Where is Harper taking us?

A Canadian History of Indigenous Rights Infringement

August 10, 2013  |  By Genevieve Lavoie-Mathieu, Canada

Where is Harper taking us?

Canada, once the symbol of environmental innovation, country of vast plains and untouched forests, a pacifying power and human rights defender, cannot fulfill the stereotype any longer. In fact, at home and abroad, a recent Amnesty International report - http://www.amnesty.ca/sites/default/files/canadaaihra19december12.pdf -  found that Canada's respect of human rights is on the decline. Reportedly, the government's "efforts to promote resource development in Canada and abroad [...] has undermined rights protected in the Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples]". Further Amnesty asserts that "no other human rights challenge in Canada is as consistently and strenuously raised by UN experts and committees and other independent human rights bodies as the rights of Indigenous peoples".

Ignored by the government for years the First Nations frustration regarding the governments’ negligence towards them coalesced into a movement of protestation under the name 'Idle No More'. The protests sparked, partly, in response to Prime Minister Harper's resource development policies carried out at home and abroad. Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people are taking part in the Idle No More movement, which started last month "calling on all people to join in a revolution which honours and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty, which protects the land and water".

Amongst other things, the Idle No More supporters accuse Canada of pursuing a "colonialist agenda through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water", through policies which would notably open the door for oil and mining companies to operate in the North of Canada. Sheelah Mclean, one of the instigators of the movement, argues that "the changes they are making to the environmental legislation is stunning in terms of the protection it will take away from the bodies of water - river and lakes, across the country".

This is true at home and abroad. In several countries of Latin America and Africa, Canadian corporations of the extractive sector have been accused of human rights violation and environmental damages. According to Mining Watch Canada, "the devastation and violence perpetrated by Canadian mining corporations has been documented clearly with links to human rights violations in Guatemala, Peru, Romania, the Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador, Bolivia, Ghana, Suriname, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, India, Indonesia, Zambia and Sudan".

Lately, in a move to facilitate and fortify partnership with extractive companies, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has announced a reorientation under Harper towards a trade orientated approach to development, especially in mineral rich countries. At home, Government Harper is pursuing a similar approach. He is promoting mining and resource extraction 'as a potential solution to northern economic and social challenges' according to Mining Watch Canada. According to Mining Watch: "in British Columbia, where over 97% of the land is yet unceded First Nations land even according to Canadian and International law, the British Columbia Mining Plan of 2005 designated over 85% of the province’s land “open to exploration” even setting up an online system for staking mineral claims".

This is not without tremendous environmental impact. For example, cuts adopted will eliminate "the sources of funding for an existing Arctic environmental research station and reductions in the environmental effects monitoring program for mining. Further, the government of Yukon rejected 'recommendations which excluded mineral developments from most of the watershed, took five years to develop, and were supported by First Nations and conservation groups' .

Canadian First Nations: A History of Inequality

There are over one million Aboriginal in Canada, divided in over 600 different communities and they played a key role in shaping Canada's history and national identity. In many cases, European settlers infringed upon their traditional livelihood, removed them from their land, as part of their economic growth strategy and since then have continued with cultural assimilation and isolation, secluding them in reserves. So much so that they have come to live in a state of dependance and poverty, deprived of any political space or decision making power.

The Idle No More movement was therefore built on the backdrop of a long history of displacement, conflict and negligence of indigenous rights. Along the years, the respect and equality on which the original treaties between the First Nations and the government were grounded eroded as to create frictions and dysfunctional relationships. For example, according to Mining Watch Canada "In Saskatchewan, on Deline Dene territory, over 1.7 million tons of radioactive waste and tailings were dumped in and around Great Bear Lake during the 1940s and 50s, contaminating all food sources of the Dene People. The community lost 50 men due to radiation effects. Since 1990, 27% of the 609 First Nations reserves in Canada have undergone some level of exploration activity for non-metallic minerals."

Could the Idle No More movement shed light on what kind of neo-colonialist policies Canada is pursuing at home and abroad, contravening to human rights in several instances and inconsiderate to Indigenous people and local communities? Chelsea Vowel, a Plains Cree-speaking métis from Alberta wrote on her blog 'âpihtawikosisân' – http://apihtawikosisan.com/ -that not only more funds are necessary to straighten the situation but the solution lies in addressing the issues of land and resource management hand in hand with self-governance. Consultation, common agreement and fair, shared benefits are necessary to making natural resource management a successful story and for all parties to reap benefits.

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