Native Canadians Win Mini-Victory over Big Loggers
NEW YORK, May 16 (OneWorld) - Pressure is mounting on the Canadian government to take actions against private loggers and other business concerns that encroach upon indigenous peoples' territories.
|At the 2008 World Summit of Indigenous Cultures in Taipei. © davidreid (flickr)|
On Tuesday, the provincial government declared it was ready to work with local indigenous communities to protect the Whiskey Jack Forest, which covers about 1 million hectares and is home to the native Grassy Narrows First Nation people.
The native communities have relied on the forest reserve for hunting, trapping, harvesting, and medical plants for thousands of years. They are opposed to commercial use of the forest not only because they own it, but also because it is sacred to them.
Grassy Narrows elders argue that a treaty signed with the Canadian government in the 1870s fully recognizes their people's right to "pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing" throughout their traditional territory.
Apparently not abiding by its treaty obligations and some recent court rulings, the government has allowed AbitibiBowater Inc., a logging company, to operate in the area and awarded the company a so-called "sustainable forest license." AbitibiBowater does its business in Ontario as a subsidiary of the U.S. lumber giant Weyerhaeuser Corporation.
On Tuesday, Grassy Narrows elders and their supporters welcomed the Canadian government's move to include their views in land-use planning, but said they still have reservations about the government's position on certain issues.
"We are pleased to see the government committing to better relations," said David Sone of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a nonprofit group that lobbies on behalf of indigenous communities living in forested areas worldwide. "But Grassy Narrows leaders have made clear that the community has not consented to logging or other industrial activity on its territory."
"Boise [Corp.] has done the right thing. It has set an example that we hope other companies and the province of Ontario will follow."
- Craig Benjamin, Amnesty International
In February, the U.S.-based Boise Corporation announced it would not purchase any wood fiber logged from Grassy Narrows forest if loggers did not seek the indigenous peoples' permission for clearcutting. In return, the company earned a lot of respect and praise from international activists.
"Boise has done the right thing," said Craig Benjamin, Amnesty International's campaigner for the human rights of indigenous peoples. "It has set an example that we hope other companies and the province of Ontario will follow."
Like Boise, the Canadian House of Commons recognizes the principle that governments and companies must seek "prior and informed consent" of indigenous peoples before using their lands and resources for development and commercial purposes.
Just last week, the House of Commons passed a resolution calling on parliament and the government of Canada to "fully implement the standards contained" in the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights.
The Declaration, which contains the "prior and informed consent" dictate, was adopted by the UN General Assembly last September, in a historic vote by an overwhelming majority of member states. But, along with the United States and a few other countries, the conservative Canadian government rejected it.
The UN document affirms minimum human rights standards necessary for the "survival, dignity, and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world." These include indigenous peoples' right of self-determination, protections from discrimination and genocide, and recognition of rights to lands, territories, and resources.
During the House of Commons debate over the resolution, government spokespeople claimed that the Declaration would undo centuries of Canadian treaties with indigenous peoples.
"This government's latest arguments against the Declaration show just how ridiculous their position has become," said Chief Wilton Littlechild, international chief for Treaty Six, which is the 1876 document that first codified the rights and responsibilities of native Canadians and the Canadian government.
"The [UN] Declaration explicitly states that treaties and other agreements with Indigenous peoples are to be honored and respected," added Littlechild. "We just want the Canadian government to live up to that promise."
Despite the government's opposition, indigenous leaders say, the vote in the House of Commons is an important step in the implementation of the Declaration.
"Canada's reputation as a human rights advocate continues to suffer as a result of its ongoing opposition to the Declaration," said Grand Chief Edward John, political executive member of the First Nations Summit.
In order to draw attention to the cause of saving their forest, Grassy Narrows activists recently embarked on a 1,250 mile journey on foot. On reaching the provincial capital, Toronto, they are due to participate in the "Gathering of Mother Earth Protectors."
The gathering, which begins May 26, will take place in front of the Parliament building.
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