The past several weeks have brought the deeply disappointing state of reconciliation and regard for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada to the fore with a degree of urgency rarely witnessed. Right across the country, protests of resistance and of solidarity by Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous communities, sparked by deep concern about the construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline through Wet’suwet’en Territory in British Columbia, have led to a national conversation about rights, reconciliation, the economy and the environment, that has been both troubling and encouraging.
We write to urge that your government demonstrate the leadership that is very much needed at this critical and potentially pivotal moment, working closely with Indigenous peoples’ leadership and organizations and with provincial and territorial governments, to advance foundational change to truly progress with meaningful reconciliation and full respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
It is unacceptable and untenable to rely primarily on a strategy of responding one-by-one to the mounting number of instances of barricades, injunctions, and law enforcement. Instead, there is a pressing need for comprehensive and concrete action, beyond the aspirational words and lofty promises that are usually offered, that will build confidence that the journey of reconciliation is truly underway.
Amnesty International visited Tyendinaga today, in the aftermath of the Ontario Provincial Police’s enforcement action which has reportedly resulted in the arrest of ten protesters. It was notable to us that all community members we spoke with described a feeling of betrayal and broken trust, particularly given the dialogue that had begun with Minister Miller on February 15th, reiterated in his assurance to Tyendinaga leadership the following day, in his letter of February 16th, that he “welcome[s] the invitation to talk again in the near future to continue our open and respectful dialogue.” What happened today was not consistent with that assurance.
We should be ashamed as a country that we find ourselves in the current situation.
- Measures should have been adopted long ago to ensure proper respect for Indigenous rights in Canada.
- We should have in place a fair, accessible, non-adversarial and expeditious process for resolving land claims.
- Legal reforms should have been enacted, years ago, to ensure that the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is part of our national fabric.
- The vital human rights safeguard of free, prior and informed consent should by now have been embraced by all governments in Canada as the blueprint for a nation-to-nation relationship rooted in respect and justice; rather than the scaremongering talk of it being a veto that stands in the way of Canadian prosperity.
We appreciated the restraint that your government demonstrated in the initial phases of the blockades and demonstrations that have been organized, highlighting how important it is to pursue dialogue and not rush to the use of police force as a response. That is of vital importance given that there is a long historical context of unrelenting human rights violations against Indigenous peoples, going back hundreds of years, that give shape to the realities that are at the root of contemporary concerns.
Many politicians and commentators have rashly and often aggressively insisted that Indigenous peoples must exhibit patience. It is time to recognize that the contrary is the case. Indigenous peoples have shown nothing but patience, for far too long, in the face of racist laws, unjust policies and unspeakably cruel violence, as their rights have been violated, dismissed and ignored. If anything, it is time for governments across Canada, businesses and the Canadian public to be the ones expected to be patient.
As many have noted, the call for patience is particularly inappropriate with respect to the Wet’suwet’en people, who have waited for 23 years for their land rights to be recognized following the groundbreaking 1997 Supreme Court of Canada Delgamuukw decision; and for the Tyendinga Mohawks who have waited for over 170 years for the return of their lands taken as part of the Culbertson Tract.
While your government did initially show remarkable restraint, you have of course in the end given a nod to enforcement action, which is now being pursued by national, provincial and municipal police forces across the country. That enforcement will not bring resolution to the deep concerns that underly these rights struggles and protests. For many communities it only adds to decades of trauma associated with violent and repressive police and judicial action that has been at the heart of the most shameful and upsetting chapters of Canadian history.
We have written to you previously urging that at a minimum Canada comply with the decision of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination with respect to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, TransMountain Pipeline Expansion and Site C dam. The importance of governments in Canada living up to the country’s international human rights obligations in those three situations and many others has been frequently reiterated by Indigenous peoples across Canada, yet your government has not shown any intention to do so.
We therefore call on you to take the following steps:
- Ensure that land defenders are not criminalized and that people who have been arrested for defending the land and who have not engaged in acts of criminal violence are released unconditionally.
- Respond immediately to the December 2019 ruling of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, including suspending construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in the absence of the free, prior and informed consent of the Wet’suwet’en people and the withdrawal of the RCMP from their traditional territory.
- Move immediately on longpromised legal reforms, notably a legislative framework for implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
- Engage directly and personally in discussions with Indigenous chiefs, elected and hereditary, so as to demonstrate that you recognize that these are not simply matters of barricades and law enforcement, but are the very essence of a respectful and rights regarding nation-to-nation relationship.
Prime Minister, you face an unprecedented opportunity to break with decades of failure when it comes to the relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada. To do so means putting rights first, embracing the full complexity of reconciliation and making it clear to all Canadians that while the road ahead will not always be easy, it is the only path to a just and sustainable future for our country.
We are available to meet with you at your convenience to discuss these concerns and recommendations further.
Sincerely, Alex Neve France-Isabelle Langlois