Indigenous leaders from northern British Columbia and across the country are calling out the Canadian government on what they say are violations of their indigenous rights, in addition to ongoing racial discrimination against Indigenous Peoples. A delegation of leaders from the Wet’suwet’en, Gitxsan and Haida Nations from Northwest British Columbia traveled to Geneva this week to make their case before the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
They are asking CERD to investigate Canada’s environmental assessment policies, which they say violate many of their aboriginal rights backed by the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Currently Canada is undergoing its periodic CERD review, and a report is expected by the end of August. It will focus on much of the testimony received on Monday August 14, especially that from northern B.C. First Nations who continue to oppose major resource development projects they say will have a detrimental impact on their lives.
“The ongoing pandering to multinational corporations through exploitation of resources is very much a threat to our ways of life,” said Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Deneza Na’Moks, (John Ridsdale), in the First Nations’ official submission to the convention. “We might be the first to live with the consequence of carbon-based economies that are already causing wholesale change to natural systems and suffering of people around the world.”
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Canada’s environmental assessment laws, Na’Moks said, continue to measure financial benefits rather than the social, cultural and environmental impacts to communities. Although there are indigenous rights are clearly defined through the Declaration, the CERD committee didn’t have a clear understanding of how these rights have been violated in Canada and the difference between the hereditary governance systems and the elected band councils, Na’Moks contended.
“They weren’t aware of how atrocious Canada is on endorsing their own laws and then not upholding the UNDRIP and free, prior and informed consent,” Na’Moks said. “In response, Canada gave cut-and-paste answers. They were very weak in their replies to the committee.”
The Canadian government did not testify at the CERD meeting, whose purpose was solely to deliver testimony to the U.N. officials. But contacted by ICMN afterward, Canadian officials reiterated their commitment to rebuilding relationships with First Nations and said the work is ongoing, at the same time recognizing the shortcomings of current and previous governments when it comes to indigenous rights.
Since his election in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government have made real gains in rebuilding nation-to-nation relations, the office of the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs said in a statement e-mailed to ICMN. The government has set aside $2.6 million for First Nations education, created a National Council for Reconciliation, and initiated the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, among other measures, the office said.
“Our government remains fully committed to implementing UNDRIP and to consulting and working in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to do so,” Indigenous Affairs said. “Those consultations have already begun—the Minister of Justice is leading a working group of Minister to do a review of laws and policies to ensure they live up to our Constitutional obligations and to UNDRIP. That work will involve indigenous partners. We need to get this right, and we will continue to work in partnership, on a whole-of-government approach, to renew our relationship and advance reconciliation.”
The indigenous delegation also made reference to Canada’s alleged failure to meaningfully consult First Nations, especially those with active traditional governance systems, regarding resource extraction projects.
“Multinational companies, particularly energy projects, have continued to carry more weight when measured against the environment and rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said delegation member Kirby Muldoe, of Gitxsan and Tsimshian descent.
This came on the heels of the quashed Pacific Northwest LNG project, proposed to be built above one of the most productive salmon habitats in the world. Although the immediate threat of PNW LNG is no more, Muldoe said, it remains an example of how government approvals of foreign-owned energy projects fly in the face of indigenous rights to self-determination.
“Canada’s history of racial discrimination toward Indigenous Peoples have been by design, and are compounded today by deep geopolitical ties in international trade that give far more weight to foreign interests than to indigenous people,” Muldoe said.
Members of the West Moberly First Nation in northeast B.C. testified regarding the Site C Hydroelectric dam project. Councilor Robyn Fuller said their territory has been negatively impacted for decades by the onslaught of industrial development due to flooding large areas of their traditional lands. Fuller told CERD that the Site C Dam continues to infringe on their traditional territories and violate their treaty rights.
“My great-grandmother, my grandfather and my mother have all fought against Site C from the beginning,” Fuller said. “I am the fourth generation from West Moberly to stand against Site C and say NO! We will no longer allow our people to be poisoned, starved and pushed aside as if we do not matter! So we ask that the Canadian Government to uphold the treaties that were signed with it’s British Crown, and to up hold the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples to free, prior, and informed consent.”
From the opposite side of the country, a coalition of First Nations also submitted evidence and testimony on what they called 150-plus years of colonialism in Canada.
“Canada’s Comprehensive Claims Policy still aims at the de facto extinguishment and termination of Aboriginal Title,” said representatives from the Cree, Algonquin and several First Nations interior British Columbia in a joint statement describing the focus of their submissions.
“We were able to lobby the members of CERD to ask Canada a question in relation to our treaty rights,” said Ron Lameman from Beaver Lake Cree Nation–Treaty 6. “When we go to court to protect our Treaty rights, Canada continues to allow the violator of our rights to destroy our lands. They do not stop the companies.”
Canada’s oft-floated suggestion that First Nations can always ask to halt court proceedings while negotiation takes place, is “a complete joke” of a solution, Lameman said, since the negotiations happened long ago.
“We negotiated a treaty with the Crown,” he pointed out. “We are done negotiating. But due to Canada’s view of owning our underlying title, the state violates our rights on a daily basis.”
CERD’s, Article 2 (c) says, “Each State Party shall take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.” For many indigenous communities this is directly tied to the connection to land. For Na’Moks it means that cooperation with governments is the only way forward. But that requires holding governments to account.
“U.N. conventions show that cooperation between indigenous and ‘state’ authorities may be the best opportunity to protect this planet,” Na’Moks said in the delegation’s statement. “Our ask of the committee was to hold Canada’s feet to the fire.”
Na’Moks added that one of the CERD committee members had even noted that the world “believes that Canada is a great place where everyone is respected, and they all have rights” and that “according to what they’re reading, this is not true.”
He called for action, not just words, and emphasized that First Nations have just as much at stake in a healthy economy as anyone else.
“Our people aren’t against development,” he said. “The government of Canada has got to pursue other ways to create an economy that respects our livelihoods, our cultures, our lands and our waters.”