Canada: Appealing to the world for “the survival of our people”

“Access is a very serious problem on private land. The workers of a forest company kicked me and my family off a property. We were told we were trespassing. We live in fear of arrest or harm when we attempt to continue our traditional lifestyle in our own territory. We have difficulty carrying out our ceremonies, harvesting wood, medicines, food, hunting, bathing or fishing in our own territory. These have serious consequences for the health, strength, spirituality and survival of our Hul’qumi’num people.” — Hul’qumi’num elder Luschiim

On Friday October 28, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights heard the moving testimony of a Hul’qumi’num elder, Luschiim, who talked about being denied access to lands that are essential for ceremonies, for hunting and fishing, and for gathering foods and medicines. The situation faced by the Hul’qumi’num people of British Columbia is avoidable and it is shameful. Amnesty International is fully in agreement with the Hulquminum Treaty Group that it  represents a clear violation of well established international standards for the protection and fulfillment of human rights.

Canada’s response at the Commission was nothing more than an empty assurance that the processes available to resolve land rights disputes in Canada will work — eventually.

In fact, this case came before the Inter American Commission precisely because of Canada’s failure to provide a fair and timely way to resolve the numerous long outstanding Indigenous land rights disputes across Canada. Such disputes can drag on for years or even decades without resolution. In the meantime, governments and corporations are able to get away with using the land for their own benefit with little regard for the rights and interests of Indigenous communities who are most deeply affected by their actions.

This is fundamentally unjust. It denies Indigenous peoples a key opportunity to close the gap in quality of life and standard of living that they face. And it erects a barrier to the reconciliation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. This should be of pressing concern to anyone who cares about the universal protection of human rights.

And Canada, a country that has played such a central role in the development of international human rights standards and institutions, and which prides itself on this contribution to the world, must be expected to uphold these same human rights obligations at home, without excuses, without double standards and without discrimination.

More than a dozen Indigenous peoples’ organizations and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have filed legal briefs in support of the case.

In a joint statement about the case released this week, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) said, “Fair and timely resolution of land and resource disputes is essential for reconciliation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada and for closing the unacceptable gap in standard of living facing so many Indigenous communities. We hope that the intervention of the international human rights body can be a catalyst for rethinking government policies and approaches that have so blatantly failed Indigenous peoples and the cause of justice.”