UN declines to meet Canadian First Nation about environmental concerns

The Hupacasath requested a meeting with a UN official after challenging a treaty they say will harm the environment

The passenger of a car asks to get past as an Idle No More supporter blocking Highway 2 as part of a planned national day of action, in Edmonton, Alberta on Jan. 16, 2013.
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press/AP Images

A United Nations rapporteur on indigenous rights will wrap up a whirlwind tour to investigate the issues confronting First Nations across Canada Tuesday, amid a resurgence of Idle No More, the sweeping movement by the indigenous tribes to halt energy extractors from causing more environmental degradation on their lands. But the international body declined an invitation to meet with one of the First Nations suing Ottawa over a free trade agreement with China that the indigenous group says would give Chinese companies the right to abuse its lands.

Canada's 300-person strong Hupacasath First Nation made headlines across Canada when it filed a legal petition against the government for pushing forward with the Canada-China Foreign Investment Protection Agreement (FIPA) without consulting with First Nations. Canadian legal analysts have said the Canada-China FIPA would allow Chinese enterprises to sue Canadian local governments for legislation deemed prejudicial to Beijing's interests.

The Hupacasath say the FIPA will essentially override indigenous Canadians' aboriginal right to resources on its lands — the ability to govern the ecosystems on their lands.

When the Hupacasath — who reside on Vancouver Island in western British Columbia — learned of U.N. special rapporteur on indigenous rights James Anaya's mission to Canada, Brenda Sayers, a Hupacasath member who has spearheaded the campaign to block the FIPA contacted him.

"I did write an email. I received a letter back saying that his schedule was full," Sayers told Al Jazeera. "Unfortunately, the Hupacasath won't have a chance to chat with him about the overriding issue in Canada. The FIPA will override our rights to say no to major pipelines and logging of our original territory here." 

Anaya and the United Nations did not respond to interview requests by the time of publication.

"It does seem odd," Sayers added. "I would think that if [the U.N.] was aware of it, they would have approached the Hupacasath."

Chief among the reasons for Anaya's trip listed in the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights press release about his visit were investigations into First Nation "self-government" and "land and resources."

A federal court dismissed the Hupacasath's bid to stop the FIPA, and the band was ordered to pay $106,331 of the government's legal fees in the case.

"We had to pay for the government lawyers costs … That's something that's not usually done. Some people say it was a slap on the hand for speaking up against the government. If that was the case, it didn't put the chill in our [Hupacasath] chief and council," Sayers said.   

The groups has raised a total of $201,160 Sayers said, of a goal of $290,135 to appeal the court decision. Whether her band will pursue the case depends on a decision of the chief and council this week, but Sayers said she is confident they will move forward.

Ignoring another epidemic?

First Nations members like Sayers and the members of Idle No More say Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has pushed for broadened extraction of natural resources, including Alberta's tar-sands oil, is failing to investigate and address the manifold health problems they say extraction around indigenous lands is causing.

"Why aren't there long-term health impact studies done?" Sayers asked.

Among the issues Anaya's mission is slated to address is whether the U.N. should deem "genocide" the instances in which the Canadian governments of the 19th century and into the 20th century facilitated the death of First Nations people through starvation or by allegedly failing to address health epidemics that were killing them.

In the early 1900s, 3,000 children were found to have died amid the health epidemics like tuberculosis — First Nations rights advocates say, because the government ignored the public health issue. In the 1960s, many First Nation children were also forcibly removed from their biological families and placed with white families, in attempt to rid them of their indigenous identity.

Vanessa Gray, an active member of the Idle No More movement and member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in southwestern Ontario Province, believes the genocide debate is inextricably linked to the issue of land rights and environmental abuses.

Gray says the government tried to kill off more First Nations to make way for further environmental exploitation.

"The federal government knew we are strong and powerful people, and they are doing everything they can to bring us down, as [with] the companies next to our reservations," Gray said.

Gray said that on her reservation, she has never witnessed a study of the many cases of cancer and asthma she has witnessed, which locals, she said, attribute to nearby energy extraction.

"What is oil worth? It's worth the blood of my family and ancestors? It's not ethical oil," Gray said. "The Canadian government is putting money before anything else. My family is sick and dying from cancer because these reckless companies are releasing what they want into the air and building up tar sands business."

"They are killing me inside, because my family is sick."

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