For nearly a month now, an Indigenous leader has been camped out in a traditional tepee near the Canadian Parliament buildings in Ottawa, where she is engaged in a hunger strike aimed at getting a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation started her fast on 11 December 2012 to draw attention to an endemic housing crisis in her community and new legislation that undermines the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples across Canada.
At the same time, a growing grassroots movement – “Idle No More” – has successfully used social media to organize demonstrations for Indigenous rights in communities across Canada, prompting solidarity actions around the world.
Like Chief Spence’s hunger strike, the Idle No More protests are a response both to the government’s current legislative agenda and to the longstanding discrimination and injustices faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, including the failure to uphold negotiated treaties.
“The spirit and intent of the Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources. Instead, First Nations have experienced a history of colonization which has resulted in outstanding land claims, lack of resources and unequal funding for services such as education and housing," the Idle No More manifesto states.
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations are supporting the call for Indigenous peoples to be full participants in any decisions affecting their rights, including the adoption of new legislation.
“‘Idle no More’ and the actions of Chief Theresa Spence have rightly put the spotlight on Canada’s federal policy and legislative agendas that are trampling the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples affirmed in domestic and international law,” said Susan Lee, Amnesty International’s Americas Programme Director.
“It’s high time for Canada to scrap discriminatory approaches dating back to colonial times and begin to respect the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples under Canadian and international law.”
Laws without consent
At the heart of Spence’s protest and the wider Idle No More movement is frustration over the adoption of new laws that breach treaties and affect the rights of Indigenous peoples.
By shutting First Nations out of active participation in drafting laws – and often adopting them despite vocal opposition – Canada is falling far short of national legal requirements and flouting global human rights standards like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Canada’s Supreme Court has called for “reconciliation” between the power of the state and the prior sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. Laws passed by Parliament must be balanced against the laws, customs and perspectives of Indigenous peoples and “equal weight” must be given to each.
When proposed legislation concerns the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples, the authorities generally have an obligation to seek their free, prior and informed consent to the proposed changes.
But, in Canada, this simply has not been happening. A raft of new measures have been rushed through by means of omnibus budget bills, including changes to environmental protection and to federal legislation for the administration of First Nations lands.
The recent changes to Canada’s laws are part of a long-term strategy being pursued by Canadian lawmakers to pave the way for large-scale development projects in the future. According to the Canadian government, more than 600 major resource development projects – estimated to be worth more than $650 billion – are planned over the next decade.
The vast majority of these proposed projects will affect lands and waters that are vital to the cultures, livelihoods and well-being of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.
The Canadian authorities claim that their environmental impact assessment process is a primary way in which Indigenous peoples are consulted about such projects.
But in two omnibus budget bills passed in 2012 – without proper consultation or the consent of Indigenous peoples – the federal government dramatically overhauled the country's environmental protection laws. Resource development projects are now far less likely to be subjected to a federal environmental assessment at all, which in turn means that meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples is also less likely to take place.
Amnesty International takes no position on mining, oil development or other resource extraction in any country.
But in order to uphold its obligations under national laws, treaties with Indigenous peoples, and international human rights standards, Canada must ensure that Indigenous peoples are fully and effectively involved in decision-making.
Rather than weakening the environmental impact assessment process, Canada should work with Indigenous peoples to design and implement distinct processes to assess, at the earliest possible stage, the potential impact of proposed resource development projects on their rights.
“Resource extraction projects affecting the lands and waters of Indigenous peoples should never get a green light to proceed until the affected peoples have given their free, prior and informed consent,” said Lee.
“The Canadian government’s failure to meet with Chief Theresa Spence to discuss her concerns and proposals is symbolic of a larger national discussion that is not taking place – the authorities must live up to their obligations and ensure that First Nations, Inuit and Métis are given the opportunity to fully participate in decision-making processes that affect their rights.”