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Breaches of Indigenous human rights condemned by UN | Pamela Palmater

Tuesday, May 17, 2022 @ 12:43 PM | By Pamela Palmater


Pamela Palmater %>
Pamela Palmater
In November 2021, Canadians were shocked to see the graphic images of heavily armed RCMP officers using an axe and chainsaw to force their way into the home of Wet’suwet’en land defenders, while snipers aimed their high-calibre rifles at unarmed Indigenous women received international attention. Wet’suwet’en people were occupying their lands in opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline which did not have legal authority under Wet’suwet’en laws to be there.

During the raid, RCMP blocked access to journalists, this time arresting two of them, despite identifying as journalists. In response to the violent RCMP raid, on April 29, 2022, the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD) expressed deep concern about the increasing human rights violations and called on Canada to take urgent action to prevent further harm to Wet’suwet’en peoples.

But this isn’t the only group of land defenders targeted by the RCMP for their opposition to pipelines. The RCMP also violently arrested unarmed Secwepemc people opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline on multiple occasions in the last few years, causing serious physical injuries. The series of letters from UN CERD condemning state actions, include reference to Secwepemc peoples and specifically, the Tiny House Warriors and their need of protection from violence by the RCMP and private security firms. The committee has called on Canada on multiple occasions to take steps to protect these land defenders from state monitoring, surveillance, harassment, arbitrary detentions, criminalization and ongoing acts of intimidation by the RCMP, C-IRG (RCMP Community Industry Response Group) and private security forces (from pipeline companies). Canada’s failure to respond to the committee or submit its periodic reports accounting for its international human rights obligations does not bode well for Canada on the international stage and its efforts to get a seat on the UN Security Council or other positions of influence at the international level.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1965 and was ratified by Canada in 1970. Under this Convention, states must undertake “all appropriate means without delay” to eliminate racism in all its forms, as well as undertake concrete measures to protect certain racial groups and ensure their human rights and freedoms. These obligations include protection of racial groups from state violence. Under this Convention, state parties are required to report to the UN on measures they have taken to give effect to the Convention through periodic reports and other processes. These human rights protections include obligations to prevent human rights violations, in addition to responding to violations.

To this end, UN CERD has an Early Warning and Urgent Action (EWUA) Procedure where victims of serious state violence can make submissions to the Committee for state action to address the violations. There must be the presence of serious, massive, or persistent patterns of racial discrimination that could include, but are not limited to:

  • extreme violence like bombings, chemical weapons and land mines;
  • extrajudicial killings, torture or rapes committed against minorities or Indigenous peoples;
  • encroachment on Indigenous lands, especially natural resource and other projects prosing threats of irreparable harm to Indigenous peoples;
  • escalating racial hatred and violence, discriminatory legislation; and/or
  • racial discrimination evidenced in social and economic indicators.

States also have obligations to prosecute and punish perpetrators and provide reparations to victims. 

Far from the dangerous criminals they are portrayed as, these Indigenous peoples — mostly women — are peaceful land defenders protecting their lands and waters from irreparable environmental destruction and trying to combat the climate change crisis. These land defenders are also on the ground to protect their women and girls from the racialized and sexualized violence associated with pipeline camps. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women called on Canada to have an inquiry into the relationship between murdered and missing Indigenous women and extractive, energy and large-scale projects.

After receiving submissions from Indigenous peoples about human rights violations in relation to the continuation of construction on the Site C dam in Peace River, B.C.; the Trans Mountain pipeline extension project impacting Secwepemc territories; and the Coastal GasLink pipeline impacting Wet’suwet’en territories; UN CERD issued a decision on Dec. 13, 2019, under its Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedure expressing their concerns about the failures of Canada to get free, prior and informed consent from all Indigenous peoples impacted by these projects. They also expressed that they were:

Disturbed by forced removal, disproportionate use of force, harassment and intimidation by law enforcement officials against indigenous peoples who peacefully oppose large-scale development projects on their traditional territories;

And:

Alarmed by escalating threat of violence against indigenous peoples, such as the reported violent arrest and detainment of a Secwepemc against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project, on 19th October 2019.

After reviewing the submitted evidence, UN CERD called on Canada to immediately suspend the construction of Site C dam; and halt the construction, approvals and permits for construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project — unless and until Canada obtained the free, prior and informed consent of all impacted Indigenous peoples. Canada was also urged to stop the forced evictions of Secwepemc and Wet’suwet’en peoples and guarantee that no force would be used against them by the RCMP or other police and security forces. They specifically called on Canada to remove the RCMP and their weapons from Indigenous territories. Canada responded to the Committee seven months later in July 2020.

The next communication from the Committee came in November 2020 expressing regret that Canada interprets the Indigenous right to free, prior and informed consent, as limited only to meaningful dialogue; and reminded it that Indigenous peoples have a right to free, prior and informed consent before any decision is made by the state that many impact their rights or interests. They were also concerned that Canada did not provide any information on the measures they took to address the concerns outlined in their 2019 decision.

Canada did not respond to the human rights violations of Indigenous land defenders, nor did it file its periodic report or address the concerns raised in the Committee’s decision of 2019 and letter of 2020. Instead, the RCMP raided Wet’suwet’en again in November 2021, with a large team of heavily armed RCMP, attack dogs, axes and chainsaws. These actions were widely condemned by Indigenous organizations, human rights groups, lawyers and journalists. While these violent raids get a great deal of media attention, what is less known is the daily harassment and criminalization experienced by the land defenders.

Indigenous peoples from Wet’suwet’en and Secwepemc territories report constant monitoring, recording, surveillance, harassment and intimidation by both pipeline security forces and the RCMP. Wet’suwet’en and Secwepemc land defenders have reported intimidation tactics that include RCMP and pipeline security looking in windows of land defender homes and taking pictures; video recording all their movements; the constant use of drones; installation of razer wire fencing around their camps; shining powerful spotlights on their homes all night long; daily searches of the camps; and physical assaults including shoving. Then in January 2022, Wet’suwet’en land defenders left their camps after seeing increasing numbers of RCMP moving in, signalling another potential raid, despite RCMP denials.

This escalating violation of Indigenous human rights resulted in the most recent letter to Canada in April 2022 once again expressing grave concern about the escalation of human rights abuses and failures to protect Indigenous land defenders. 

As it turns out, the Wet’suwet’en were right. Despite their public denials to the media, documents obtained by The Tyee under a freedom of information request to the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and solicitor general, show that the RCMP did in fact plan another raid on the Wet’swuwet’en in January 2022, but had to change plans once it was leaked on social media. These kinds of freedom of information requests have revealed a great deal about how the RCMP see Indigenous peoples and the lengths to which they are willing to go to suppress them. We learned that the RCMP had authorized “lethal overwatch” — a term used to authorize lethal force — for their first raid of Wet’suwet’en land defenders. We also know from documents obtained by The Narwhal that governments and the RCMP act deceptively, saying they wanted to meet with Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders despite having already approved a raid.  

With their request for information, they also received audio recordings of RCMP officers talking about Indigenous land defenders who they just arrested were referred to as “a fucking tool,” laughing about “their fucking face paint,” while likening them to “orcs” and “The Uruk-Hai, yeah, they burst from the earth” — references to evil creatures/monsters in Lord of the Rings. To say that the RCMP hold racist beliefs about Indigenous peoples would be an understatement at this point. A recent report released by the Feminist Alliance for International Action (which I co-authored) highlight the many reports, inquires and commissions that have found that the RCMP have a toxic culture of racism, misogyny and violence — especially towards Indigenous women. This racist, sexist violence includes not protecting them from harm as well as inflicting harm on them — including physical assaults, sexual assaults and violent rapes.

UN CERD has good reason to be concerned about the personal safety and security of these Indigenous land defenders who are merely trying to protect their lands, waters and peoples from irreparable harm and violence. From racist and violent RCMP officers to the increased rates of sexualized violence and exploitation associated with pipeline construction man camps — do these Indigenous land defenders really have any choice?  

It’s long past time that Canada stop acting outside the law and take urgent action to address the grave human rights violations to Indigenous land defenders. The world is watching.

Dr. Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of Eel River Bar First Nation. She has been a practising lawyer for 23 years specializing in Indigenous and human rights law and currently holds the position of professor and chair in Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University. She maintains her own political blog at www.pampalmater.com.

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