Canadas tarnished international image


TORONTO – Canada was once viewed as a beacon of enlightenment on the world stage – a leader in the field of human rights and peacekeeping.

That’s an image that has become severely tarnished since a Conservative government was elected two years ago.

Its rejection of indigenous rights, its spoiler role at global warming talks, its failure to investigate the killing or disappearance of hundreds of aboriginal women, its indifference to the plight of a small Cree nation whose unceded territory is overrun by gas and oil development – these are all issues that point to a sea-change in the way Canada conducts its affairs.

“It’s sometimes surprising. … to realize how bad Canada is playing at these international talks,” said Ben Powless, a Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario who attended the recent UN climate conference in Poznan, Poland as an Indigenous Environmental Network youth representative

“A number of our youth reps met with the Canadian officials, and left in tears, after hearing them joke about the negotiations and showing how lightly they took them,” he said in an interview last month from Europe.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper does get credit for one historic initiative: the June 11 apology to survivors of the residential school system

“It was an apology heard around the world,” said National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations, for whom the current economic crisis is an opportunity to translate the words of the apology into action by addressing the appalling poverty of indigenous people in Canada.

“We hope the government will look to our First Nations communities as the appropriate starting point for any stimulus package,” Fontaine said in an interview.

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl told a recent chiefs’ assembly that he had heard their call. But, he warned, “We must remember to be pragmatic in our approach and realistic in our goals.”

“There are great examples out there of First Nations who have not waited for the wheels of government to turn,” he added, pointing to Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia and Whitecap Dakota First Nation in Saskatchewan as examples of entrepreneurial success.

First Nations leaders told him they face an impossible task in meeting the needs of the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population with a two percent cap on federal spending increases, imposed 12 years ago.

Strahl also came under fire for Canada’s role in leading the fight to delete references to indigenous rights from the text of an agreement on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries (REDD).

“The best way of protecting our environment is to ensure that the rights of our people on the land are recognized and are respected,” Fontaine said, adding that Canada’s refusal to honor the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is “a black mark on this country’s international reputation.”

Strahl reiterated the Harper government’s position that recognition of indigenous rights contradicts existing Canadian laws and treaties.

The REDD initiative is seen by indigenous groups as a bid by developed nations to commodify forests in the developing world and provide a pretext for forcing indigenous peoples off their lands.

“We tried to get indigenous rights put centrally in (the) initiative,” Powless said, “but there was strong opposition from a number of countries, like Canada and the U.S., who claimed they didn’t recognize collective rights.

“Canadian officials claimed indigenous rights had nothing to do with climate change, which makes them either very stupid, disgraceful liars, or both.”

Indigenous people, who have done nothing to contribute to climate change, will pay the price, he noted. “Entire ecosystems are threatened, along with the people who depend upon them, from the Arctic to the Amazon.”

In other matters, a UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women has called upon Canada to urgently carry out a thorough investigation of missing or murdered aboriginal women. (Over 500 cases in two decades have been documented, with many more likely to have gone unrecorded because of faulty data.)

Canada should determine “whether there is a racialized pattern to the disappearances and take measures to address the problem if that is the case,” the committee report said.

Gladys Radek helped organize the cross-Canada Walk4Justice on the issue this summer. She said she’s optimistic there will be an inquiry. “We have a whole nation of support.”

Sadly, disappearances continue. Maisy Odjick, 16, and her friend Shannon Alexander, 17, vanished without a trace Sept. 5 from Kitigan Zimi Anishinabeg First Nation in Quebec. Police Chief Gordon McGregor said there are no clues to whether they left of their own volition or if there has been foul play.

Meanwhile, Alberta’s authority to “legitimately approve the construction of a pipeline across Lubicon territory without Lubicon consent” was questioned in a letter to Canadian Ambassador Marius Grinius. Fatimata-Binta Victoire Dah, chair of the UN committee to end racial discrimination, gave Canada a Dec. 31 deadline to respond.

TransCanada Pipelines states that it is abiding by the law in obtaining Alberta approval for the North Central Corridor project. Work began Oct. 15, over the opposition of the 500-member Lubicon Lake Indian Nation. It was left out of Treaty 8 negotiations in 1899 and has been trying to negotiate a deal with Canada for decades.

Lubicon Councillor Dwight Gladhue said TransCanada is building a 600-person camp in an environmentally sensitive hunting area the Lubicon asked them to stay away from.

Sixty organizations signed an open letter Nov. 18 calling for justice for the Lubicon, citing more than two decades of UN decisions regarding the abuse of their human rights and urging Canada to deal with the nation, or suspend the development which is compromising their land until a settlement is reached. There have been no negotiations since 2003.