Chiefs at UN Call on Canada to Respect Indigenous Lands

Guest blog by Jennifer Skene

Protecting the environment is inseparable from protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples. In contrast to dominant modern models of individual ownership and resource extraction, Indigenous Peoples have depended on and cared for the land for millennia. Environmental stewardship is deeply engrained in Indigenous cultures, and Indigenous ways of life continue to rely on healthy environments. It is not surprising, therefore, that while Indigenous lands make up about 20 percent of all the land on earth, they contain 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. All too often, however, Indigenous Peoples suffer the worst consequences of industrialization, losing their intact lands to logging, mining, and other development. In Canada, that story is no different, with Indigenous Peoples on the front lines fighting to protect their lands and ways of life from rampant industrial development and helping to safeguard some of North America’s most treasured species and landscapes.

This month, Indigenous Peoples from around the world met to share their efforts to protect their land at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). Gathered in New York, they discussed the theme of “Indigenous peoples’ collective rights to land, territories and resources”—a right enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UN Declaration”)— and called on governments to respect their rights to control the future of their lands.

Canada’s Colonial Legacy

Representatives of First Nations in Canada at UNPFII included two Cree chiefs—Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Ermineskin Cree Nation and Grand Chief Abel Bosum of the Oujé-Bougoumou Cree—and Grand Chief Edward John, a Hereditary Chief of Tl’azt’en Nation in British Columbia. These chiefs called on Canada to respect the rights enumerated in the UN Declaration, and voiced support for those continuing to fight to protect their ancestral lands from an expanding industrial footprint.

The rights to their lands, territories, and resources are encapsulated in the UN Declaration, which Canada endorsed “without qualification” in 2016. The UN Declaration’s Article 32 enumerates, among other things, the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) “prior to the approval of any project affecting [Indigenous] lands or territories and other resources.” In other words, Indigenous Peoples have the right to control the future of their lands.

Yet Canada has a deeply engrained, pervasive colonial legacy that continues to take a devastating toll on Indigenous Peoples. From Canada’s earliest colonial days, colonists worked to assimilate Indigenous Peoples and appropriate their lands. The 1876 Indian Act—which is still in effect today in an amended form—set the framework for government control over the lands, political, structures, and even cultures of Indigenous Peoples. Today, this ignominious history is seen in the lack of Indigenous control over their traditional land and resources, which leaves many communities subject to the decisions of governments and industries. Across Canada, logging, mining, and oil and gas development are degrading intact territories, jeopardizing Indigenous ways of life and relationships to the land and wildlife.

Canadian courts have held that Indigenous Peoples must be consulted “in good faith” about development on their land, and that projects must make “accommodations” when there are impacts on Indigenous Peoples’ rights. However, the right to consultation and accommodation is often inadequately implemented, with governments allowing logging, mining, and other development with little to minimal consultation. Furthermore, in and of themselves, the rights to consultation and accommodation do not go far enough. For one thing, they do not give Indigenous Peoples the right to veto resource extraction on their land—the right to FPIC encapsulated in Article 32.

The Need for Change

Both Grand Chief Bosum and Grand Chief Littlechild called out Canada’s failure to live up to the UN Declaration, particularly the right to FPIC. Grand Chief Littlechild explained, “Consent is the essence of treaty-making, and we have the right to determine our own priorities for development.” Unfortunately, he stated, “Canada has much work to do yet to provide redress for laws and policies founded in racist colonial doctrines to rationalize the taking of our traditional lands and resources.” [1] While Canada has fully committed to the UN Declaration and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised “a renewed, Nation-to-Nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples,” it has yet to fully embrace this path toward “reconciliation” by protecting the rights enumerated in the UN Declaration.  

Grand Chief Littlechild Speaking at a Plenary Meeting at the 2018 UNPFII

Both Chief Littlechild and Grand Chief Bosum urged Canada live up to its international commitments under the UN Declaration. They praised the Canadian government for supporting Bill C-262, a framework for reconciliation championed by Cree MP Romeo Saganash, which would ensure that Canadian laws are in harmony with the UN Declaration. Bill C-262 passed its first and second readings in Parliament, and is currently under consideration of Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs. The chiefs pointed out, however, that other bills, including a proposed environmental impact assessment law, do not mention the UN Declaration at all.  

Indigenous-Led Land Management                                           

Recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples to decide the future of their lands will help to create a healthier future for everyone in Canada. Canada is looking to meet its commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect 17 percent of its land by 2020. A recent report from the Indigenous Circle of Experts, an advisory body established to examine the role of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) in meeting this target, found that Indigenous-led management will be vital. Indigenous Peoples are the stewards for some of the richest intact regions in Canada. Providing them with decision-making authority on their lands will help to protect lands and wildlife that are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Today, where Canadian governments are failing to implement meaningful protection, Indigenous leadership in the form of comprehensive land-use plans, boreal caribou management, and Indigenous-run protected areas, is providing models for sustainable economic development. For example, many Indigenous communities lead land-use planning initiatives based on Indigenous knowledge and science, and Indigenous Guardians programs are employing communities, teaching younger generations how to care for the land, and implementing monitoring for environmental impacts. As the Poplar River First Nation’s 2010 Land Management Plan stated, “Like our ancestors, we are the caretakers of this land and we know once the resources from the land are depleted we will have nothing. We have been told by our elders to keep the land as it was when the Creator made it.”

The Chiefs made clear at UNPFII that it is well past time for Canada to fully adopt the UN Declaration and respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples to decide the future of their lands and fulfill their responsibility as its stewards. The international community’s eyes are on Canada as it debates adopting Bill C-262. Fully recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their lands and resources is essential to protecting Indigenous ways of life and will provide a more viable future for Canada.

Grand Chief Littlechild concluded:

“You simply cannot tell a People that they have no right to say ‘no’, regardless of the level of destruction or the consequences. What is needed are better processes, joint processes, designed with Indigenous Peoples…Indigenous Peoples must be part of decision making when our rights and well-being are at stake. Working with us to determine what that looks like is the smart thing to do. It will lead to fewer acrimonious decisions, fewer court battles, more timely decisions, and better outcomes for us all.”

[1] Chief Littlechild’s speech begins in the video at 00:21:30.

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International Program

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