Photo from CIGI

By Riley Yesno

Of all the guiding principles for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, one stands out most to me: No one is to be left behind, and the furthest behind shall be reached first.

Looking at the history of Canada, and current national statistics relevant to the SDGs, it is clear who, in this country, is furthest and most often left behind: it is almost always Indigenous people.

I see the first SDG, ‘No Poverty’, and think about how Indigenous people are so grossly overrepresented among impoverished demographics; anywhere from 40-60 percent of Indigenous children are currently experiencing poverty in this country. SDG 5, ‘Gender Equality’, reminds me of the 2,000 or so murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls that we know of in Canada, and the staggering, disproportionate number of Indigenous women serving federal prison sentences; 32.6 per cent of those serving federal prison sentences are Indigenous women, despite our making up of only four percent of the female population in Canada. I read SDG 11, 12 and 13, all relating to sustainable environments and climate, and know that it is, and always have been, Indigenous communities that know how to best take care of the land and protect it.

You will find such significant correlations between Indigenous people and every SDG. The more correlations you find, the clearer it becomes that if Canada is to follow the 2030 Agenda principles and meet their commitments to the global goals, then reducing/eliminating inequities and collaborating with Indigenous communities is a necessity.

Canada, I think, knows this. In their 2018 Voluntary National Review of Implementation, Indigenous people/communities were mentioned under almost every one of the SDGs progress to-date. The task now becomes recognizing and enacting ways which best honour the important role Indigenous people must play in meeting the SDGs, and ensure that all of our voices and needs are being heard and met.

From what I have seen, the primary approach thus far has been for Canada to invest in existing Indigenous-focused programming relevant to each SDG and aim for greater consultation and collaboration with Indigenous people in every sector. While no part of this current approach is a necessarily poor one, consultation and increased dollars are not enough to bring about the changes Indigenous communities deserve or the impact the 2030 Agenda seeks to achieve.

In order for there to be large-scale improvements to the conditions for Indigenous people in Canada (and the achievement of the SDGs) Indigenous nations must have not only the fiscal capacity to make necessary, community-specific and culturally-relevant decisions, they must also have the legal autonomy to do so without interference or imposition from other bodies of power. Indigenous communities must have their inherent rights recognized, including their right to self-determination. Without these rights recognized all solutions aimed at drastically improving conditions for Indigenous people, no matter how well-intended, will ultimately be colonially imposed and unsustainable.

Opening the door to sustainable Indigenous communities

This is where the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples comes in. UNDRIP is an international human rights instrument meant to articulate the rights which “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world” and as of writing this, UNDRIP has just about passed into Canadian law. I believe that the proper implementation of UNDRIP at all levels of government in Canada is one critical way of ensuring the kind of rights recognition that meaningful achievement of the SDGs necessitates.

According to The Indigenous Navigator, the 46 articles outlined in UNDRIP are directly linked to every one of the 17 SDGs and more than one-third of the 169 SDG targets.

To give one example, SDG 12: Responsible production and consumption, target 12.2 reads as follows: “By 2030, (states should) achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources”. Relatedly, Article 26 of UNDRIP reads, “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired” and, “have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories, and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired”.

When you break it down, UNDRIP is an assurance of basic rights for Indigenous people and the SDGs are meant to achieve basic rights like clean water and equality for all; basic rights which, in this country, Indigenous people are denied more than most. In that light, they are ultimately working for the same ends, and are inextricably linked.

If Canada is to truly meet the SDGs, and ensure that no one is to be left behind and that the furthest behind shall be reached first, lets first ensure that those people have their rights met and can forge their own path to a sustainable future.