights of Indigenous peoples, wherever they live, shall be upheld.

These Principles are to be read holistically and with their supporting commentary. The Government of Canada acknowledges that the understandings and applications of these Principles in relationships with First Nations, the Métis Nation, and Inuit will be diverse, and their use will necessarily be contextual. These Principles are a necessary starting point for the Crown to engage in partnership, and a significant move away from the status quo to a fundamental change in the relationship with Indigenous peoples. The work of shifting to, and implementing, recognition-based relationships is a process that will take dynamic and innovative action by the federal government and Indigenous peoples. These Principles are a step to building meaning into a renewed relationship.

1. The Government of Canada recognizes that all relations with Indigenous peoples need to be based on the recognition and implementation of their right to self-determination, including the inherent right of self-government.

This opening Principle affirms the priority of recognition in renewed nation-to-nation, government-to-government, and Inuit-Crown relationships. As set out by the courts, an Indigenous nation or rights-holding group is a group of Indigenous people sharing critical features such as language, customs, traditions, and historical experience at key moments in  time like first contact, assertion of Crown sovereignty, or effective control. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples estimated that there are between 60 and 80 historical nations in Canada.

The Government of Canada’s recognition of the ongoing presence and inherent rights of Indigenous peoples as a defining feature of Canada is grounded in the promise of section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, in addition to reflecting articles 3 and 4 of the UN Declaration.  The promise mandates the reconciliation of the prior existence of Indigenous peoples and the assertion of Crown sovereignty, as well as the fulfilment of historic treaty relationships.

This principle reflects the UN Declaration’s call to respect and promote the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples. This includes the rights that derive from their political, economic, and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories, laws, and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.

Canada’s constitutional and legal order recognizes the reality that Indigenous peoples’ ancestors owned and governed the lands which now  constitute Canada prior to the Crown’s assertion of sovereignty. All of Canada’s relationships with Indigenous peoples are based on recognition of this fact and supported by the recognition of Indigenous title and rights, as well as the negotiation and implementation of pre-Confederation, historic, and modern treaties.

It is the mutual responsibility of all governments to shift their relationships and arrangements with Indigenous peoples so that they are based on recognition and respect for the right to self-determination, including the inherent right of self-government for Indigenous nations. For the federal government, this responsibility includes changes in the operating practices and processes of the federal government. For Indigenous peoples, this responsibility includes how they define and govern themselves as nations and governments and the parameters of their relationships with other orders of government.

2. The Government of Canada recognizes that reconciliation is a fundamental purpose of section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Reconciliation is an ongoing process through which Indigenous peoples and the Crown work cooperatively to establish and maintain a mutually respectful framework for living together, with a view to fostering strong, healthy, and sustainable Indigenous nations within a strong Canada. As we build a new future, reconciliation requires recognition of rights and that we all acknowledge the wrongs of the past, know our true history, and work together to implement Indigenous rights.

This transformative process involves reconciling the pre-existence of Indigenous peoples and their rights and the assertion of sovereignty of the Crown, including inherent rights, title, and jurisdiction. Reconciliation, based on recognition, will require hard work, changes in perspectives and actions, and compromise and good faith, by all.

Reconciliation frames the Crown’s actions in relation to Aboriginal and treaty rights and informs the Crown’s broader relationship with Indigenous peoples. The Government of Canada’s approach to reconciliation is guided by the UN Declaration, the TRCs Calls to Action, constitutional values, and collaboration with Indigenous peoples as well as provincial and territorial governments.

3. The Government of Canada recognizes that the honour of the Crown guides the conduct of the Crown in all of its dealings with Indigenous peoples.

The Government of Canada recognizes that it must uphold the honour of the Crown, which requires the federal government and its departments, agencies, and officials to act with honour, integrity, good faith, and fairness in all of its dealings with Indigenous peoples. The honour of the Crown gives rise to different legal duties in different circumstances, including fiduciary obligations and diligence. The overarching aim is to ensure that Indigenous peoples are treated with respect and as full partners in Confederation.

4. The Government of Canada recognizes that Indigenous self-government is part of Canada’s evolving system of cooperative federalism and distinct orders of government.

This Principle affirms the inherent right of self-government as an existing Aboriginal right within section 35. Recognition of the inherent jurisdiction and legal orders of Indigenous nations is therefore the starting point of discussions aimed at interactions between federal, provincial, territorial, and Indigenous jurisdictions and laws.

As informed by the UN Declaration, Indigenous peoples have a unique connection to and constitutionally protected interest in their lands, including decision-making, governance, jurisdiction, legal traditions, and fiscal relations associated with those lands.

Nation-to-nation, government-to-government, and Inuit-Crown relationships, including treaty relationships, therefore include: (a) developing mechanisms and designing processes which recognize that Indigenous peoples are foundational to Canada’s constitutional framework; (b) involving Indigenous peoples in the effective decision-making and governance of our shared home; (c) putting in place effective mechanisms to support the transition away from colonial systems of administration and governance, including, where it currently applies, governance and administration under the Indian Act; and (d) ensuring, based on recognition of rights, the space for the operation of Indigenous jurisdictions and laws.

5. The Government of Canada recognizes that treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements between Indigenous peoples and the Crown have been and are intended to be acts of reconciliation based on mutual recognition and respect.

This Principle recognizes that Indigenous peoples have diverse interests and aspirations and that reconciliation can be achieved in different ways with different nations, groups, and communities.

This principle honours historic treaties as frameworks for living together, including the modern expression of these relationships. In accordance with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, many Indigenous nations and the Crown historically relied on treaties for mutual recognition and respect to frame their relationships. Across much of Canada, the treaty relationship between the Indigenous nations and Crown is a foundation for ongoing cooperation and partnership with Indigenous peoples.

The Government of Canada recognizes the role that treaty-making has played in building Canada and the contemporary importance of treaties, both historic and those negotiated after 1973, as foundations for ongoing efforts at reconciliation. The spirit and intent of both Indigenous and Crown parties to treaties, as reflected in oral and written histories, must inform constructive partnerships, based on the recognition of rights, that support full and timely treaty  implementation.

In accordance with section 35, all Indigenous peoples in Canada should have the choice and opportunity to enter into treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements with the Crown as acts of reconciliation that form the foundation for ongoing relations. The Government of Canada prefers no one mechanism of reconciliation to another. It is prepared to enter into innovative and flexible arrangements with Indigenous peoples that will ensure that the relationship accords with the aspirations, needs, and circumstances of the Indigenous-Crown relationship. The Government also acknowledges that the existence of Indigenous rights is not dependent on an agreement and, where agreements are formed, they should be based on the recognition and implementation of rights and not their extinguishment, modification, or surrender.

Accordingly, this Principle recognizes and affirms the importance that Indigenous peoples determine and develop their own priorities and strategies for organization and advancement. The Government of Canada recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, including the right to freely pursue their economic, political, social, and cultural development.

6. The Government of Canada recognizes that meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples aims to secure their free, prior, and informed consent when Canada proposes to take actions which impact them and their rights, including their lands, territories and resources.

This Principle acknowledges the Government of Canada’s commitment to new nation-to-nation, government-to-government, and Inuit-Crown relationships that builds on and goes beyond the legal duty to consult. In delivering on this commitment, the Government recognizes the right of Indigenous peoples to participate in decision-making in matters that affect their rights through their own representative institutions and the need to consult and cooperate in good faith with the aim of securing their free, prior, and informed consent.

The Supreme Court of Canada has clarified that the standard  to secure consent of Indigenous peoples is strongest in the case of Aboriginal title lands. The Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that Aboriginal title gives the holder the right to use, control, and manage the land and the right to the economic benefits of the land and its resources. The Indigenous nation, as proper title holder, decides how to use and manage its lands for both traditional activities and modern purposes, subject to the limit that the land cannot be developed in a way that would deprive future generations of the benefit of the land.

The importance of free, prior, and informed consent, as identified in the UN Declaration, extends beyond title lands. To this end, the Government of Canada will look for opportunities to build processes and approaches aimed at securing consent, as well as creative and innovative mechanisms that will help build deeper collaboration, consensus, and new ways of working together. It will ensure that Indigenous peoples and their governments have a role in public decision-making as part of Canada’s constitutional framework and ensure that Indigenous rights, interests, and aspirations are recognized in decision-making.

7. The Government of Canada recognizes that respecting and implementing rights is essential and that any infringement of section 35 rights must by law meet a high threshold of justification which includes Indigenous perspectives and satisfies the Crown’s fiduciary obligations.

This Principle reaffirms the central importance of working in partnership to recognize and implement rights and, as such, that any infringement of Aboriginal or treaty rights requires justification in accordance with the highest standards established by the Canadian courts and must be attained in a manner consistent with the honour of the Crown and the objective of reconciliation.

This requirement flows from Canada’s constitutional arrangements. Meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples is therefore mandated whenever the Government may seek to infringe a section 35 right.

8. The Government of Canada recognizes that reconciliation and self-government require a renewed fiscal relationship, developed in collaboration with Indigenous nations, that promotes a mutually supportive climate for economic partnership and resource development.

The Government of Canada recognizes that the rights, interests, perspectives, and governance role of Indigenous peoples are central to securing a new fiscal relationship. It also recognizes the importance of strong Indigenous governments in achieving political, social, economic, and cultural development and improved quality of life.

This Principle recognizes that a renewed economic and fiscal relationship must ensure that Indigenous nations have the fiscal capacity, as well as access to land and resources, in order to govern effectively and to provide programs and services to those for whom they are responsible.

The renewed fiscal relationship will also enable Indigenous peoples to have fair and ongoing access to their lands, territories, and resources to support their traditional economies and to share in the wealth generated from those lands and resources as part of the broader Canadian economy.

A fairer fiscal relationship with Indigenous nations can be achieved through a number of mechanisms such as new tax arrangements, new approaches to calculating fiscal transfers, and the negotiation of resource revenue sharing agreements.

9. The Government of Canada recognizes that reconciliation is an ongoing process that occurs in the context of evolving Indigenous-Crown relationships.

This Principle recognizes that reconciliation processes, including processes for negotiation and implementation of treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements, will need to be innovative and flexible and build over time in the context of evolving Indigenous-Crown relationships. These relationships are to be guided by the recognition and implementation of rights.

Treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements should be capable of evolution over time. Moreover, they should provide predictability for the future as to how provisions may be changed or implemented and in what circumstances. Canada is open to flexibility, innovation, and diversity in the nature, form, and content of agreements and arrangements.

The Government of Canada also recognizes that it has an active role and responsibility in ensuring the cultural survival of Indigenous peoples as well as in protecting Aboriginal and treaty rights.

The Government of Canada will continue to collaborate with Indigenous peoples on changes to federal laws, regulations, and policies to realize the unfulfilled constitutional promise of s.35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

10. The Government of Canada recognizes that a distinctions-based approach is needed to ensure that the unique rights, interests and circumstances of the First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit are acknowledged, affirmed, and implemented.

The Government of Canada recognizes First Nations, the Métis Nation, and Inuit as the Indigenous peoples of Canada, consisting of distinct, rights-bearing communities with their own histories, including with the Crown. The work of forming renewed relationships based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership must reflect the unique interests, priorities and circumstances of each People.

Summary

The Government of Canada recognizes that:

  1. All relations with Indigenous peoples need to be based on the recognition and implementation of their right to self-determination, including the inherent right of self-government.
  2. Reconciliation is a fundamental purpose of section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
  3. The honour of the Crown guides the conduct of the Crown in all of its dealings with Indigenous peoples.
  4. Indigenous self-government is part of Canada’s evolving system of cooperative federalism and distinct orders of government.
  5. Treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements between Indigenous peoples and the Crown have been and are intended to be acts of reconciliation based on mutual recognition and respect.
  6. Meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples aims to secure their free, prior, and informed consent when Canada proposes to take actions which impact them and their rights on their lands, territories, and resources.
  7. Respecting and implementing rights is essential and that any infringement of section 35 rights must by law meet a high threshold of justification which includes Indigenous perspectives and satisfies the Crown’s fiduciary obligations.
  8. Reconciliation and self-government require a renewed fiscal relationship, developed in collaboration with Indigenous nations, that promotes a mutually supportive climate for economic partnership and resource development.
  9. Reconciliation is an ongoing process that occurs in the context of evolving Indigenous-Crown relationships.
  10. A distinctions-based approach is needed to ensure that the unique rights, interests and circumstances of the First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit are acknowledged,  affirmed, and implemented.
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