A group of Indigenous women leaders recently travelled to Tsleil-Waututh territory in downtown Vancouver from their respective territories to testify to Canada’s failure to uphold the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights (UNDRIP) and to share their ongoing experiences of harassment and violence with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous People’s Rights.
It was the final meeting in the rapporteur’s 10-day schedule across Canada where he met with Indigenous peoples from across the country about their ongoing experiences of human rights abuses. Other stops included Montreal, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.
In the days leading up to their meeting, Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, the former Neskonlith Band Chief and former Secretary Treasurer of the Union of British Columbian Indian Chiefs; Jocey Alec, the daughter of Gidimt’en Chief Woos; and Gitxsan Shay-Lynn Sampson gathered informally to strategize about what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it. To have an impact, they knew that how they delivered their testimony mattered.
They decided they would break through the statistics of public record and deliver personal stories that couldn’t be ignored.
“Tribal delegations and coalitions continue to go to UN events abroad due to exhausting failed domestic remedies, and the injustices of the state here in Canada, but we still have to keep driving the issues on our homelands too,” said Wilson. “Nowadays, NGOs take up the UN meeting spaces, and the Canadian Government goes there saying that they’re doing great things for Indigenous people, but they’re not.”
The meetings with the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples José Francisco Calí Tzay set out to hear accounts of what is happening in our country despite federal and provincial UN Declaration legislation first hand.
“International efforts are needed but they must be Indigenous-led by proper title holders in the voices of people who are experiencing these atrocities on their respective territories,” said Wilson, at a gathering hosted by Ruben George Sundance Chief of Tsleil-Waututh Nation on Vancouver’s East Side.
The myriad of injustices imposed on Indigenous people for over a century, including the devastating legacy of the Indian residential school system, the over representation of Indigenous people in the country’s carceral system, and all the Indigenous children still in the provincial foster care systems are all on public record.
At a press event in Ottawa on March 10, Calí Tzay reiterated what the women had told him, which was that Indigenous communities experience constant violence at the hands of local police, especially the RCMP’s CIRG, the Community-Industry Response Group, which formed in 2017.
Calí Tzay also decried the appalling legacy of Indian residential schools, the ongoing and disturbing reports of residential school denialism, as well as alarming testimony of violence against Indigenous women and girls. First Nations people are overpoliced, overcharged, and over-incarcerated in the criminal justice system of Canada.
“During my visit, I observed the legacy of colonialism and the history of abuse and discrimination have left survivors and their families with a deep mistrust of Canadian institutions,” he told reporters.
To date, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has sent the Government of Canada three letters admonishing its human rights record and failure to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
The letters call on the government to stop violating the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.
Last April, the Committee pointedly accused the governments of British Columbia and Canada of using the RCMP and CIRG to criminalize and surveil land defenders and peaceful protesters and to forcibly remove them from their territories.
The Committee sent a letter in 2021 requesting that the Canadian government force TransMountain and Coastal GasLink to suspend construction on their pipelines. They have yet to receive a response. In his release, Calí Tzay speaks about the failure of these projects to achieve the free, prior and informed consent from First Nations in the pathway of these projects.
By law, the federal government is required to unveil an action plan for the implementation of the UNDRIP. Yet, with only a few months to go until the deadline for the plan’s submission to Parliament, there are still serious and ongoing human rights violations against Indigenous people and communities across the country.
Calí Tzay told reporters that he is concerned “about the ongoing militarization of Indigenous lands and the criminalization of Indigenous human rights defenders resisting the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines.”
Shay Sampson says she doesn’t want more silence. She wants action and asked the rapporteur what other tools the UN has in its arsenal to more effectively hold Canada accountable for its ongoing human rights abuses against Indigenous peoples — because the status quo clearly isn’t working.
“They’ve received three letters and nothing has happened. They haven’t even responded so I want to know what else the UN can throw at the Canadian government that will stick this time,” Sampson said.
She’ll have her answer once the rapporteur delivers his final report at the UN Human Rights Council session in September.
UNDRIP was supposed to usher in a new era in the relationship between government and Indigenous people in Canada, but since its publication, Indigenous women and land defenders like Jocey and Shay continue to be harassed, threatened, arrested, followed, terrorized, surveilled and ripped from their lands.
And they are not alone. Here and around the world, “anti-domestic terrorism” laws like the Emergency Act are being used to criminalize Indigenous land defenders protesting the encroachment of extractive projects on their lands in the face of intensified global resource competition.
UNDRIP was designed and drafted as a human rights bill, but the Indigenous delegates working on it also knew that it would become part of the larger debate in Canada over access to resources and resource development. Article 30 states, “Military activities shall not take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples, unless justified by a relevant public interest or otherwise freely agreed with or requested by the indigenous peoples concerned.”
However, that didn’t protect Shay Sampson or Sleydo (Molly Wickham) when RCMP broke through their cabin door with a chainsaw in 2021, snarling dogs and assault weapons pointed at their heads.
Images of the raid were captured by photojournalist Amber Bracken, who was reporting from inside the camp. After she was arrested, Jocey Alec said RCMP officers burnt her cabin down. “People have been burning our cabins down for centuries.” said Shay, recalling the ongoing investigation into the burning of Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Gisday’wa’s cabin in 2020.
Jocey and Shay talked about these human rights abuses, and how devastating it is psychologically to know that they will continue to be in harm’s way as they stand in defense of their homes on unceded lands. The cost of doing so puts them in the cross-hairs of provincial judicial and carceral systems and RCMP guns.
“Injunctions and pre-trial bail conditions are used to keep us off our land,” Jocey said, while discussing strategy with the group.
Shay agreed and spoke to the sacrifice some make when this happens. “People have pleaded guilty just so they could return to their territory without conditions.” In his Reconciliation Manifesto, Secwepemc leader George Manuel argued that court Injunctions are used like a “legal billy club” to remove rightful title holders from their lands.
Molly Wickham’s court date has been pushed to January 2024, and though she has since returned to Wet’suwet’en territory, she says the psychological weight of that delay can be, on some days, a debilitating source of stress and recurring trauma.
Injustice can feel seasonal. Over the winter months, fewer supporters are up at Gidim’ten territory. It can feel isolated and vulnerable. In warmer weather, security trucks are a permanent fixture along the gravel road between camp and Lamprey Creek. “When we walk from one place to the other, Jocey reports, “we are filmed and photographed by industry security 24/7 and it’s my territory, it’s my home!” she says angrily. That every Indigenous person impacted by local police, RCMP or CIRG violence has their own struggle and their own story, is something Judy, Joyce and Shay all agreed on.
The experience of direct violence, or the ceaseless threat of it, impacts Indigenous communities in different ways mentally, spiritually and physically. Sometimes, it’s in aches and pains that won’t go away, headaches, rashes, insomnia, eating disorders, nervous disorders, PTSD, depression, anger, despondency, and sometimes addictions.”Trauma and pain, it’s all related. Imagine that?” said Judy Wilson.
None of this has stopped these women from standing in defense of their territories and in support of other Nations across Canada who are doing the same.
Trying to make people who have never been to their territories understand how they feel about their land and its inseparability from their culture and wellbeing seems like an impossible challenge, but they went to Vancouver to do just that. “These young Indigenous women are courageously standing up for us all against the devastation of oil and gas that is causing the climate crisis world-wide,” Wilson said. “It was an honour to witness and stand with them before the UN special rapporteur.”