Questions and Answers: our work with Indigenous peoples
What does Amnesty International mean when it talks about “the human rights of Indigenous peoples”?
In every region of the world, Indigenous peoples are consistently among the most marginalized and frequently victimized members of society. Although there is enormous diversity in the cultures and histories of these peoples, there are commonalities in the human rights violations that they have experienced.
Indigenous peoples’ rights to their own lands and territories have been arbitrarily ignored, resulting in devastating historic dispossession and ongoing failure to restore lands or protect Indigenous peoples’ remaining territories. Racism toward Indigenous peoples fuels violence in society and ill-treatment at the hands of authorities. Government services that are meant to be accessible to all are too often denied for Indigenous communities.
In which countries do violations of the rights of Indigenous peoples take place?
Violations of the human rights of Indigenous peoples are widespread and pervasive. In some instances, violations of the rights of Indigenous peoples take place in countries in the midst of a much broader human rights crisis. In Colombia, for example, Amnesty International is deeply concerned over the situation of Indigenous peoples who are caught in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict and are subject to such widespread and severe human rights violations that entire Indigenous societies have been pushed to brink of physical and cultural annihilation.
At the same time, serious and troubling violations of Indigenous peoples also take place in countries that are generally known for respecting human rights. In either case, the violations are often invisible – denied both by government and by the wider public.
How did the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples come to be?
Faced with national governments that are deeply entrenched in their denial of Indigenous rights, Indigenous peoples have often turned to the international stage to assert their rights. Indigenous peoples’ engagement with international human rights bodies has had a profound effect on the evolution of international human rights law.
Over the last three decades, an extensive body of international standards has been developed setting out the human rights of Indigenous peoples. These are not “special rights”, but interpretations and applications of universal standards and protections -- such as the prohibition of discrimination and genocide -- to address the specific situations of Indigenous peoples, the pervasiveness of the human rights violations they have experienced, and the suffering and hardship that has resulted.
These standards are set out in the rulings and interpretations of regional and international human rights bodies and in specific instruments such as the crucially important 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. All governments are expected to comply and implement these standards as part of the broader body of international human rights law that they have committed to uphold.
What is the history of Amnesty International’s work, as a global human rights movement, in respect to the human rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada?
Amnesty International has long worked alongside Indigenous peoples’ organizations, communities and activists in Canada to help document and expose violations of the rights of specific Indigenous individuals at the hands of police and the justice system. For example, we were among many social justice organizations that long pressed for a public inquiry into the Ontario Provincial Police shooting of Dudley George at Ipperwash Park in 1995.
Over the last decade, as part of the global evolution of Amnesty International, we have come to do more and more work on deeply-rooted problems of marginalization and discrimination that often fuel other human rights violations. This has led to a significant body of research and campaigning on critical concerns identified by Indigenous peoples in Canada such as violence against Indigenous women and the need for effective protection of Indigenous peoples’ land rights. The various campaigns linked from this page reflect the diversity of this work and the seriousness of these concerns.
Why is Amnesty International focusing attention on Canada?
Our attention to Indigenous rights in Canada reflects our commitment to the universality of human rights and the reality, documented not only by Amnesty, but by countless other human rights organizations, that Canada is doing less than it can, and less than it should, to live up to its human rights obligations.
High level government inquiries, federal audits, international human rights bodies, and Amnesty International’s own research all confirm that there is a substantial and unacceptable gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the enjoyment of basis human rights.
Despite living in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Indigenous families and communities in Canada continue to face widespread impoverishment, inadequate housing, food insecurity, ill-health and unsafe drinking water. Government services needed to improve people’s lives and address the legacy of past wrongs often fall far short of what is needed. Despite repeated claims about large amounts of money spent on Indigenous peoples, funding for many basic services for Indigenous peoples is often significantly less than what is provided in predominantly non-Indigenous communities.
The Canadian Constitution affirms both the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples and the Treaties that they have entered into with Canada. Governments in Canada are supposed to act as guarantors of these rights. Instead, in positions taken during negotiations and before courts, governments in Canada have consistently sought to minimize their responsibilities. Processes to resolve disputes over Indigenous land rights is so adversarial, prolonged and costly, that the Inter-Commission on Human Rights has concluded that land claims processes in Canada don’t meet international standards of justice.
These are all significant concerns in their own right, because they exemplify the discriminatory treatment experienced by Indigenous peoples, because they cause real hardship and suffering in the lives of individuals and communities, and because Canada has the capacity to address and resolve these issues if there was the political will to do so. In doing so, Canada would help set positive examples for the rest of the world where Canada is often looked to for models of effective human rights protection.
Doesn’t Canada already have extensive programs benefitting Indigenous peoples?
When Canada’s human rights record is reviewed by international human rights bodies, government officials often respond by talking about the dollars and the programs that are carried out. Much the same thing happens whenever there is public attention to the conditions in Indigenous communities. These claims need to be examined critically.
We need to ask, how were Indigenous peoples involved in determining the priorities and programmes, how much money is being spent on meeting real needs, how does that spending compare to what is spent in non-Indigenous communities, how does it compare to the real costs of delivering services, and does it live up to the government’s obligations in Canadian law, the Treaties and international human rights standards?
Our current campaign on children’s services in First Nations communities is a good example where it has been clearly established that the federal government is actually spending less money per child on children’s services in First Nations communities than the provinces spend in their jurisdictions. This is despite typically greater needs within First Nations communities and the greater costs in delivering services in small and remote communities. The matter is currently before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. The federal government’s long, costly and so far unsuccessful efforts to have the case shut down on technical grounds demonstrates the importance of the engagement of the public and public interest organizations to ensure that the available justice mechanisms work as they should.
Where does Amnesty’s work with Indigenous Peoples fit within Amnesty’s human rights mandate?
Our work to advance the human rights of Indigenous peoples involves numerous, often intersecting areas of our mandate. Our work on Indigenous rights has emerged as Amnesty International has focused greater attention on discrimination as a critical underlying factor leading to human rights violations and on the importance of economic, social and cultural rights. Specific campaigns within our Indigenous rights work reflect key priorities for Amnesty as a global movement, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting rights to land and housing, and advocating for greater corporate accountability for human rights violations in the context of resource development.
What is the current focus of your work?
An overarching theme of our work – and of international human rights standards - is the need for Indigenous peoples to be full and effective participants in all decisions affecting their lives and futures. Around the world, Indigenous peoples have experienced terrible consequences as a result of decisions made without their involvement. International human rights standards recognize that the contemporary situation of marginalization and impoverishment of many Indigenous peoples requires especially rigorous protection of their rights. A crucial part of that protection is the direct involvement of Indigenous peoples in decision-making.
We are also deeply concerned about the need for effective action to stop violence against Indigenous women in Canada. Here again, Indigenous peoples’ direct involvement in identifying and implementing solutions is critical. Amnesty International supports calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women so that families, front-line agencies, community leaders and other experts can have their voices heard. We are also calling for the government to work in collaboration with Indigenous women’s organizations in the development a concrete, comprehensive and coordinated national action plan to stop violence against women, as called for by United Nations resolutions.
Can you explain what “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” means?
Across Canada and around the world, there is an enormous push by governments to develop the natural resources of Indigenous peoples’ lands. Because the stakes in these decisions are so high, international human rights bodies have said that resource development projects should generally only go ahead with the free, prior and informed consent of the affected Indigenous peoples. The standard of free, prior and informed consent provides Indigenous peoples the opportunity to make their own decisions about the appropriate forms of economic development needed to meet the needs and aspirations of their communities. There is a significant global move toward the adoption of this standard by private and public corporations. Amnesty International strongly believes that Canada, as the home country for so many global companies in resource extraction industries, could play a crucial role in promoting this standard.
Does Amnesty International have a position on the Idle No More movement?
Amnesty International has welcomed the Idle No More movement’s catalyzing effect on public debate in Canada. The Idle No More movement has focused attention on legitimate and pressing concerns about the federal government’s power to make arbitrary and unilateral decisions about resource development on lands subject to Treaties and unresolved land and title disputes. Idle No More has also helped mobilize a grassroots demand for respect for Indigenous rights that has clearly already had an impact on Canadian politics.
There are now a diversity of organizations and activists mobilizing under this banner. We respect the call for non-violent action repeatedly made by the movement’s founders. We have encouraged members to participate in and support community events on the rights of Indigenous peoples wherever there is common ground with Amnesty’s approach to activism and our commitment to the protection of Indigenous rights under Canadian law, the Treaties and international human rights standards.