Canada signed on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples two years after it was adopted globally but it remains intransigent when it comes to respecting the declaration’s tenants, according to Amnesty International.
Craig Benjamin, a representative for the organization known globally for human rights advocacy, was in Williams Lake Tuesday making a presentation on the declaration itself and the struggles of indigenous people to receive those rights in Canada.
Marilyn Baptiste, chief of Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, speaking on the Prosperity Mine project told the crowd prior to the presentation, “The lands that sustain us can not be forsaken for 20 years of mine life for the dollar,” she said.
“In history we had our economy and it was trading and we survived off the land. We still do hunt and fish and our job is to protect the land, the fish, the wildlife for future generations. That cannot be forsaken.”
Baptiste noted that First Nations in Canada find themselves in similar circumstances to indigenous peoples in other parts of the world who are also fighting for their rights against governments and corporations.
In his presentation Benjamin said the organization’s goal was to ensure people have the opportunity to live their rights not just talk about them.
“The key message is that fairness and justice have to be a first principle when we make decisions bout whether a mine goes ahead,” he said.
Benjamin cited Articles 18 and 19 of the U.N. Declaration noting they are the ones to guide the actions of government in projects like Prosperity.
The two articles state: “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”
And: “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”
The international system says governments need to recognize indigenous peoples customary ways of owning and using the land. They must work with people to protect land and have greater opportunities to survive to ensure the wrongs of the past aren’t repeated to harm future generations, Benjamin told the audience.
He added that in Canada the decisions, particularly related to land use and First Nations, are taking place within a system that is, “blatantly unfair.”
He said that despite constitutional recognition of aboriginal rights and title, Canadian governments act like those rights don’t exist until the court makes a judgement or a treaty settlement is reached.
“While the case is still in the courts the federal and provincial governments feel they have no need to protect Aboriginal rights to land,” he said. “It’s business as usual like the right hasn’t been established and therefore they (government) do not need to act to protect that right.”
That approach, said Benjamin, creates disincentives for governments to reach negotiated settlements or for government to resolve cases.
“If you can get away with denying rights why wouldn’t you,” he said.
Canadian courts have laid out the concept of First Nations’ accommodation where governments are required to undertake meaningful consultation; however, the federal and provincial governments are slow in developing policies for consultation and accommodation, he added.
More frequently, said Benjamin, the argument is being made that it makes a “poor business case” to get involved in projects against the wishes of indigenous peoples.
Benjamin added the actions of the Canadian government regarding indigenous peoples are particularly disgraceful given that Canada is a champion of human rights elsewhere in the world. He characterized human rights as not only providing a legal framework but a moral framework and encouraged Canadians to speak out on the issue.