Indigenous Peoples in Canada
“A B.C. government, led by me, will officially adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples…I will work with you to align the actions of my government with the Declaration.” – NDP leader John Horgan, prior to the 2017 provincial election
“It is well established that statements by elected representatives do not fetter decision makers, nor do political speeches constitute legally enforceable promises against the Crown.” – the Government of British Columbia’s written submission to the Site C injunction hearing
BC Premier John Horgan has said many fine words about upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples. He made these promises while running for office and he has repeatedly affirmed them since becoming Premier. But in the most significant test to date of the veracity and integrity of these commitments -- the arguments now being made in front of the crucially important Site C injunction hearing -- Premier Horgan’s government has done the very opposite of what it promised.
Earlier today, I decided to mark Indigenous Peoples Day by making a donation to support the First Nations legal struggle to stop the massively destructive Site C dam in northeast BC.
I’ve had the pleasure of travelling many times to Treaty 8 territory and I’ve become a passionate supporter of the efforts of First Nations and farmers to save the beautiful, irreplaceable Peace River Valley.
But there was another reason I wanted to support this legal challenge. It has to do what Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair, Senator Murray Sinclair has called “the War of Law.”
To me this powerful phrase invokes not only laws that are harmful in their intent and purpose - of which there have been many – but all the ways that the law is applied in a discriminatory and unequal manner, with often devastating impacts.
It should be an easy decision.
Expert scientific studies have found that completion of Labrador’s Muskrat Falls dam as currently planned would release disastrously high levels of mercury into downstream waters, threatening the health, food security and cultural integrity of Inuit communities who rely in fish and seal.
However, these same studies have also concluded that the threat could be greatly reduced by removing soil from the planned reservoir to greatly reduce the amount of methyl mercury resulting from decomposition.
Now, the majority of members of an advisory committee struck by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador have made the same recommendation.
The province now has a choice. Either scrap the project or make the necessary changes. Either way, the lives and safety of downstream communities must ensured.
“Canada is built on the ancestral land of Indigenous peoples but regrettably it is also a country that came into being without the meaningful participation of those who were there first. And even where Treaties had been formed to provide a basis for proper relations, they have not been fully honoured or implemented.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressing the UN General Assembly the day after an interim report on the Site C dam was released
“The joint federal-provincial environmental impact assessment of the Site C dam was clear that flooding the Peace River Valley would destroy hundreds of graves and other cultural sites and cause severe, permanent and irreversible harm to the natural environment on which we rely. All this was pushed aside in the rush to build Site C.” Prophet River Chief Lynette Tsakoza responding to the Site C interim report
Three years ago, the federal government approved one of the most environmentally destructive resource development projects in Canada, over the opposition of profoundly affected First Nations.
"We will continue to bring unrelenting opposition to a project that can only be described as an unqualified disaster." -Chief Lynette Tsakoza, Prophet River responding to Supreme Court of Canada ruling closing off one part to justice in the Site C struggle
Whatever your feelings about British Columbia’s Site C dam, whether you think the hydro-electric megaproject is needed or if you think there are better ways to invest in the province’s future, it should be clear that an unacceptable injustice is taking place.
The 100 km of the Peace River and its tributaries that will be flooded by Site C are part of the territory of Treaty 8, an historic Treaty between First Nations and Canada. Like other Treaties, the rights protected under Treaty 8 are recognized and affirmed in the Canadian Constitution. In other words, they are part of the highest law of the land.
Yet, the federal and provincial governments openly admit that they approved the Site C dam without ever considering whether the “severe”, “permanent” and “irreversible” harms identified by their own environmental assessment would violate Treaty 8.
Two things need to be said up front about British Columbia’s Site C dam.
The first is that flooding more than 100km of the Peace River Valley and its tributaries will be profoundly harmful to lives and well-being of Indigenous peoples in northeast BC, which is why there has been such strong opposition to the dam from Treaty 8 First Nations.
The Peace River Valley is a unique ecosystem supporting plants and animal populations crucial to Cree and Dene-Zaa cultural traditions. It is also the location of countless graves and historic sites. On top of that, the valley is also one of the few remaining areas in the northeast that have been largely protected from the impacts of pervasive resource development in the region.
The independent panel that conducted the environmental assessment of Site C on behalf of the federal and provincial governments called these impacts severe, permanent and irreversible.
“I thank the grassroots people of Grassy Narrows, and our supporters who have been tireless in their work to gain justice for mercury survivors at long last.” -- Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister
The province of Ontario has just made a public commitment to clean up the river system on which the people of Grassy Narrows depend.
The announcement follows a meeting between Premier Kathleen Wynne and the people of Grassy Narrows last Friday.
The province’s commitment reportedly includes a promise that the river clean up will be led by the people of Grassy Narrows themselves.
Grassy Narrows is the site of one of the worst incidents of industrial pollution in Canada. A half century ago, an upstream pulp and paper mill was allowed to dump tonnes of mercury into the river system. The people of Grassy Narrows are still dealing with the disastrous impacts on their health and way of life.
For the overwhelming majority of Canadians, access to safe drinking water is something we take for granted. Any interruptions to the flow of clean water from our taps are rare and momentary, lasting a few hours or perhaps days at most.
It’s an entirely different story for a shocking number of First Nations.
As of last Fall, 110 First Nations were living under advisories to either boil their water or not drink it at all. The number is often much higher. In many cases, these advisories have been in place for years. In some instances, First Nations have lived a generation or longer without safe, reliable water.
Prime Minister Trudeau has made a public commitment to end this water insecurity by 2020. It’s a welcome and important promise. But unfortunately it’s one that the federal government is in very real danger of breaking.
The barriers to water justice – bureaucratic and financial – are set out in an important new study released by the David Suzuki Foundation and Council of Canadians, and with advisers Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
One year ago, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the Canadian government`s persistent underfunding of supports for First Nations families was a form of racial discrimination – and ordered immediate action.
It was a landmark day for human rights and for the thousands of First Nations children and young people living in state care simply because First Nations children`s agencies are unable to provide the support their families need.
But a full year later, the most basic form of discrimination identified by the Tribunal – the failure to provide enough funds to meet the actual needs of First Nations children and families – has not been addressed.
In last year`s federal budget, the government significantly increased the funds allocated for First Nations family services. But the increase was not enough to close the gap between First Nations children and all other children in Canada.
A year is a long time in the life of a children taken from her family and community.
It’s been almost 20 years since the Supreme Court of Canada first ruled that the Constitutional protection of Indigenous rights requires governments to consult in “good faith” with Indigenous peoples so that their concerns can be “substantially” addressed before decisions are made that could affect their rights.
While the federal, provincial and territorial governments now all accept that there is a duty to consult, their interpretation of this duty is often so narrow and impoverished that serious concerns over the impact of planned development are simply ignored. Rather than being a source of reconciliation and rights protection as intended in decisions like Delgamuukw (1997) and Haida Nation (2004), the duty to consult as applied by governments in Canada has been a source of ongoing conflict with projects like Northern Gateway and the Site C dam all ending up in court at tremendous cost to Indigenous peoples.
In an extraordinary victory for Indigenous rights and environmental protection, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has agreed to measures to reduce immediate risks to Inuit health and culture from the Muskrat Falls dam.
Following almost two weeks of protests, including a hunger strike, occupations of the dam site and a journey to Ottawa, the government met yesterday with Inuit and Innu leaders. The result was an agreement to:
A hunger strike by three Inuit land defenders - Billy Gauthier, Jerry Kohlmeister and Delilah Saunders – is a powerful symbol of the tragic choices that will face Inuit hunters and fishers if planned flooding for the Muskrat Falls dam goes ahead.
Flooding will release deadly methylmercury into the water system where it will accumulate in the fish, seals, duck eggs and other wild food that are central to the diet of Inuit people living around the downstream Lake Melville Estuary.
The provincial government plans to monitor the fish and issue warnings when the mercury levels become unsafe.
A government MP summed it up this approach in a facebook post: “Just measure MeHg [methylmercury] levels, eat less fish.”
What this approach means for Inuit families is an impossible choice between abandoning the food that sustains them and their culture, or risking the devastating impacts of mercury poisoning.
“I come from a very large family that couldn’t get by without country food,” Delilah Saunders explained.
“Ninety-five percent of my food is what I eat off of the land.” – Inuit hunter quoted in Harvard University study of potential health impacts of the Muskrat Falls dam
In a matter of days, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador could begin the first phase of flooding for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam. Doing so will set off a chain of events that will threaten the health and culture of downstream Inuit hunters and fishers for generations to come.Threats to food and culture ignored
A 2015 peer reviewed scientific study concluded that the Muskrat Falls dam would increase levels of deadly methylmercury flowing into the downstream Lake Melville estuary by at least 25 percent and potentially by as much as 200 percent.
A follow-up study released earlier this year warned that almost half of the Inuit community of Rigolet would be exposed to methylmercury levels in seals and other wild foods exceeding Canadian health guidelines, with exposure increasing by up to 1500% for some individuals.
On September 12, the Federal Court of Appeal in Montreal will hear the latest legal challenge to the massive Site C hydroelectric dam already under construction on Treaty 8 territory in northeast British Columbia.