Indigenous leaders from northern British Columbia are calling on the UN to investigate whether ongoing industrial development of Indigenous lands and waters constitutes a violation of UN conventions this week.
Canada is up for review by the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In a submission, tribes from B.C.’s northwest said Canada’s environmental assessment laws continue to measure money instead of impact.
One of the signatories is Deneza Na’Moks (John Ridsdale), a hereditary chief of the Wet’suwet’en. He travelled to the UN on the heels of the recent approval and then cancellation of Petronas’ plans to build a pipeline and the Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in the Skeena River estuary.
The project and its approval point squarely back to failures in Canada’s environmental assessment process and a lack of recognition of Indigenous nationhood, the committee heard.
“We asked [the Committee] to use any force that they can to get Canada to uphold support and use the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),” Ridsdale told DeSmog Canada.
The project was approved, despite concerns from scientists about it being sited in critical juvenile salmon habitat and about the plant’s enormous greenhouse gas footprint (if built, the plant would have been the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada).
Petronas announced the cancellation of the project in late July, citing “market conditions.”
“The cancellation of one project because of poor gas prices does nothing to address the underlying legal issues that will plague any project that threatens the wild salmon,” said Kirby Muldoe, a member of the delegation of Tsimsian and Gitxsan descent.
Site C Dam Puts Canadian Government in Hot Seat
Much of the committee’s attention was paid to the issue of the controversial Site C dam under construction in northeast B.C.
The committee saw the issue of Site C as “emblematic of a deeply disturbing disrespect for the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Craig Benjamin from Amnesty International told DeSmog Canada. “The attention that the committee gave to Site C was in my mind unprecedented.”
Robyn Fuller, councillor for West Moberly First Nation, made an especially fiery presentation to the committee.
“We will no longer allow our people to be poisoned, starved, and pushed aside as if we do not matter,” she said. “We do not only fight for ourselves, we fight for our future generations to continue our way of life long after we have left this world.”
Benjamin said members of the committee spoke at “incredible lengths” on the rights violations associated with the project, including impacts on cultural heritage, failure to respect “free, prior and informed consent,” violations of Treaty 8 and barriers to accessing justice.
However, the delegation representing the Government of Canada — made up of civil servants from a variety of departments — didn’t include a single mention of Site C in their initial response.
When Government of Canada delegates were asked by the UN Committee about the omission, it was chalked up as an “oversight.”
Benjamin said that when they did provide a response, it was fundamentally wrong, contradicting what the Government of Canada’s lawyers told the courts.
“At what point does the Trudeau government have to admit that their movement on implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not match up with their actions?” Candace Batycki, program director at Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, told DeSmog Canada.
Environmental Process Marred By Failure to Seriously Involve Indigenous Peoples
What Pacific NorthWest LNG and the Site C dam have in common is that they both come to a head with the environmental assessment process.
It’s really why presenters identified Article 2 of the United Nations Committee on Ending Racial Discrimination as a key leverage point. It reads:
“Each State Party shall take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.”
Currently, the environmental assessment process for resource extraction projects in Canada effectively presupposes Indigenous consent, insofar as consent is understood as the legal “duty to consult.”
That’s vastly different from the expectation of “free, prior and informed consent” as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
An April 2017 report written by a federally appointed panel on modernizing Canada’s environmental assessment process recommended a series of changes, including moving to “reflect the principles of UNDRIP within [impact assessment] legislation, processes and procedures,” providing Indigenous peoples the “right to say no” if “exercised reasonably” and creating long-term funding to help with specifically including Indigenous peoples.
Those recommendations have yet to be implemented by the federal government.
A joint statement signed by 11 organizations including the Assembly of First Nations, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and Amnesty International Canada explicitly recommended the UN Committee “urge Canada to ensure that the right of free, prior and informed consent is upheld in all decisions pertaining to resource development and to reform pertinent legislation accordingly.”
“It’s crystal clear that there’s a problem with the implementation of UNDRIP and the way that the federal government talks about its relationship with First Nations and how they actually act,” said Galen Armstrong of Sierra Club BC.
UN Committee Report Expected Soon
The committee’s formal report is expected in late August.
Batycki said she hopes Site C will figured prominently in the report, especially given how well the testimony was received.
But as Ridsdale noted, for a fundamental change to come about “industry has to stop leading the government.”
The implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and recognition of Article 2 of the Committee on Ending Racial Discrimination would likely require an overhaul of the relationship between Indigenous nations and the Canadian government.
At the very least, the UN committee recognized that there are fundamental problems in the way that Canada approaches resource development projects.
The next clear step for the federal government is following the recommendations of its own expert panel and modernizing the environmental assessment process to recognize Indigenous nationhood.