Thirteen years after the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Indigenous rights enjoy near-universal rhetorical support, but there is little agreement on how they should be implemented. While Indigenous Peoples around the world often center their struggles in self-determination, states have historically resisted, fearing the potential for political and economic instability, even territorial fragmentation. However, some states are taking their obligations under UNDRIP more seriously and grappling with the twin issues of reconciliation and implementation of Indigenous rights, including self-determination.

Our project offers a cross-national comparative study of the myriad ways that Indigenous peoples have approached advancing self-determination in practice. Our project engages with the following research areas and questions:

  1. Traditional definitions and practice: What do self-determination, autonomy, and sovereignty mean to Indigenous Peoples in various national contexts, and how did they practice self-determination before colonization and maintain diplomatic and other relations?
  2. Settler states: How were self-determining principles and capabilities undermined by settler states, and how do Indigenous Peoples understand and practice self-determination today?
  3. Self-determining futures: What are the future self-determining goals of Indigenous Peoples, what are the primary structural and ideational impediments to the realization of these, internal and external to the state?
  4. Comparative analysis: How do Indigenous understandings and practices vary between settler states and within them? How do the demographic, economic, and geographic sizes of Indigenous nations influence their self-determining capacities?
  5. Expanding contributions: Where and how do Indigenous Peoples want to make meaningful contributions over policy formulation and implementation within settler states. Examples include treaty making, independent diplomatic agreements with other countries, citizenship and passports, independent participation in international bodies. To what extent do Indigenous Peoples desire direct input into policy areas such as immigration, industrialization, urbanization, foreign policy, treaties and agreements?
  6. Financial autonomy: To what extent have neoliberal economic forms of self-determination taken a privileged position over political and other forms?
  7. Capacity: In what ways can Indigenous capacity be strengthened domestically and internationally in order to increase the viability of self-determination?
  8. Incommensurability: Are territoriality and self-determination inextricably linked, or can they be uncoupled in a new, more plural, conception of sovereignty that respects IPs’ right to self-determination without threatening state sovereignty?
  9. International Relations: Are Indigenous rights expectations and understandings shifting global conceptions of sovereignty and self-determination? How might the exercise of self-determination expand our understandings of sovereignty in the international system?
  10. Communities of colour: Given that settler states are increasingly composed of non-European settlers, is there potential for alliance building and working towards common goals in supporting Indigenous self-determination within and outside of settler states?

Our research has been and will continue to be shaped by the active contributions and insights of Indigenous Elders, Knowledge Keepers, collaborators, and others who directly inform the nature of our work. In offering a clear, comparative, and systematized discussion of Indigenous self-determination goals and practices globally, our project aims to challenge eurocentric assumption around notions of sovereignty, self-determination and independence while also supporting the affirmation of mutually respectful, nation-to-nation relationships, as articulated in UNDRIP.

For more information and background on our project please view our Grant Proposal.

The project’s lead investigators are Dr. David MacDonald of the University of Guelph (Department of Political Science) and Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot of the University of British Columbia (Department of Political Science/First Nations and Indigenous Studies)  Dr. MacDonald and Dr. Lightfoot are joined by a number of academic, organizational and community collaborators. All collaborators on the project are eager to develop cross-national insights and knowledge on advancing and strengthening Indigenous self-determination. For more information about our lead investigators and collaborators, please visit our research team page.

The research is funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).