Engaging with Indigenous Peoples in BC’s Northwest

During the first week of February I traveled with CFSC associate member Paul Joffe to northwest British Columbia to make presentations on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Such presentations, and dialogue on Indigenous concerns, are critical for human rights education.
Last year Paul and I had presented in Prince Rupert to a group of northwest Indigenous leaders who wanted to know more about the Declaration and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). A key for these leaders was to gain a better understanding of how to use the Declaration to safeguard their rights, including those relating to lands and territories. Out of this presentation grew the idea of a larger tour, so that community members could participate, and non-Indigenous people could attend as well. The Office of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, Kispiox Seniors Association, Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, Kaien Islands Elders, and the Gitwilgyoots Tribe all stepped forward to sponsor the tour.
Among the organizers was Hup-Wil-Lax-A Kirby Muldoe of SkeenaWild, who also accompanied us as guide, driver, and general friendly host. Kirby transported the team from location to location, including through a major snow storm with delays for avalanche warnings! The trip traveled along the beautiful Skeena river, and Paul and I learned more about the history, cultures, and traditions of Indigenous Peoples in the region from Kirby, whose family is both Gitxsan and Tsimsian.
Each day, we were in closed meetings with Indigenous leadership, where they could really drill down into very specific issues and how the Declaration could best be used. In the evenings we gave public presentations to large and diverse audiences. Paul and I discussed the history and significance of the Declaration and offered suggestions on how Indigenous Peoples can use it. Indigenous communities in northwest BC are inundated with resource extraction proposals and government negotiations that often do not protect, or even acknowledge, human rights. So moving forward, implementation of the Declaration will be an important tool in strengthening Indigenous Peoples and their communities.
Discussions focused on the right of self-determination, FPIC, sustainable development, identifying rights holders, and governance. We also shared strategies around litigation, policy development, and general capacity raising.
SkeenaWild produced a short video on FPIC to promote the tour. It can be viewed at www.undripnorthwest.ca. That site also has a video of the public presentation we gave in Terrace. The tour received good local media attention. Everyone involved hopes the tour contributed to both capacity building and good relations in communities. Paul and I were invited to return and continue the conversations, and hope to do so later this year.
Both the Canadian and British Columbian governments have committed to fully adopting and implementing the Declaration. Audiences at our talks were happy to hear about the progress of Bill C-262, federal legislation to implement the Declaration. During the tour, the successful vote in the House of Commons took place to send this Bill to the committee stage.
Although federal and provincial governments have promised to rebuild Nation-to-Nation relationships with Indigenous Peoples, few feel these promises have been fulfilled. With a dramatic increase in resource extraction proposals throughout the northwest in recent years, many are deeply concerned that their Indigenous rights are being undermined by decisions made far from their traditional lands by non-Indigenous governments.
Some of the leaders we spoke with during the tour were folks I’d had the chance to meet previously when a delegation attended the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York in 2016. Then when Chief Na’moks of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and other Indigenous leaders from the Gitxsan and Haida Nations traveled to Geneva to appear before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), CFSC was able to provide some technical support. The Indigenous leaders reported to CERD on the continued discrimination faced by Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
The trip to Geneva was a success. In its September 2017 report on Canada, CERD highlighted a diverse list of human rights concerns and elaborated on specific actions required by Canada to redress ongoing violations and omissions. In particular, CERD urged Canada to implement the Declaration through a legislative framework – including a national action plan; reform of national laws, policies, and regulations; and annual public reporting.
The Committee also urged Canada to incorporate the FPIC principle into the Canadian regulatory system, and amend decision-making processes around the review and approval of large-scale resource development projects. CERD added that environmentally destructive development of the territories of Indigenous Peoples should be prohibited. CFSC will continue to work in partnership with Indigenous Peoples toward the full implementation of the Declaration and genuine reconciliation.
Jennifer Preston is the program coordinator for Indigenous Rights at CFSC.