RAIC signs UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People

The motion passed with overwhelming support at the Annual General Meeting on June 30.

The RAIC is pleased to report that the motion to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—proposed by RAIC Truth and Reconciliation Task Force Co-Chairs, Patrick Stewart, MRAIC and Alfred Waugh, MRAIC—passed with overwhelming support at the RAIC’s Annual General Meeting on June 30.

This is a symbolic first step in the RAIC’s journey towards justice and peace. The Declaration is a framework for reconciliation and will help build a better RAIC and architecture community for Indigenous peoples and all architects today and for future generations.

What happens next? The Task Force will continue its work to identify actions and recommendations to inform an action plan, including strategies that the RAIC can take to achieve the goals of “The Declaration” and of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

The RAIC Truth and Reconciliation Task Force of the RAIC includes two Indigenous architects, Patrick Stewart, MRAIC and Alfred Waugh, MRAIC and two members of the RAIC board, Jill Stoner, MRAIC, and Dale Taylor, FRAIC. On May 27, 2021, the four members met on Zoom for an informal conversation about the proposed adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People by the RAIC membership.  Here is their conversation:

Dale Taylor (DT): We’d like to start with a few questions that have come up from the RAIC membership to clarify what the adoption of this Declaration is and is not about, in the general sense. First, is the RAIC support of the Declaration a more general endorsement of the United Nations’ policies? 

Patrick Stewart (PS): No, it is not. We want to be very specific that any endorsement of the Declaration by the RAIC membership rests at the level of human rights. It’s acknowledging that Indigenous Peoples in this country have the same human rights as everyone else in this country.

Jill Stoner (JS): And does the Declaration give Indigenous peoples new rights?

Alfred Waugh (AW): No, it doesn’t. Accepting the Declaration into the association is an acknowledgment of the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, specifically calls 43 and 92. These deal with human rights: the right to practice Indigenous culture, preserve Indigenous language, and so forth. So, it’s more of an acknowledgment that, as a Canadian profession, the RAIC is taking one step further to build a partnership, in a sense, with the Indigenous peoples, the First Peoples in this country.

DT: So you might say that the adoption of the Declaration does not imply that the RAIC is taking a political position. 

PS: Correct. The Declaration just confirms human rights as a basic right. There’s no politics involved in accepting the Declaration.

JS: The next set of questions is about the relationship between the Declaration and Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. So, I will start with the question, how will the adoption of the Declaration guide the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Task Force of the RAIC in responding to the Calls to Action? 

AW: Accepting the Declaration does not directly guide us in our work. It is simply a commitment by the RAIC to move forward in the 21st century to foster better relationships with Indigenous peoples. We will continue as a task force to develop an action plan in order to provide the means of educating our members about what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is, and what kinds of special conditions may occur on reserve lands, and so forth. Our task still is to look at implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. And one of the Calls to Action, of course, is accepting the UN Declaration under Call 92. So, this is a simple task that we would like to complete, but there’s a lot more work down the road. By the organization accepting this Declaration, it gives us the confidence to move forward with the idea that our members support the work of the task force.

PS: Yes, this is just the start of the work. By accepting the Declaration, it does give the RAIC a bit of a roadmap, in terms of things like meaningful consultation and inclusion. And it doesn’t have to just be consultation with Indigenous Peoples. The problems we face aren’t just Indigenous problems, they are human problems. So, you know, it allows the RAIC to be able to more meaningfully commit to things like consultation and bringing that opportunity to people who aren’t used to being asked their opinions about the built environment. In essence, it’s about establishing respectful relationships in the work that we as architects do. It’s also acknowledging the need for free, prior and informed consent.  Architects need to recognize that when working with Indigenous people, either on- or off-reserve, the information the community provides to the architect is not the architect’s information. It’s not the architect’s knowledge; they can’t take it and run with it without acknowledging its Indigenous source.

DT: Do you see any specific outcomes for the RAIC, as an organization and structure, as a result of the adoption of this Declaration? 

PS: I do think the RAIC could do much more coordinating with the provincial organizations. I do not mean in terms of advocacy but at a more basic human rights level. Again, it’s not just an Indigenous issue or a non-Indigenous issue, it’s a human rights issue. The RAIC could encourage the provincial organizations to also adopt both the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and the UN Declaration.

AW: Yes, I agree with Patrick because, you know, Patrick and I are also on the Architectural Institute of British Columbia Truth & Reconciliation Task Force, and there are many professional organizations across Canada that have yet to acknowledge the Calls to Action. I think one of the more aspirational outcomes of accepting the Declaration for the RAIC is the gesture to all First Nations, Inuit, and Metis in this country that we acknowledge the Declaration, fostering a better relationship between organizations, such as ourselves, with the broader Indigenous communities in Canada. And I think there’s an opportunity here to enrich our organization through this gesture, in the sense that as we develop action plans and programs to educate our members, we also learn the wisdom from Elders from the Indigenous community about such ideas as the connection to the land, importance of placing nature at the at the center, and so forth. So, I think it this a very aspirational thing to do.

DT: Do you have some ideas as to how the Truth and Reconciliation Task Force can build those kinds of consultations into its process? 

AW: I do. You know that there are many aspects of our practice in our profession, say procurement, for example. And we could be someone who kind of has a dialogue with the government and so forth that releases RFPs, for example, say, rather than everybody scrambling around looking for an Elder on a First Nation-focused project to be on their team, to recommend such actions as having the owner appoint a Knowledge Keeper as a part of the client team– for example. And also, universities. Many times, there is a Knowledge Keeper or Elder in Residence to provide education to students and so forth. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if we had something like that in our organization, to inform or help facilitate ideas of working with Indigenous communities? As you know, with Indigenous communities, there’s sort of the early stages of self-government and detaching from Indian and Northern Affairs, managing their own Authorities, and having jurisdiction. It’s wide-open territory. So, I think we as a professional organization could foster a dialogue, to maybe assist them in guiding how they manage land development and so forth.

PS: Just picking up on what you said, Alfred, about the Elder in Residence and respecting that we have 50 different Indigenous cultures in this country, and languages that, if we were to have Elders as consultants, it could be on a rotating basis or on a regional basis as the RAIC has regional chapters. You don’t have to have somebody in place forever, asking for a long-term commitment. These could be one or two-year appointments. I think it would bring something to the RAIC if people knew that there was somebody there that they go to for Indigenous knowledge and guidance.

JS: The final set of questions looks forward to a vision of how the adoption of the Declaration might be first steps in transformative developments in architectural practice, and in architecture’s fundamental defining attributes. For example, how might the adoption of the Declaration affect such things as procurement processes, environmental review processes, or climate change policies. And, of course, not talking about a direct cause and effect, but rather how these are first steps toward much broader professional engagements with Indigenous knowledge. 

PS: I think that Alfred already addressed procurement processes earlier. We’ve been talking about that with the RAIC Indigenous Task Force for a while. So, I think we’ve got a pretty good start on that. In terms of environmental review processes, the inclusion of First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities needs to be brought into the foreground and strengthened and the Declaration supports this. There needs to be less litigation about a community’s human right to protect people over economic interests. In terms of climate change policy, the Declaration affirms Indigenous views of the planet which could strengthen the concept of “two-eyed” seeing where both Western science and Indigenous ways of knowing inform each other and work together and not at odds with each other.

AW: To add to the subject of procurement, there might be an advisory role that the RAIC can play, as a resource to various procurement organizations. Also, we are informing the public in general about Indigenous values, and letting the public know that there are Indigenous architects in Canada. Regarding the question of the environmental review process and climate change policy, this is where I get quite excited– that notion of bringing together Indigenous ways of knowing with Western knowledge. If we all go back in time to our Indigenous roots, there was a stronger connection to land, and today, Indigenous groups around the country are reconnecting to their culture and to this idea of the connection to nature, reinforcing a nature-centered value system rather than a system with humans at the center. So that means plants, animals, everything has the same value as us and we are in this ecosystem – this interconnected ecosystem. So, when you look at land development you start with the land. How does the land speak to you? What does it say?  And as far as climate change and policies, we need to work together to bring some of the spiritual ideas into conversation with more technical ideas about resilience, how to work with nature, how to plan our communities. Indigenous knowledge can simply help us to create a better environment to live in.

PS: And I think that this whole set of questions opens up an opportunity for the RAIC to be a leader in educating the greater society about these issues. That is something that also needs to happen. Otherwise, you have development and resource extraction happening haphazardly and without any real constraints. The federal and provincial governments facilitate resource extraction without the lens to see beyond their own term in power.  That is something that needs to be brought up and talked about at a higher level. And I think the RAIC could be a leader in facilitating that conversation.

DT: Let’s move to the question of Indigenous people entering what we call architecture and the related professions. I’ve become really excited by the idea that when young people begin to look at how they can help the world change itself, and how we might do what we normally call the practice of architecture, the Indigenous worldview can open up new possibilities to redefine what indeed an architect is, and how architects can do more meaningful work in a larger context.  Do you think that is possible, and how do you see that unfolding? 

PS: I think it’s definitely possible. We need schools of architecture to recognize the value of Indigenous knowledge through their curriculum. We need academic curricula to reflect Indigenous knowledge in course content. And that is beginning to happen. And I’m probably not the best person to answer that because we have Jill [Stoner] here, but in terms of influencing a school, and building content within that school, it’s not an overnight process. It’s going to take time. And it may be generational, but that’s okay. I see what we are doing now as an important step. For Indigenous students coming into a school, it’s more powerful if they see themselves reflected in the school, both in curriculum and in the faculty. It is a much stronger position for that school to have Indigenous teaching staff, so an Indigenous student can say, I want to go there because members of the faculty will understand where I’m coming from and understand the issues I’m dealing with. There’s so much to be done in that realm.

JS: The final question is quite specific, in a way, just because I’ve been so inspired by some of the things that have happened in New Zealand. So, can you reflect on some of the ground-breaking developments there in recent decades that might provide a model for how the RAIC can better leverage its position?  

PS: For me, New Zealand is in a particular place because they have a government that actually recognizes the treaties. They’ve got their Treaty of Waitangi and that was a place to start and negotiate and it has given the Maori great strength. It has filtered to urban areas such as the City of Auckland Design principles facilitated by Nga Aho. We don’t have a government in this land that recognizes our treaties, or Indignenous lands in general, and that has caused an endless line of problems for Indigenous Peoples and communities. Nor do we yet have a separate national Indigenous organization on architecture akin to Nga Aho. It’s fundamental to the health of this country that we have treaty recognition paralleling our efforts in architecture. The Declaration can also use its position to advocate and lead the way to bring Indigenous youth into architecture. Right now, I can add that the government now in place, while they are still hesitant, are making some steps towards the inclusion of Indigenous voices, especially in terms of housing. There is right now an initiative underway that is opening the doors and allowing Indigenous people to voice their concerns and participate in planning for the future. Last week, we had a multi-day forum on Indigenous homelessness. It was so positive and affirming to have hundreds of people online, addressing such issues as to how we can have our own communities lead the discussion and, and how we can bring resources to the community so that we can actually build housing that is affordable, and also culturally reflects the people that will be living there.

AW: I think that what they are doing in New Zealand is really exciting. It’s true that they don’t have to address, like we do in Canada, the many nations, the many treaties across a very large country. However, to have within Auckland the real presence of Indigenous values and Indigenous design principles embedded in their planning policies, this is a wonderful thing. It fosters a relationship between First peoples and contemporary society. It roots all development in a fundamental connection to the land, by acknowledging significant landmarks, reviving ancestral names, and exploring opportunities to incorporate natural landscapes. And all these ideas come from some of the principles from Indigenous knowledge. There is the development of a “blue/green waterfront”, and the idea that dealing with rising sea levels means working with Indigenous communities, integrating Indigenous ways of knowing.

JS: So, I want to go out on a limb here, since we finished with the formal questions, and draw a distinction between two kinds of initiatives that you both just spoke about. Patrick has referred to how more attention is being paid to the rights and opportunities for Indigenous people in communities, and Alfred talking about the ways that Indigenous knowledge can affect big policy decisions that affect not just everyone, but everything. This seems like a seminal moment when the transition from the first set of concerns, which has always been important and will continue to be important, can start to get turned around, so that architecture is, yes, working on behalf of Indigenous people and with Indigenous people, but it’s also reaching out to Indigenous Elders, and the greater body of knowledge that can be transformative beyond architectural itself. So, my question is, given this moment that feels like a window of opportunity, can the RAIC, as the advocating body for architecture, argue for a much broader set of environmental issues of which architecture is a small part, and start to play a much bigger role in lobbying government for systemic transformation, along the New Zealand model? 

PS: I would say, yes, for sure. The RAIC plays a pivotal role and can speak widely about these issues. And the federal government, even though it doesn’t talk specifically about architecture, will listen to its corporate citizens, of which RAIC is a part. And if other professional organizations start to speak up as well, that could be part of our outreach, to engage (for example) with engineers or planners. And then, there is more of a groundswell, and the federal government can see that there is broader support. And, you know, I think it pushes them to act.

JS: Any closing thoughts?  

PS: ‘d like to add that while the Declaration doesn’t specifically mention the corporate world, there needs to be a recognition that this country is Indigenous land, and that needs to influence corporate business practices.  We are all working and living on Indigenous lands.  If we are going to effectively implement principles from the Declaration in this country, we really need people to think: “Well, this is not my land, I am a visitor.” People need to look beyond the normative idea of ownership and start giving recognition to the fundamental principles of Indigeneity.

AW: The idea of moving forward, beginning with the adoption of the Declaration, is a very aspirational thing to do in this country, because we want to foster better relationships between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada. There are many unresolved treaties, there is much in the current situation that involves treaty disputes, racism, and so forth.  I think that by adopting the Declaration we are taking the right step in fostering better relationships, in this country, between the First peoples and the rest of Canada.