In 2015, Justin Trudeau announced “it is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations Peoples, one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.”
Following this promise, the Government of Canada (GC) has attempted to “indigenize” its departments through the application of reconciliatory language and the attempted inclusion of Indigenous Peoples into their policymaking. For example, the GC emphasizes the recruitment of, and active engagement with, Indigenous employees to integrate their perspectives into organizations. In doing so, however, the GC has frequently utilized the language of indigeneity without truly embodying it. Canada has adopted the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which recognizes the right of Indigenous Peoples to “Free, Prior, and Informed Consent” on economic projects in their territories. Yet, the Trudeau Government’s controversial approval to expand the Transmountain pipeline project on Wet’suwet’en territory, despite the First Nations Peoples’ public protests through railway blockades, violates these Peoples sovereignty and puts both the land and the Nation at risk. Thus, as a result of these governmental hypocrisies, reconciliatory language and actions amount to nothing more than tokenism.
Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is one of the departments that has attempted indigenization, as seen in its 2021-2025 Action Plan on Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. The introduction states that it aims to enhance reconciliation by “listening to, learning from, and working in partnership with Indigenous Peoples” across and beyond Canada, as well as “[strengthening GAC’s] understanding of, and respect for Indigenous traditions, cultures, and perspectives.” What may be seen as efforts to leverage the voices and capacities of Indigenous Peoples is actually a failure by GAC to recognize that its engagement with them has frequently been measured based on its inclusion of their agencies and capacities in settler-organizations, such as the Arctic Council.
While Indigenous Peoples are “listened to”, the GC does not acknowledge that these organizations are the products of settler-states. Indigenous Peoples remain co-opted and subjugated, “playing by the rules of the game” and adhering to settler principles of governance and customs to have their voices heard. This approach is not indigenization, but rather a decoy in which Indigenous Peoples are framed as valuable resources that contribute to the Canadian settler-state’s overall collective authority and power. Therefore, GAC must abandon these merely symbolic acts and recognize that indigenized policy-making goes beyond expecting Indigenous Peoples to play by Canada’s rules. As long as such tokenism persists, Canadian foreign policy will continue to be one that normalizes and affirms settler-colonialism.
Indigenizing Canada’s Foreign Policy — What is Required?
The indigenization of Canada’s foreign policy would require several institutional reforms. Firstly, Canada must see Indigenous Peoples as legitimate political actors, rather than voices. This means recognizing Indigenous groups as sovereign nations beyond Article 3 of the UNDRIP framework, which grants Indigenous Peoples the right to self-determination. Canada must begin to respect Indigenous constitutional orders and understand that these inform the structure of a shared political community rather than being “twisted and bent to conform to settler standards”. In other words, Canada cannot indigenize its foreign policy unless it ceases to regard Indigenous Peoples as passive actors.
Secondly, Canada must accept Indigenous diplomacy as a legitimate practice that would challenge us to rethink Western hegemonic conceptualizations of diplomacy. In his article, Ravi de Costa informs us of how the diplomatic practices of Indigenous Australian Peoples facilitate and regulate peaceful interaction among people. For example, while settlers consider the land as a source of domination, exploitation, and occupation, Indigenous Peoples appreciate the land, and their obligations to it as having a primacy over themselves. As George Manuel states, “this is not the land that can be speculated, bought, sold, mortgaged, claimed by one state, surrendered or counter-claimed by another.” In practice, especially with the rise of issues like climate change and environmental degradation, the introduction of such diplomatic practice could allow for Canada to share a more respectful and deeper understanding of the land we inhabit and make use of. This, in turn, could be applied in Canada’s exchange with other states, and thereby mitigate territorial conflicts.
Thirdly, Canada must accept Indigenous diplomacy as a legitimate practiced distinctiveness. Currently, foreign policy actively erases their differences, by treating them as a “one.” Yet, there is great diversity among Indigenous Peoples, as exemplified by their varying needs, priorities, and views. Thus, the specific content of Canada’s indigenized foreign policy must be “informed and defined by an ongoing negotiation between the state and the diverse groups of Indigenous Peoples, and, therefore, the results would be as different as the numerous Indigenous Peoples across the globe”. Further, there exist some common features among Indigenous Peoples which could be reflected in an indigenized foreign policy, such as notions of interdependence and community.
What Benefits Could an Indigenized Foreign Policy Have for the Canadian Settler-State?
An indigenized foreign policy will not only enhance Canada’s policy-making and implementation, but also allow Canada to be an agent of change. Canada often relies on “niche diplomacy” to exert its influence internationally. An indigenized foreign policy represents an opportunity for Canada to explore a new “niche”, as Indigenous self-determination is becoming an increasingly pertinent domestic (and global) trend. If Canada could effectively engage in an indigenized foreign policy, it could stand to gain by being a pioneer. Further, indigenizing its foreign policy would allow Canada to have an opportunity to act as a model for other countries with Indigenous populations, like the USA, whose government is showing clear reluctance in the implementation of the UNDRIP, arguing that it merely aspires to fulfill the “spirit of the resolution.”
Considering Trudeau’s hypocritical policy-making, an indigenized foreign policy could also help bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. Despite China’s well-known human rights violations, Canada has adopted a trade-friendly engagement policy with Beijing, thereby challenging Canada’s image as a proclaimed defender of the rules-based order. By indigenizing its foreign policy and showcasing a serious commitment to diversity and inclusion, the international community’s respect for Canada may increase, as it is holding up to its projected international image as a tolerant, diverse, and inclusive actor. Canada’s efforts to impose sanctions on South Africa during the Mulroney Era is a good example that captures Canada’s vulnerability towards hypocritical policy-making. As a response, Chief Louis Stevenson invited South African Ambassador to the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba in 1987, and formally requested CAD$99 million from South Africa in foreign aid, in an explicit attempt to embarrass the GC. Stevenson justified this as an attempt to pressure Canada and to make them reflect on “cleaning up their own backyard”. This event illustrates Canada’s tokenization of inclusion, making its global image appear hypocritical.
Indigenizing Canada’s foreign policy could also elevate the GC’s ability to achieve its foreign policy objectives, for example, in the Indo-Pacific. In GAC’s newly released Indo-Pacific Strategy, Canada understands that its presence in the Indo-Pacific also requires active engagement with Indigenous Peoples. This is important given that Canada considers itself a Pacific nation. Although we have yet to see Canada’s active implementation of this strategy, its substance vis-à-vis Indigenous Peoples seems to faintly touch on common objectives, like “economic partnerships”. Poor inclusion and integration of Indigenous Peoples within Canada’s own territory will lessen its capacity and credibility to achieve this Strategy’s foreign policy objectives, as its engagement of Indigenous Peoples in the Indo-Pacific will be regarded as nothing more than window dressing. If policymakers seek to deepen their pacific ties, there are certain principles and practices that Canada needs to adopt in its engagement with these Indigenous nations, namely recognition of their importance to Canada through diplomatic attention and development resources, responsiveness to their needs, and consistent engagement.
Finally, by abandoning a pan-indigenous approach, Canada has the opportunity to appreciate diversity of opinion and thought, which tends to result in better, more informed policies and directives. For example, Indigenous Peoples’ obligations to the land and Indigenous diplomatic practices rooted in land-sharing may serve to inspire Canada’s contribution to peacekeeping efforts and conflict mitigation in fragile states. Further, by considering Indigenous principles of reciprocity and mutual respect for the land could bring forward new ideas in mediating conflict between warring parties. If successful, Canada’s reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Peoples could be applied to other international issues as they provide insights and varied perspectives of efforts to reconcile the conflicts that have characterized the history of Indigenous Peoples and settlers in Canada. By implementing processes of decolonization, peacebuilding, and conflict transformation in host-state, Canada can reinvent its peacekeeping image abroad.
Lily Schricker is a graduate student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, pursuing an MA in International Affairs with a specialization in foreign policy and diplomacy. She graduated with a BA at Bishop’s University in International Relations. Lily is a research assistant at Carleton University, pursuing research in Indigenous-settler relations.