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UN Special Rapporteur urged to push Canada on Indigenous rights

Giovanni Torre -

The Canadian government is facing new calls to stop violating the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people as UN Special Rapporteur Francisco Calí Tzay begins his 10-day visit to the country.

Mr Calí Tzay, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and his delegation will tour Canada from March 1 to March 10. His mandate includes reporting on the human rights situation of Indigenous Peoples worldwide and addressing specific alleged cases of violations of Indigenous rights.

The Atikamekw of Manawan First Nation, the Grassy Narrows First Nation, the Pessamit Innu Nation, the Wet'suwet'en Nation and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in partnership with Amnesty International Canada's English and francophone sections prepared a written submission for the office of the UN Special Rapporteur ahead of the visit.

The joint letter details violations against Indigenous Peoples and their right to a healthy environment, the destruction of traditional ways of life, and non-adherence to Indigenous nations' right to free, prior and informed consent on infrastructure projects affecting their territories.

Mr Calí Tzay and the delegation's visit comes "at a critical moment for Canada's relationship with Indigenous Peoples", the alliance said in a joint statement issued Wednesday.

The statement noted that by law, the Canadian government is required to unveil an action plan for the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), yet, with only a few months to the deadline for the plan's submission to Parliament, serious human rights violations against Indigenous people and communities "remain rife".

Chief of the Atikamekw Council of Manawan, Sipi Flamand, said the Special Rapporteur's "very important visit will allow us to set the record straight on the questions and issues faced by Indigenous people in Canada, in particular on systemic racism, the adoption of Joyce's Principle, the humanitarian crisis in terms of housing in Indigenous communities and especially the questions on reconciliation".

"It will also allow us to bring our realities to light at the international level," he said.

Chief of the Innu Council of Pessamit, Marielle Vachon, said it is essential that the Special Rapporteur "documents how, as First Nations, our rights have been denied for too long by the provincial and federal governments".

"We have always been ignored, our territories taken away and our forests destroyed. It is time to make our reality visible on the international scene," she said.

France-Isabelle Langlois, the general director of Amnistie internationale Canada francophone, said the accounts of rights abuses in Canada were "truly alarming".

"Each community's experience of systemic racism is different, but they share common threads: namely, a blatant disrespect for the natural environment, their right to pursue their way of life, and their right to the equal enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health," she said.

Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada's English-speaking section, said Canada had made "only glacial progress" in the two years since parliament affirmed that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has application in Canadian law.

"The government cannot meaningfully advance reconciliation and redress past harms while violating Indigenous Peoples' rights today. As always, the best time to change course is now," she said.

The submission to the Special Rapporteur by Amnesty and partners condemns the ongoing criminalisation of Indigenous land and water defenders across Canada, noting that since 2019, the governments of Canada and British Columbia have harassed, intimidated, forcibly removed and prosecuted members of the Wet'suwet'en Nation protesting the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on their territory.

In July 2022, authorities in British Columbia charged 19 land defenders with criminal contempt for allegedly defying a 2019 court injunction to stay away from pipeline construction sites, despite these sites being on the community's unceded, ancestral territory.

Chief Na'moks of the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs noted on Wednesday that the Canadian government has been contacted no fewer than three times by the United Nations with regards to the abuses to the Wet'suwet'en Nation and its peoples.

"Now, the world must hear from the Indigenous Peoples on the human rights abuses occurring in so-called Canada. We are meeting with the UN Special Rapporteur to speak to the truth, not just the narrative of what is the one-sided version of what is occurring in Canada," he said.

Councillor Charlene Aleck of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation said her people faced a similar situation, having consistently, vocally opposed the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, which the Canadian government approved without the free, prior and informed consent of the community.

"The Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker expansion terminates in the heart of Tsleil-Waututh territory," she said

"Our nation conducted an independent review of the project, grounded in our unextinguished Indigenous laws and backed by cutting-edge science, and found that it threatens our very identity as 'people of the inlet.' On that basis we have denied our free, prior and informed consent.

"However, Canada continues to force the project through our territories, in spite of their commitments to reconciliation and UNDRIP. Our Tsleil-Waututh members have been harassed and criminalized for opposing the project, which is a major threat to our ongoing work to steward the Burrard Inlet – the birthplace of our ancestors."

In Ontario, the Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) published the 2018 Grassy Narrows Land Declaration and declared their Anishinaabe Territory an Indigenous Sovereignty and Protected Area in line with Indigenous law.

This declaration asserts their right to self-determination to protect and care for their Indigenous homeland, including banning mineral staking and mining, industrial logging and any other industrial activity without their free, prior and informed consent.

However, the government of Ontario, with the federal government's acquiescence, continues to permit industrial land uses. This disregard for the rights of Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek nation comes in the context of decades of mercury poisoning inflicted upon the residents of Grassy Narrows after the Ontario government permitted a pulp and paper mill to dump around 10 metric tonnes of mercury into the English and Wabigoon rivers in the 1960s.

Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle said his people continue to suffer from the mercury poisoning crisis without access to fair compensation.

"To make matters worse, Ontario continues to grant new mining claims and to propose logging on our land against our will. It is long past time for Canada and Ontario to respect our rights and to support us as we restore what mercury has damaged," he said.

The perspectives gathered on the Special Rapporteur's trip will inform a series of recommendations on how Canadian authorities must uphold and advance the rights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

The delegation's findings, Ms Nivyabandi noted, will have implications for not only the Indigenous peoples of Canada, or even all Canadian residents, but for the world.

"Indigenous Peoples are on the front lines of the struggle against human-caused climate change," she said.

"The future of our planet depends on their voices being heard."

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