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Can we create a new social contract with Indigenous Peoples?

According to the United Nations, there are over 476 million Indigenous Peoples living in 90 countries around the world. A large portion of the world’s cultural diversity can be attributed to Indigenous Peoples, as they represent a wide variety of cultures, traditions, languages, knowledge systems, and worldviews.

Many Indigenous cultures also have strong ties to their lands, resulting in sustainable and knowledgeable stewardship practices that have the potential to fight climate change and biodiversity loss. For example, the Indigenous Peoples of Australia have been using fire to manage forests for thousands of years.

However, Indigenous Peoples have historically, and continue to face issues such as poverty, discrimination, cultural genocide, marginalization, and other human rights violations. Take the indigenous Peoples of Canada, for example.

The Indigenous Peoples of Canada have been subjected to cultural genocide for over a century. Through the establishment of policies and laws, Canadian governments, along with religious authorities, have attempted to assimilate Indigenous peoples and strip them of their sense of identity and existence. One method of doing so was through residential schools which ran during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Indigenous children were forcibly sent away to “school” and never returned

Evidence of the atrocities of residential schools have recently been uncovered in Canada through the horrific discovery of unmarked graves containing the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children. And don’t be mistaken that these discoveries are problems of the past. Their harmful effects are very real and very present today.

In Canada, our collective hearts have been breaking as more of these sites are being discovered. There is an outpouring of support and greater collective understanding of these atrocities. While it is heartening to see the compassion poured out in signs on lawns and orange t-shirts hung on front porches (mine included), we need to see this grief turn into desire for real change.

On an international scale, we need to acknowledge the human rights violations Indigenous Peoples around the world are facing, and create Indigenous-led systemic change. The Indigenous ways, the knowledge-keepers and stewards of the land, waters and animals must be heard and respected in tangible ways moving forward.

Why we need an International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Every year on August 9th, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is celebrated around the globe. This international day was declared on December 23, 1994, as a way of commemorating the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) in 1982.

The WGIP was one of the six working groups overseen by the Sub-Commission of the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. The Sub-Commission was created in order to undertake studies on human rights issues and make recommendations concerning the prevention of discrimination against racial, national, religious, and linguistic minorities.

Seeing as Indigenous Peoples around the world experience discrimination and similar problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples, it just makes sense that the WGIP was included within the United Nations system as a body that reviews developments related to the promotion and protection of Indigenous peoples rights and freedoms.

The establishment of WGIP marked the first time Indigenous People were able to share their experiences and raise their concerns on an international scale.

This is a date worth remembering - the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is a reminder to the international community that continuous action and special measures on an international scale are required in order to protect and preserve Indigenous cultures around the world.

We often see Indigenous dance as an example of the rich cultural traditions, but they are just one way to learn about the traditions, knowledge, stories and wisdom of Indigenous Peoples and perspectives.

Leaving no one behind: Indigenous Peoples and the call for a new social contract

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples has a new theme each year. Each theme aims to raise awareness and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population in a different way. We know that in biology, diversity is vital to a healthy ecosystem, and with our social ecosystems diversity can also help build resilience and be good for the whole. So, what does that look like in practical terms?

The 2021 theme is “Leaving no one behind: Indigenous people and the call for a new social contract” is one way to implement changes to promote the value of Indigenous culture.

Now, what exactly is a social contract and why do we need a new one?

A social contract is an unwritten agreement among the members of society to cooperate for social and economic benefits. For example, members of society may decide to sacrifice some individual freedoms for state protection.

In countries where Indigenous Peoples were driven from their lands and excluded from political and economic activities, they were never included in the social contract in the first place. Instead, the unwritten rules of social contracts were drawn up in order to support the dominant cultures.

Although many Indigenous Peoples are self-governing, many still come under the authority of central governments where their voices and rights are underrepresented.

As a result, Indigenous Peoples are left behind when it comes to social and economic development. This is part of the reason why it is not uncommon to see Indigenous Peoples facing such great injustice and inequality.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples seeks to help address these injustices. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs will organize an interactive discussion on a new and inclusive social contract. Not only will governments be included in this discussion, but the whole of society which includes Indigenous Peoples, women, academia, scientists, and more.

According to the United Nations “The new social contract must be based on genuine participation and partnership that fosters equal opportunities and respects the rights, dignity and freedoms of all. Indigenous Peoples’ right to participate in decision-making is a key component in achieving reconciliation between Indigenous Peoples and States.”

2021 commemoration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

In 2021, the Indigenous Peoples and Development Branch – Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples Forum on Indigenous Issues/DISD/DESA organized a virtual event.

This event features an interactive discussion with two speakers on the various elements that must be considered when designing a new and inclusive social contract. In addition, there are also discussions on how Indigenous Peoples’ own forms of governance and ways of life must be respected and “based on their free, prior and informed consent and genuine and inclusive participation and partnership.”

The two guest speakers at this event are James Anaya and Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces. James Anaya is a Professor at the University of Colorado Law School at Boulder and has taught extensively on international human rights and issues concerning Indigenous Peoples, advised and represented numerous Indigenous Peoples’ groups in landmark cases before domestic and international tribunals, and participated in the drafting of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces is an Ecuadorian scholar and diplomat who has held many leadership positions within the Government of Ecuador such as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Cultural and Natural Heritage. Ms. Espinosa has also served as President of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly, is a current member of the Strategic Committee of the Science Panel from the Amazon of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, among many other achievements.

 If you’re interested in learning more about what a new and inclusive social contract looks like, tune into this event by registering here!

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