Trudeau government prepares to embrace UN declaration on indigenous peoples but hasn't revoked Site C permits

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      This morning, CBC News has reported that Canada will formally declare that it is shifting its position on the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

      The announcement will occur on Monday (May 9), according to the public broadcaster, when Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett speaks at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN.

      The former Conservative government called the declaration an "aspirational document" and the CBC News story claimed that it was "not legally binding".

      However, indigenous leaders and Quebec human-rights lawyer Paul Joffe have maintained that it's already enforceable under Canadian law.

      Bennett is expected to say the declaration will be implemented in Canada. Whether that will be accompanied by any legislation remains to be seen.

      Opposition MPs zero in on Site C

      This is where things could get tricky for the Liberal government, particularly with regard to B.C. Hydro's $8.8-billion Site C hydroelectric project in northeastern B.C.

      NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen has criticized Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo for signing permits in connection with dam project on the Peace River.

      In February, Cullen said in Parliament that this megaproject "would have irreversible and negative impacts on the rights of Treaty 8 people".

      A week later, Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May issued a news release questioning why the former Conservative government issued 14 permits for the Site C project during the fall federal election campaign. 

      “Its sole purpose is to provide electricity for LNG development, and the federal Joint Review Panel found the project directly affects Treaty 8 treaty rights of area First Nations," May said. "The minister of indigenous and northern affairs should commit to not allowing further permits to be issued while treaty rights for indigenous people remain outstanding.”

      According to May, 23,000 hectares of land will be flooded in the Peace River Valley.

      Amnesty International has raised similar concerns, noting that the Site C hydroelectric project would flood a river valley west of Fort St. John. B.C. Hydro's water licences allow for an 83-kilometre reservoir behind the dam.

      "The severe impact on Indigenous peoples is beyond dispute," Amnesty International declared on its website. "A joint federal-province environmental impact assessment concluded that the dam would 'severely undermine' use of the land, would make fishing unsafe for at least a generation, and would submerge burial grounds and other crucial cultural and historical sites."

      Amnesty International posted this video on YouTube to highlight the impact of the Site C dam on indigenous peoples.

      UN declaration promote indigenous rights

      The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes the following articles:

      * Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.

      * Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior, and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.

      * States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:

      b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories, or resources;

      c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;

      d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration.

      This document is what the federal government is prepared to embrace. Yet it has not rescinded permits for a megaproject before indigenous legal claims have been tested before a judge. 

      "The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations have gone to court to protect their traditional lands," Amnesty International stated. "Their struggle has been supported by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Assembly of First Nations and many others—including local farmers and other landowners in the Peace Valley."

      Critics question federal government's intentions

      The federal government has filed a written response in the Federal Court of Appeal to the First Nations' legal challenge, according to an April 13 Site C campaign update on the Stop the Site C Dam website.

      "Like the Harper government before it, the Trudeau government asserts that the onus is on First Nations to prove their Treaty rights are threatened—and that doing so would require an entirely different, more extensive, and much more costly process than either the current judicial review or the environmental assessment," the website states.

      Meanwhile, there have been reports in Postmedia newspapers that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is prepared to support pipeline projects to bring Alberta oil to the west coast and Atlantic Canada.

      Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughn Palmer wrote a column last month suggesting B.C. premier Christy Clark might conceivably back a pipeline if improved grid integration made it easier to sell electricity from the Site C dam to Alberta.

      Thus the stage appears to be set for Ottawa, B.C., and Alberta to reach a rapprochement on two thorny issues: pipelines and the hydroelectric project on the Peace River.

      This possibility has one B.C.-based environmental group questioning whether British Columbians may be "betrayed" by Trudeau, who "ran on a platform of respecting local communities and the rights of First Nations".

      When the indigenous affairs minister, Carolyn Bennett, makes her announcement on Monday at the United Nations, expect to see an outpouring of positive media coverage about the Trudeau government's enlightened approach to dealing with indigenous peoples. That's par for the course and fits in with the government's overall messaging.

      But where the rubber will really hit the road is with the Site C dam project in northeastern B.C. and over oil pipelines to Canada's west coast. On these fronts, the jury is still out.