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Federal government can’t ignore its responsibilities to the people of Kanehsatà:ke

    September 20, 2019

    Canada’s relationship with the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Nation of Kanehsatà:ke should be an emblem of reconciliation.

    The 1990 confrontation triggered by planned expansion of a golf course on a sacred site within the Nation’s ancestral territory was a watershed moment in Canadian history, focusing long overdue attention on the profound injustice at the heart of Canada’s persistent failure to recognize and uphold Indigenous land rights.

    Yet almost three decades later, dispute ongoing negotiations between the federal government and the colonial created, band council Chief and Council, the underlying land question remains unresolved. This has resulted in ongoing tension, frustration and anxiety over the fact that municipal officials and private developers continue to hold the power to decide the future of lands crucial to the history and future of Kanehsatà:ke.

    On the 29th anniversary of the confrontation, the traditional government – Rotinonhseshá:ka ne Kanehsatà:ke (People of the Longhouse) -- issued a public call for a halt to development on the ancestral land, unless free, prior and informed consent is given.

    This statement, which went largely unreported in Canadian media, goes to the heart of the matter.

    Canadian law recognizes the right of Indigenous peoples to manage and benefit from their ancestral lands and that this right was not extinguished by Canada’s assertion of assumed sovereignty. The federal government acknowledges an obligation to provide redress for the long history of theft and erosion of Indigenous lands.

    However the processes set up by the federal government to address these historic injustices have been undermined by the government’s entrenched negotiating position of trying to minimize its own obligations. In fact, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has concluded that the options to obtain redress for violations of Indigenous land rights in Canada are so lengthy and adversarial that they do not meet international standards for access to justice.

    To make matters worse, federal and provincial government too often take a “business as usual approach” to private development on the disputed lands even as efforts to restore Indigenous control wind their way through the claim processes or the courts. The fact that governments can largely ignore Indigenous interests pending final resolution of land disputes actually creates a disincentive for a timely settlement.

    The Trudeau government promised to change all that.

    Prime Minister Trudeau told the United Nations General Assembly that Canada would “strictly adhere” to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The published “Principles Respecting the Government of Canada’s Relationship with Indigenous Peoples” states that “all relations with Indigenous peoples need to be based on the recognition and implementation of their right to self-determination”.

    Whatever party forms the federal government after the upcoming election, these promises need to be put into practice. And justice for the people of Kanehsatà:ke must, finally, be a real priority.

    The Longhouse reports that government officials have told them that the federal government does not have the jurisdiction to provide interim protection for their ancestral lands as this is a matter of provincial jurisdiction. This is not an adequate response.

    Consistent with Canadian and international law, the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that the rights of the Kanien’kehá:ka people of Kanehsatà:ke are rigorously protected in respect to any development decisions until final agreements are reached to resolve the land dispute. The federal government must acknowledge this responsibility and take decisive and constructive action to engage with all rights holders to ensure these rights are recognized and protected.

    It is also crucial that the federal government end its practice of routinely excluding the traditional Longhouse government – the Rotinonhseshá:ka of Kanehsatà:ke, of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation -- in its engagement with the long standing Kanehsatà:ke land dispute.

    The federal government’s forcible overthrow of traditional Indigenous government structures and imposition of elected band councils under the Indian Act in 9124 is one of the defining characteristics of Canada’s historic assault on Indigenous self-determination and identity. When the federal government now refuses to engage with traditional governance structures it is manipulating and benefiting from the very divisions it created.

    A clear, unequivocal commitment to human rights, including implementation of the interim land protections called for by the Rotinonhseshá:ka of Kanehsatà:ke, would allow any discussion to conducted in an atmosphere of peace and respect. Canada must uphold its human rights obligations and bring justice to the Kanien’kehá:ka of Kanehsatà:ke.

    Update: On October 11, 2019 a resident of Kanehsatake began a hunger strike in support of the struggle to fight land fraud dispossession and threats to their security.