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CANADA’S FIRST NATIONS: A HISTORY OF INEQUALITY

by Genevieve Lavoie-Mathieu


 

Canada, once a symbol of environmental innovation, a country of vast plains and untouched forests, a pacifying power and human rights defender, cannot live up to this stereotype any longer. In fact, a recent Amnesty International report found that Canada’s respect of human rights is on the decline. Reportedly, the government’s “efforts to promote resource development in Canada and abroad [...] has undermined rights protected in the Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples]“. Furthermore, Amnesty asserts that “no other human rights challenge in Canada is as consistently and strenuously raised by UN experts and committees and other independent human rights bodies as the rights of Indigenous peoples”.

There are over one million Aboriginees in Canada, spread over 600 different communities and they played a key role in shaping Canada’s history and national identity. In many cases, European settlers infringe them from their traditional livelihood, removing them from their land, as part of their economic growth strategy and since then have continued with cultural isolation, secluding them in reserves. So much so that they have come to live in a state of dependence and poverty, deprived from any political space or decision making power.

Over the years, respect and equality in which the original treaties between the First Nations and the government were grounded, have been eroded leading to friction and a dysfunctional relationship. For example, according to Mining Watch Canada:

“In Saskatchewan, on Deline Dene territory, over 1.7 million tons of radioactive waste and tailings were dumped in and around Great Bear Lake during the 1940s and 50s, contaminating all food sources of the Dene People. The community lost 50 men due to radiation effects. Since 1990, 27% of the 609 First Nations reserves in Canada have undergone some level of exploration activity for non-metallic minerals.”

Built on the backdrop of years of frustration and negligence, the Idle No More movement formed in response to Prime Minister Harper’s resource development policies carried out at home and abroad. They are “calling on all people to join in a revolution which honours and fulfils Indigenous sovereignty, which protects the land and water”. Amongst other things, the Idle No More supporters accuse Canada of pursuing a “colonialist agenda through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water”, with policies which would notably open the door to oil and mining companies to operate in the North of Canada.

Sheelah Mclean, one of the initiators of the movement argues that “the changes they are making to the environmental legislation is stunning in terms of the protection it will take away from the bodies of water – river and lakes, across the country”. This is true at home, and abroad. In several countries in Latin America and Africa, Canadian corporations from the extractive sector have been accused of human rights violations and environmental damage. According to Mining Watch Canada, “the devastation and violence perpetrated by Canadian mining corporations has been documented clearly with links to human rights violations in Guatemala, Peru, Romania, the Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador, Bolivia, Ghana, Suriname, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, India, Indonesia, Zambia and Sudan”.

Lately, in a move to facilitate and fortify partnerships with extractive companies, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has announced a shift towards a trade orientated approach to development, especially in mineral rich countries. At home, Harper’s Government is pursuing a similar approach. according to Mining Watch Canada (a non-profit dedicated to monitoring mining companies’ activities), Harper is promoting mining and resource extraction ‘as a potential solution to northern economic and social challenges’.

The NGO further states that “in British Columbia, where over 97% of the land is yet unceded First Nations’ land, even according to Canadian and International law, the British Columbia Mining Plan of 2005 designated over 85% of the province’s land “open to exploration” even setting up an online system for staking mineral claims”.

This is not without tremendous environmental impact. For example, the proposed cuts will create “sources of funding for an existing Arctic environmental research station and [and lead to] reductions in the environmental effects monitoring program for mining. Further, the government of Yukon rejected ‘recommendations which excluded mineral developments from most of the watershed, took five years to develop, and were supported by First Nations and conservation groups’.

Could the Idle No More movement shed light on what kind of neo-colonial policies Canada is pursuing at home and abroad? This is not only contravening to human rights in several instances but is also inconsiderate to Indigenous people and local communities. Chelsea Vowel, a Plains Cree-speaking métis from Alberta wrote on her blog ‘âpihtawikosisân‘ that not only are more funds necessary to straighten the situation but the solution lies in promoting more political autonomy for the First Nations and self-governance of land and resource management. Consultation, common agreement and fair, shared benefits are necessary to making natural resource management a success story.


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Topics: Environment

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Genevieve L Mathieu (Genevieve Lavoie-Mathieu)
Montreal
Member since mars 2013

About:

Geneviève Lavoie-Mathieu is a recent graduate from McGill University with a degree in International Development Studies, based in Wageningen, in the Netherlands and currently working as an editorial assistant at ILEIA – Center for learning on Sustainable Agriculture. She is also as a volunteer translator for Global Voices and a regular contributor to Alternatives International. Follow her on twitter @GLavoieMathieu.

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Commentaires

Quote mix-up

All of the quotes attributed above to Mining Watch Canada are actually from a piece by Mandeep Dhillon, Canadian Mining in Mexico: Made in Canada Violence.

Noticed it because Great Bear Lake is in the Northwest Territories, not Saskatchewan.

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