Canada: UN Special Rapporteur’s visit must shift ‘glacial progress’ on Indigenous rights

The Canadian government is facing new calls to stop violating the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people as UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples Francisco Calí Tzay kicks off his 10-day visit to Canada.

Calí Tzay and his delegation will tour Canada from March 1 to March 10. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate includes reporting on the human rights situation of Indigenous Peoples worldwide and addressing specific alleged cases of violations of Indigenous rights.

The visit comes at a critical moment for Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples. By law, the federal government is required to unveil an action plan for the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Yet, with only a few months to go until the deadline for the plan’s submission to Parliament, serious human rights violations against Indigenous people and communities remain rife.

‘Time to make our reality visible on the international scene’

“This very important visit will allow us to set the record straight on the questions and issues faced by Indigenous people in Canada, in particular on systemic racism, the adoption of Joyce’s Principle, the humanitarian crisis in terms of housing in Indigenous communities and especially the questions on reconciliation,” said Sipi Flamand, Chief of the Atikamekw Council of Manawan. “It will also allow us to bring our realities to light at the international level.”

“It is essential that the Special Rapporteur documents how, as First Nations, our rights have been denied for too long by the provincial and federal governments,” said Marielle Vachon, Chief of the Innu Council of Pessamit. “We have always been ignored, our territories taken away and our forests destroyed. It is time to make our reality visible on the international scene.”

In partnership with the Atikamekw of Manawan First Nation, the Grassy Narrows First Nation, the Pessamit Innu Nation, the Wet’suwet’en Nation and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Amnesty International Canada’s English-speaking and francophone sections prepared a written submission for the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples ahead of Calí Tzay’s visit. The joint letter documents violations against Indigenous Peoples and their right to a healthy environment, the destruction of traditional ways of life and non-adherence to Indigenous nations’ right to free, prior and informed consent on infrastructure projects affecting their territories.

“The vivid stories our partners shared with us range from the concerning to the truly alarming,” said France-Isabelle Langlois, the general director of Amnistie internationale Canada francophone. “Each community’s experience of systemic racism is different, but they share common threads: namely, a blatant disrespect for the natural environment, their right to pursue their way of life, and their right to the equal enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

“Almost two years after Parliament affirmed that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has application in Canadian law, Canada has made only glacial progress on its promise to respect the rights of Indigenous people and communities,” said Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English-speaking section. “The government cannot meaningfully advance reconciliation and redress past harms while violating Indigenous Peoples’ rights today. As always, the best time to change course is now.”

Indigenous land defenders still criminalized

Amnesty International’s submission condemns the ongoing criminalization of Indigenous land and water defenders across Canada. Since 2019, the governments of Canada and B.C. have harassed, intimidated, forcibly removed and prosecuted members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation protesting the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on their territory. In July 2022, B.C. charged 19 land defenders with criminal contempt for allegedly defying a 2019 court injunction order to stay away from pipeline construction sites, despite these sites being on the community’s unceded, ancestral territory.

Since 2019, the governments of Canada and B.C. have harassed, intimidated, forcibly removed and prosecuted members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation protesting the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on their territory.

“Canada has been contacted three times by the UN with regards to the abuses to the Wet’suwet’en Nation and its peoples,” said Chief Na’moks of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs. “Now, the world must hear from the Indigenous Peoples on the human rights abuses occurring in so-called Canada. We are meeting with the UN Special Rapporteur to speak to the truth, not just the narrative of what is the one-sided version of what is occurring in Canada.”

Similarly, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has been vocally opposing the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, which the Canadian government approved without the free, prior and informed consent of the community.

“The Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker expansion terminates in the heart of Tsleil-Waututh territory,” said Councillor Charlene Aleck of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. “Our nation conducted an independent review of the project, grounded in our unextinguished Indigenous laws and backed by cutting-edge science, and found that it threatens our very identity as ‘people of the inlet.’ On that basis we have denied our free, prior and informed consent.

“However, Canada continues to force the project through our territories, in spite of their commitments to reconciliation and UNDRIP. Our Tsleil-Waututh members have been harassed and criminalized for opposing the project, which is a major threat to our ongoing work to steward the Burrard Inlet – the birthplace of our ancestors.”

Demanding justice for Grassy Narrows

In Ontario, the Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek, also known as Grassy Narrows First Nation, published the 2018 Grassy Narrows Land Declaration and declared their Anishinaabe Territory an Indigenous Sovereignty and Protected Area in line with Indigenous law. It asserts their right to self-determination to protect and care for their Indigenous homeland, including banning mineral staking and mining, industrial logging and any other industrial activity without their free, prior and informed consent. The Government of Ontario, with Canada’s acquiescence, continues to permit industrial land uses, which conflicts with Grassy Narrows’ land declaration. This is in the wake of decades of mercury poisoning inflicted upon the residents of Grassy Narrows after, in the 1960s, the Ontario government permitted a pulp and paper mill to dump around 10 metric tonnes of mercury into the English and Wabigoon rivers.

“Our people continue to suffer from the mercury poisoning crisis without access to fair compensation,” said Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle. “To make matters worse, Ontario continues to grant new mining claims and to propose logging on our land against our will. It is long past time for Canada and Ontario to respect our rights and to support us as we restore what mercury has damaged.”

The perspectives gathered on the Special Rapporteur’s trip will inform a series of recommendations on how Canada must uphold and advance the rights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. The findings, Nivyabandi noted, will have implications for everyone, not just Indigenous people and communities whose rights have been violated.

“Indigenous Peoples are on the front lines of the struggle against human-caused climate change,” she said. “The future of our planet depends on their voices being heard.”