Collective rights are probably the hardest thing for most people to understand — we are too used to thinking that all rights accrue to the individual that there is a bias against even contemplating the collective. Take the American right to bear arms. Originally designed to ensure the right of the collectivity to form militias on a local basis — possibly against a central authority or for local self-protection (it was the late 18th century after all) it was transformed into an individual right by conservative judicial activism. Make no mistake it now is an individual right but only because the courts made it so.
Still, collective rights abound. Sticking with the American constitution, that document provides that Indian tribes have sovereignty within the union. Obviously that is a collective right; it doesn’t provide sovereignty to individual Native Americans. Some radical libertarians have tried to define something along the lines of individual sovereignty but they have to twist themselves in to such knots that every time they try to scratch their butt they pick their nose instead.
In Canada, our constitution and courts recognize both Aboriginal rights and title. They also recognize the constitutional protection of treaties which provide a statement of those specific rights in specific regions. Whether aboriginal rights or treaty rights (and they are not the same thing but space does not permit a full explanation), these rights are exercised by individuals but belong to the community and are very much specific to historical precedence and territorial limits. So, for example a Treaty 11 signatory may have the right to hunt and trap for subsistence without significant (or even any) interference by the government in the area covered by the treaty — roughly the NWT and Yukon with a few overlaps into northern provinces— but has no right to do so in southern Ontario, for example. His or her rights are confined to the traditional territories covered by the treaty (again a simplification but bear with me). These rights remain even if a family has not practiced them for a generation or even many generations. The rights accrue to the community and if they are linked through family, tradition, culture, self-identification and acceptance then they can exercise the right.
It is not just Aboriginal people who have collective rights. French and English language speakers also have them in Canada but that’s a topic for another day.
Why is it important to remember collective rights? Because it may be that only collective rights to clean air, water and so on will save the future for us.
But that’s ten minutes.