Prime Minister Harper has been reminded by a coalition of important British Columbia First Nations chiefs that Canada has constitutional responsibility to consult and accommodate First Nations people even in the making of vital economic and environmental decisions.
This letter should be regarded by Harper as a first shot across his bows as his government pushes on with a policy that, on the surface, seems likely to try to ignore First Nations protests against major directional changes by his government.
This letter reminds me forcefully of the moment in 1972 when the Cree people entered the Montreal courtroom to fight the proposal of the Quebec government to build the huge hydro project in their traditional lands in James Bay area. The lawyers for the Quebec government really did not believe they had a case to answer, an arrogance that was knocked out of them by the persistent six-month case presented by the Cree lawyer James O’Reilly, and by other lawyers representing the Inuit of northern Quebec.
The days when governments could simply ignore the wishes of First Nations are long over, as Harper and his gang are likely to discover to their cost in the next few months.
“We remind you that the Crown cannot legislate itself out of its duties to consult and accommodate First Nations,” the BC chiefs write to Harper in an open letter, commenting on the government’s decision to proceed with changes to the Fisheries Act, and weakening environmental regulations without any reference to First Nations whose lands lie in the path of the so-called Gateway pipeline that the government hopes will carry oil sands oil to the British Columbia coast for export.
The chiefs add: “Removing or weakening environmental reviews for projects will only result in greater uncertainty and conflict. We urge you to reconsider your position and work with First Nations to strengthen habitat protection for the continued survival of fish stocks and for the benefit of our future generations.
“We are similarly concerned with the changes we understand may be included in the Budget to environmental assessment legislation, and other environmental protection laws. These environmental laws and the processes established under them are a central part of the Crown’s relationship with First Nations. Changes to these laws, as with the Fisheries Act, should only be undertaken in meaningful consultation with First Nations, and to the extent these protections are changed they should be improved rather than weakened.
“A recent report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination further emphasized the need for Canada to include Indigenous peoples in decision making, recommending that Canada ‘Implement in good faith the right to consultation and to free, prior and informed consent of Aboriginal peoples whenever their rights may be affected by projects carried out on their lands, as set forth in international standards and the State party’s legislation.’
“Further, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets out in Article 26(1) that ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise used or acquired.’
“We ask Canada to uphold its commitment to this important international doctrine. We also point out that Canada must uphold its commitments in existing treaties to protect fisheries under those treaties.
“Although your government is moving forward with potential economic development projects, this cannot be at the risk of the surrounding environment. We remind you that the Crown cannot legislate itself out of its duties to consult and accommodate First Nations…..”
The letter is sent in the name of the FIRST NATIONS LEADERSHIP COUNCIL, and is signed on behalf of the FIRST NATIONS SUMMIT by Grand Chief Edward John,
Chief Douglas White III Kwulasultun and Dan Smith;
on behalf of the UNION OF BC INDIAN CHIEFS, signed by
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip,Chief Bob Chamberlin, and
Chief Marilyn Baptiste; on behalf of the BC ASSEMBLY OF FIRST NATIONS, signed by Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould.