GENEVA -- What happens to Indian people when their colonizers take away
everything they need to survive? They start killing themselves at a rate
unsurpassed anywhere in the world.
That's part of the Innu people's tragic struggle to retain their land,
resources and traditional lifeways, according to Armand MacKenzie, an Innu
lawyer representing his people in a human rights conflict spanning two
continents and nearly six decades.
"Our people have been dispossessed -- pushed aside so that mining and
hydroelectric companies can make more money off our land," he said.
"Our rights were unilaterally extinguished without our consent, and we are
facing grave injustices under Canada's laws. That's why we've gone to the
United Nations as a forum for interventions."
Nitassinan, the Innu traditional homeland comprising more than 300,000
square miles of tundra, forests, lakes, rivers and valuable mineral
deposits on the Labrador/Quebec peninsula, was never ceded or signed away
by treaty to Canada.
Innu leaders argue that Canada should have to prove how it claims ownership
of aboriginal lands belonging to people who have lived there for more than
While Innu people survived the early intrusion of missionaries and fur
traders, in 1949 Newfoundland became part of Canada and government
officials "began clearing the land of Indians to make way for natural
resource extraction," according to Colin Sampson, a sociologist at the
University of Essex who co-authored a landmark report in 2001 that shocked
the international community.
The report, entitled "Canada's Tibet: The Killing of the Innu," revealed
that the Innu in Labrador "suffer the highest rate of suicide on Earth as
one of the world's most powerful nations occupies their land, takes their
resources and seems hell-bent on transforming them into Euro-Canadians."
It also condemned Canada's colonial policies, which were designed to force
the Innu from their land so it could be opened to non-Native development
and coerce them into abandoning their traditional hunting culture to become
"civilized" by adopting a sedentary lifestyle in government-built villages
and sending their children to residential schools.
One of those developments, the controversial James Bay hydroelectric
project that flooded vast portions of Innu, Cree and Inuit lands, resulted
in a total disruption of the Innu way of life and blatant violations of
In order to build the project, Canada negotiated a land claims settlement
with the Cree and Inuit peoples, but the Innu chose not to participate
because the settlement contained provisions to extinguish Native ownership
to their homelands.
"This land claim overlapped some of our traditional hunting grounds; and
when the land claims settlement was adopted by Parliament, they
extinguished the rights of all Indian people to the land," MacKenzie said.
"Our elders and families went to Parliament and told them it was unfair and
unjust, that they had to no right to extinguish our rights because we were
not part of that settlement."
Canadian and provincial officials ignored them.
"At that point my community and my family asked me to work on this because
we were drastically affected," MacKenzie said. "Our traditional hunting
grounds were flooded and our Indian land rights were extinguished. I had
this duty to do something about the unilateral extinguishment of our
Canada's Comprehensive Claims Policy -- the only forum for Indian land
claims -- held little hope for equal treatment under the law.
"Canada requires that as a precondition for addressing Innu grievances, we
must acknowledge that our homeland belongs to the Crown. All that remains
to negotiate are the terms in which we are to formally surrender it,"
MacKenzie said sardonically.
Though viewing the process as unfair, five of the nine Innu bands filed a
land claim. But during negotiations, land that was on the table as part of
the Innu Nation claim continued to be sold off to mining companies and
other developers, making a mockery of the process, MacKenzie said.
While seeking remedies, he learned about international legal instruments
used by the United Nations regarding human rights, economic and social
development, the environment and trade.
Innu elders, chiefs and their legal counsel and MacKenzie took their
complaint to the United Nations in the early 1990s, citing numerous human
rights violations and arguing for the right of indigenous peoples to
In 1998, the U.N. Economic and Social Council issued a strong report that
said Canada did not have the right to unilaterally extinguish the rights of
indigenous peoples. That was followed by a 1999 report from the U.N. Human
Rights Committee that came to the same conclusion.
In the meantime, the loss of control over their way of life and the denial
of their right of self-determination has had devastating impacts. Innu
communities that once thrived by trapping, fishing and hunting caribou are
now suffering social ills common on Indian reservations in the United
States -- extreme poverty, pervasive unemployment, increased violence,
alcoholism, drug abuse, and the loss of language and cultural skills.
The tremendous social upheaval the Innu have endured caught worldwide
attention in the winter of 2000 when six young people tried to commit
suicide by sniffing gas. "Huffing" became epidemic in Davis Inlet,
eventually affecting more than 100 children who required long-term
"Canada's policies toward the Innu have caused deep psychological trauma as
well as social and cultural disintegration resulting in suicide,
gas-sniffing, physical and sexual abuse -- problems practically unknown
before they were exposed to Euro-Canadian contact," said Sampson.
In November of 2004, the Human Rights Committee reiterated its finding that
Canada does not have the right to unilaterally extinguish the rights of
indigenous peoples and specifically asked Canada for information on what it
is doing to deal with the case of unilaterally extinguishing the rights of
Innu people, said MacKenzie.
The Innu people and international community are waiting for answers.
"The Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets minimum standards for
how we will be treated," MacKenzie said. "We are trying to convince Canada
that there is a better way to treat Indian people, and we have to use the
principles in the declaration as a guideline in our relationship."
Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is director of communications for the Indian Law
Resource Center. For more information, visit www.indianlaw.org or call