Crushing indigenous rights in pursuit of profit

The Canadian state has always attacked and sacrificed Indigenous rights in favour of capitalist interests, particularly of the fossil-fuel industry

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Annual Canadian Aboriginal Festival, 2006. Photo: Bahman / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0 DEED

It has recently been revealed that, ‘Canada led efforts to weaken the original draft declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples at the UN.’ This has emerged from ‘newly released Australian cabinet papers’ which show that the governments of the two countries worked together on an alternative draft that would leave more ‘state friendly’ decision-making power in their hands.

Pam Palmater, Mi’kmaq lawyer and chair in Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University, stated that ‘we all knew that Canada was in the back rooms trying to counter everything [and this] just backs up everything that Indigenous peoples have been saying for decades.’

Indigenous leaders from various countries drew up a powerfully worded draft of the declaration in 1993, but the efforts of various states, particularly Canada, ensured that the General Assembly of the UN adopted, in 2007, a ‘diluted version’ that only constituted ‘a legally non-binding instrument outlining minimum human rights standards.’

Strikingly, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, all states that were created through the dispossession of Indigenous nations, voted against the watered-down version of the declaration, refusing to accept even its unenforceable standards. As Palmater noted, ‘the English speaking, colonizing states … don’t want to recognize us as nations with legitimate international treaties with them.’

The Trudeau government’s Indigenous Services Minister, Patty Hajdu, responded to these revelations with the suggestion that they reflected an ugly past that has now been put to rest. ‘We’ve taken a long leap away from those early thoughts of elected leaders of all stripes who looked to undermine and weaken Indigenous rights in this country,’ she suggested.

Kenneth Deer, who is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawà:ke just south of Montreal, rejected the contention that Canadian opposition to an effective declaration was caused by the orientation of any particular government and challenged the idea that the present situation is substantially different. He noted that ‘opposition to Indigenous rights is deeply entrenched in Canada’s bureaucracy.’

Rooted in history

The effort to undermine an international declaration of Indigenous rights that has now been exposed is most certainly attributable to the settler-colonial nature of the Canadian state. The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, released in 2019, made clear that the terrible and ongoing violence it had shone a light on was the result of ‘state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies.’

When it was released, the report’s claim of ‘a Canadian genocide’ created a political controversy, but right-wing denials and liberal hang wringing couldn’t hide the unassailable truth that ‘the MMIWG horror is a part of a much larger attack inflicted on Indigenous people over centuries that continues to the present day.’

As with any colonial project, Canada’s methods of dealing with the original inhabitants of the land have been modified according to changing needs and priorities. The Trudeau Liberals would have us believe that the colonial past is giving way to a more enlightened period of ‘reconciliation’. This concept advances ‘a new public consensus’ that makes ‘a taboo of overt racism, cleansing our public squares of ugly tokens from our past, embracing the resurgence in Indigenous cultural expression, and adopting the language of Indigenous liberation.’ At the same time, however, ‘within this consensus, there [are] several great unmentionables: land, resources, power, and the sharing of any of it.’

This latter point is critical because Indigenous people in Canada today are on a collision course with what has come to be known as ‘resource colonialism’. Extractive industries and the laying of pipelines to move oil and gas create a situation where control of land and resources by Indigenous people is out of the question for major companies and the governments that serve their interests.

Though weakened, the UN ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples still requires States to consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned, through their own representative institutions, in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.’

An indication of how far current practices in Canada are from the principles set out in the UN declaration can be found in the recent decision of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to ‘approve a proposed nuclear waste storage facility in Chalk River, Ontario, after a years-long battle waged by concerned citizens, environmentalists and First Nations.’

A ‘near-surface disposal facility’ is now planned that will ‘hold up to a million tonnes of radioactive and hazardous waste.’ Whatever may be said of the Commission’s contention that the facility ‘is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects,’ Indigenous consent was clearly not obtained.

Kebaowek First Nation Chief Lance Haymond stated that ‘I want to be very clear: the Algonquin Peoples did not consent to the construction of this radioactive waste dump on our unceded territory. We believe the consultation was inadequate, to say the least, and that our Indigenous rights are threatened by this proposal.’ It is clear that, as far as the Canadian authorities are concerned, ‘consultation’ means giving Indigenous people the right to object to what is going to happen anyway.

Strategic priority

The pursuit of profits by Canadian companies puts them at odds with Indigenous populations in other countries as well. ‘Canada is one of the world’s leading mining nations and one of the largest investors in Latin America.’ In this regard, ‘the history of one particularly troubled nickel mine in Guatemala, located near the town of El Estor’ is instructive.

A paper published by the Osgoode Law School in Toronto tells us that the ‘mine was born into violence as Indigenous people living on the site were removed to make room for the mine and the town. Numerous murders, assaults and other human rights violations have occurred as a result of the conflict between local Indigenous people who have historically lived in the area and the successive Canadian corporate entities INCO, Skye Resources, and HudBay Minerals, as well as their Guatemalan subsidiaries.

Within the borders of Canada, the imperative to disregard Indigenous consent is driven by a major effort to ‘to realize profits abroad through the expansion of oil and gas exports. Canada has one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world, and the investments already sunk into the sector are greater than those of any other in the Canadian economy.’

Thus, however many tears Trudeau may shed about past injustices, the crushing of Indigenous rights, in the interests of mining and fossil-fuel capitalism, remains a strategic priority for the Canadian state and his government in particular. This sometimes involves the deployment of state power in its least subtle form.

The federal police force, the RCMP, has created a Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG), which offers tailor-made enforcement services to extractive companies. This body is so closely linked to corporate interests that it has earned itself the nickname of the ‘pipeline police.’

In 2019, the Guardian reported that ‘Canadian police were prepared to shoot Indigenous land defenders blockading construction of a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia.’ As they prepared for ‘a militarized raid on the ancestral lands of the Wet’suwet’en nation,’ senior RCMP officers noted that ‘lethal overwatch is req’d,’ which meant that they were deploying snipers against the unarmed protesters. Officers participating in the assault were even instructed to ‘use as much violence toward the gate as you want.’

When it comes to the suppression of Indigenous rights in Canada, the supposed distinction between a brutal past and an enlightened present is entirely mythical. Indeed, the development of Canadian capitalism and its focus on fossil-fuel production has intensified the colonial project in particularly destructive and dangerous ways. Canada’s earlier role in undermining the UN declaration was part of a colonial logic that persists to the present day.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since. He writes for Counter Fire.

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