Indigenous rights: common cause for activism across the Americas

By Crystal Giesbrecht, a field worker and activism leader with Amnesty International in Saskatchewan

I am extremely grateful to have been part of a fantastic team of activists who travelled to Mexico City for Amnistía Internacional México’s Encuentro de Activismo 2014, a conference that brought together Amnesty members from Mexico, Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Brazil, USA, and Canada.

Kathy Price, Amnesty International Canada’s Latin America Campaigner, and I were asked to be part of the closing plenary to share our experiences in Canada mobilizing action for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We were honoured to be on stage with amazing activists like Leonardo González, a leader in the Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous community in Paraguay, Federico Alvarez Robledo of Amnistía Paraguay, Dolores Soto of Amnistía México, and Marselha Gonçalves of Amnesty USA.

For all of us, it was incredibly inspiring to hear from Leonardo about his community’s recent victory in their long running struggle to regain the lands on which their physical and cultural survival depend.  For over 20 years, the Sawhoyamaxa had been forced to live in temporary housing on the side of a highway because their lands were occupied by private owners. Just this year, the Paraguayan Senate passed a bill to return the land to the Sawhoyamaxa by paying compensation to the current landowners. Federico shared how he and other Amnesty activists in Paraguay worked to assist the Sawhoyamaxa community to get justice, which involved spreading awareness of the situation internationally to put additional pressure on the Paraguayan government.

As the interventions by Dolores and Marselha highlighted, rights violations facing Indigenous Peoples across the Americas are eerily similar. Indigenous women face exponentially higher rates of violence, including sexual violence. From Canada to South America, Indigenous women are disappearing. This year marks the 10th Anniversary of Amnesty’s Stolen Sisters Report, and the problem still remains. In Canada, within a 30 year period 1,017 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered and 164 remain missing. Mexico is facing a similar crisis—while exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that at least 3,600 women have disappeared from the city of Ciudad Juárez alone. Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and many other countries in the Americas are also experiencing high rates of femicides.

Resource development is another issue that affects Indigenous peoples across the Americas. In Canada, Indigenous communities are asserting their right to be properly consulted about proposed resource development (oil and gas, logging, mining) on their land and their right to decision-making about what happens on their lands. The same is happening in Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Chile, Peru, and beyond. With Canadian mining companies (or subsidiaries of Canadian companies) conducting the majority of this resource extraction, Canada must work to hold corporations responsible for human rights violations overseas. So far, this has not been the case.

For Amnesty Canada’s contribution to the panel, Kathy and I shared the work that our members have been doing to support the rights of Indigenous peoples both in Colombia and here in Canada. In each case, our activists do not speak for but rather in support of Indigenous peoples and their rights. We take direction from Indigenous organizations and communities, whether in Canada or in Colombia, and call for the action that they are urging.

In Canada, we have the freedom to work on issues that exist within our own country. As Amnesty members, we also believe we have a responsibility to work on human rights violations in Canada at the same time we are working on those same issues internationally. Kathy talked about the reasons we have chosen to prioritize Colombia – including the severity of the human rights situation there with more than a third of Indigenous peoples currently facing destruction amidst armed conflict, violent displacement and the imposition of resource extraction. She also explained the other imperative; the Canadian connection to this emergency. The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement promotes Canadian investment in resource development in Colombia without human rights guarantees.We have a responsibility to do better.

In my talk, I summarized important issues for our work with First Nations in Canada: the crisis around missing and murdered Indigenous women and human rights violations linked to resource development, including the cases of the Lubicon Cree, Grassy Narrows, the currently proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, and the previously proposed New Prosperity Gold-Copper Mine, in which Amnesty played an instrumental role during court hearings.

I shared our work on the Right to Water and the fact that 20,000 First Nations people living on reserves in Canada have no access to running water or sewage, a basic human right recognized by the United Nations. I raised our concerns about discrimination against First Nations children  in Canada, with the federal government budgeting 22 percent less per child for children’s services in First Nations communities than what the provincial governments dedicate in other communities. There are often greater needs and a higher cost of service delivery in First Nations communities, especially in rural and remote areas, which leads to First Nations children often receiving a lesser standard of service than would be available off reserve. While it has been pointed out by Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society that underfunding of child welfare services is a violation of Canadian Human Rights Act, the government continues to resist increasing funding and the case is currently before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

Activists at the Encuentro expressed a great deal of interest in the situation that Indigenous Peoples in Canada are currently facing. Some commented at the end of my talk that they were surprised to hear that Indigenous Peoples in Canada face many of the same human rights violations that they see in their own countries. It seems Canada has held on to a reputation as a leader in human rights, despite many violations that occur every day within our own country. But discussing issues that are occurring across the Americas increased feelings of unity among all of us and also led us to think about how we might tackle these issues as a region.

A word that was repeated frequently throughout the Encuentro was “solidaridad”—solidarity. We must all continue to advocate for justice in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples within Canada and internationally. After all, these are not just “indigenous issues”. They are issues of the utmost importance to all peoples in the Americas.

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