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Indigenous Rights Canada’s Biggest Human Rights Challenge: Secretary General of Amnesty

Both Canada and British Columbia have vowed to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). And yet recent natural resource decisions — like the approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline or ongoing construction of the Site C dam — have some wondering what governments mean when they make that promise.

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, says natural resource development can create conflict with Indigenous populations and often make Indigenous women and children, the most vulnerable members of our population, more vulnerable.

Neve recently traveled to B.C. to highlight human rights abuses in the province with high ranking officials including attorney general David Eby and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser.

DeSmog Canada asked Neve how he was received by the government and what human rights abuses he is concerned about in B.C.

The interview has been edited for brevity.

How would you place B.C. on the spectrum of Canadian and international human rights concerns?

Amnesty International has a number of serious and long-standing human rights concerns here in B.C. which go back quite a number of years. Obviously here in B.C. and Canada we are very fortunate when it comes to human rights. We are not faced with the horrific situations that capture headlines in places like Syria or the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, or countries with hundreds of people being held as prisoners of conscience.

But there are very real and pressing human rights concerns in Canada and in B.C.

By any measure, it is the rights of Indigenous people that is our biggest challenge and our most serious responsibility when it comes to improving Canada’s human rights record.

[The] Site C [dam] is really an iconic example of the long-standing failure to show proper regard for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and how readily and easily governments across this country seem on one hand to be able to talk aspirational and inspirational things when it comes to the rights of Indigenous peoples, and then turn around and make decisions that simply do not live up to those words. And that’s not acceptable.

What are some of the key issues you’ve been discussing with B.C. cabinet ministers and senior government officials?

In 2004 we issued a major nation-wide report, Stolen Sisters, documenting the severity of violence and discrimination against Indigenous women everywhere in Canada. It included a significant component looking at concerns here in B.C.

Here we are, 14 years later, and that has not at all been addressed and there continue to be very serious concerns in B.C.

Related to that, about a year and half ago we put out a major report looking at the situation in the northeast of the province and the way in which that area’s resource development boom has had a very significant, and sadly detrimental, impact on the rights of Indigenous peoples — and particularly on the rights of Indigenous women. A response is needed to ensure that Indigenous rights and rights of Indigenous women in particular are better safeguarded and respected in the context of resource development.

A response is needed to ensure that Indigenous rights and rights of Indigenous women in particular are better safeguarded and respected in the context of resource development.

We were deeply disappointed that the government chose in December to continue with construction of the [Site C] dam. We find it totally unacceptable that the government has chosen what they consider to be financial considerations over — once again — a commitment to uphold the right of Indigenous peoples. But we’re not giving up.

Are there other projects in B.C. that cause you particular concern?

We’ve also been focusing on the very serious human rights concerns associated with the 2014 mining disaster at the Mount Polley mine which… has a very serious impact on First Nations in the area. We’re very concerned that here we are, four years later, and there’s been no accountability for what has happened there.

We follow with concern and interest all the developments around Kinder Morgan. We know there’s a lot of concern about fracking in the province. If there was a moment where there was a very clear international human rights dimension that we felt needed some attention we would look at that.

What role does resource development in B.C. play in violence against Indigenous women and girls?

In 2016 we put out a report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind. It highlights the fact that the province’s resource boom — and we focused on the situation in and around Fort St. John — has had very detrimental impacts for women’s safety and Indigenous women in particular. And even beyond safety, just in general regard for protection of their rights.

How is that?

There’s a massive influx of transient workers, which brings with it a very serious pressure on local services across a whole variety of areas, including for women who may be having economic insecurity, or who may be facing risk of violence in the home or community. Those services are dramatically overextended.

Indigenous women and girls inevitably suffer more than others.

The influx of a transient population brings people who aren’t known in the community, and with it concerns about their actions against Indigenous women and girls. And all of this without any kind of commitment to gender analysis, as resource projects are being approved and decisions being made about how policing is going to be funded and what kind of policing and at what levels. There’s a terrible gap and it’s Indigenous women and girls who suffer as a result.

One of our key recommendations is to ensure that we are bringing a strong model of gender-based analysis into decisions about all sorts of resource development projects, small ones and also large ones like the Site C dam.

Has B.C. made progress in addressing human rights issues?

We have very much welcomed the new government’s very strong commitment to endorse the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). If we truly did have decision-making and laws and policies and an approach to consultation and relations that were in keeping with the framework of the declaration, a lot of these issues would not have become the human rights travesties that they have become. The solutions, the way forward, would be much more obvious.

We’re very enthusiastic and encouraging that the government move forward with their plans to move past simply saying ‘we believe in the declaration’ to actually starting to develop a legislative framework and some strong commitments to making it so.

The other very significant law reform initiative underway in the province is the reestablishment of the B.C. Human Rights Commission. We were very troubled over a decade ago now when the previous government dis-established the previous human rights commission. It certainly is a welcome move to reverse that step and get B.C. back in the game of ensuring that there is a provincial level body that is going to be a strong champion of human rights in the province.

What kind of a reception did you get from the government on Site C?

We weren’t naive enough to think that we were going to sit down with any members of government and make our case about why it was the wrong decision and suddenly have them reserve the decision in the meeting. We repeatedly heard at every level that they felt anguish and conflict about the decision and certainly didn’t feel happy about it.

This really is now a matter for the courts. Lawsuits have been commenced and there’s important steps coming forward, including a hearing in July with respect to a request that’s been made for an injunction. We are strongly calling on the government to ensure that they adopt a litigation strategy as they go through those lawsuits that is entirely consistent with their commitments to UNDRIP and to the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In years and decades past both federal and provincial lawyers would show up in court in Indigenous rights cases and be aggressive and obstructive and litigious. They would take positions that important international standards like UNDRIP shouldn’t be applied. If this government’s commitment to UNDRIP is genuine, one of the first places to demonstrate that is the tone and the substance of the arguments that they make as this case moves through the courts.

That injunction application in July [filed by West Moberly First Nations and Prophet River First Nation to halt Site C construction until their legal case can be heard] will be a first test. One very obvious way to demonstrate how genuine they are would be to simply agree to the injunction without fighting it out in the courts. But at a minimum they need to ensure the legal arguments they make do not run counter to the commitments they say they embrace.

What are some of your other specific requests of the B.C. government?

We’re in a very challenging and important time right now when it comes to addressing violence against Indigenous women and girls right now in Canada because we have the National Inquiry [into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls] underway.

Clearly that has come up in all our meetings. We’re concerned that while the inquiry is proceeding — and we now have the prospect of another two years — that the kinds of concrete steps and action that need to be taken now to address this very severe human rights situation have largely been put on hold.

So we are calling on all governments and certainly the B.C. government to start to much more actively pursue reforms and programs now, and not wait for the end of the national inquiry. We’re concerned that government are not doing enough to address the very serious gaps in services for Indigenous women and girls who face violence.

How would you characterize this government’s receptiveness to Amnesty International compared to the previous B.C. government?

Amnesty is never partisan in how we go about our work. We seek to engage with all governments of all political stripes. We did not have a particularly encouraging record of engagement with the previous government provincially. We never had a ministerial level meeting with the previous government.

Did you ask for meetings with the previous government under the BC Liberals?

Yes, several times. Whereas with the current government doors have opened that were previously shut and we welcome that very much. But clearly it’s not just about sitting down and talking. What we’re keen to see now is the follow-up and action that will put proof to the promises, especially around things like UNDRIP.

We’re hearing all the right things and sensing a genuine commitment to move that forward. But then you have something like the Site C decision, which completely contradicts the commitment to UNDRIP and the embrace of the [recommendations of the] Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At the heart of both of those is a fundamental principle that true regard for treaty rights means something. We’re clearly not seeing that around Site C.

We are fortunate that we are so prosperous here in Canada. That means our responsibility to dig deeper and truly do the right thing when it comes to our human rights record is all the greater.

We have the resources, we have the knowledge, we have the awareness. There’s no excuse for not moving forward with a strong human rights agenda that will stand as a model globally.

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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