Grassroots rallies across Canada under the banner 'Idle No More' have put the spotlight on a federal legislative agenda that is trampling the rights of Indigenous peoples set out in domestic and international law.
Bill C-45, the omnibus budget bill, introduced changes to the Indian Act, including measures that would make it easier for First Nations to 'surrender' their lands, even without the support of the majority of their members. The omnibus bill also further narrowed the scope of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and numerous related laws, so that resource development projects on the traditional lands of Indigenous peoples will be much less likely to be subject to a rigorous public environmental impact assessment. These changes are on top of dramatic restrictions on environmental assessments already passed in the previous budget bill.
These are not the only legislative changes that raise concerns. For example, as Amnesty International has previously highlighted, a Senate bill to regulate First Nations water services asserts the power to unilaterally disregard treaty rights.
These changes in legislation have the potential to profoundly affect the rights and lives of Indigenous peoples. In each case, these legislative changes have been brought forward without adequate or meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples - and in many case, over their clearly expressed opposition.
International human rights standards, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, require that decisions affecting the rights of Indigenous peoples be made only with their full and effective participation. And when the decisions concern the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples, the appropriate standard is generally, if not always, free, prior and informed consent.
The rushed adoption of new laws affecting the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples not only violates these international human rights standards, it falls far short of the legal requirements established in Canadian law.
In Canada, the rights of Indigenous peoples are enshrined in the Constitution and set out in nation to nation Treaties. The Supreme Court has clearly said that Parliament cannot ignore these rights. There must be "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. Any infringement on Indigenous rights must be strictly justified. The government must deal "honourably" with both the established and the asserted rights of Indigenous peoples. And in every case, in order to uphold the "honour of the Crown", there must be good faith consultations to ensure that Indigenous peoples' concerns are at least "substantially addressed."
The Idle No More movement is a vital, grassroots response to the blatant disregard for the rights of Indigenous peoples that is being demonstrated by Parliament. Amnesty International members are encouraged to learn more about the movement and to get involved in rallies in their own communities. Many have already done so.
For more information, please see: www.idlenomore.ca
Photo: Demonstrators gather on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on 21 December 2012 as part of the The "Idle No More" grassroots Indigenous movement. © Susanne Ure/Amnesty International