Why my Nation Didn’t Back Trudeau’s Bid for a UN Security Council Seat

Chief Roland Willson, West Moberly First Nation

The eyes of the world, and certainly the keen interest of Canadians, turned towards New York, as members of the United Nations cast votes to decide which two countries among Canada, Ireland and Norway will be elected to two-year terms on the UN Security Council.  There are many views on both sides of the debate about Canada’s candidacy, on which Amnesty International itself does not take a position.  Here, Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nation in NE British Columbia, explains why his people did not support Canada’s bid, noting that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has three times now called on Canada to halt construction of the Site C dam, which will destroy West Moberly’s traditional territory.  Those recommendations have been ignored by Canada. Amnesty International has actively campaigned to encourage the Canadian and BC governments to heed the UN’s advice.

The United Nations General Assembly voted yesterday to decide whether Canada should have a seat on the Security Council. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is lobbying hard to regain that seat, a loss seen by many as a rebuke of former Prime Minister Harper’s lacklustre performance on international human rights.  

But according to an open letter signed by a large coalition of leaders and progressive voices within Canada last month, the Trudeau government doesn’t deserve the seat. As Chief of West Moberly First Nations, I added my name to that list. Here’s why.

The Site C dam will flood over 100 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries in northeast British Columbia, destroying vast swaths of prime farmland and fish and wildlife habitat. It will desecrate ancestral burial sites and sacred places. It will poison bull trout with methylmercury making them unsafe to eat, and frustrate the recovery of endangered caribou. Combined with two previous dams, Site C will rip the last remaining stretch of the Peace River from the heart of our traditional territory. And, as regulators and independent experts agree, the power isn’t even needed.

It’s a clear violation of our rights under Treaty 8, which protects our right to hunt, fish and trap and guarantees “no forced interference” with our traditional model of life.

The project was first approved in 2014 under the Harper government despite opposition from the impacted First Nations. After Mr. Trudeau took office in 2015, promising that no relationship was more important than the one with Indigenous peoples, we proposed that he suspend Harper’s approvals until our treaty rights case could be decided.

What was his response? Federal lawyers were sent to fight us in the courtroom, disclaiming any responsibility for upholding the Treaty. Trudeau’s government then handed out a suite of new fisheries, navigation, and transportation permits allowing bulldozers to rumble forward while we endured massive expense and delays trying to wind our way through the courts.

But this betrayal didn’t soften the Prime Minister’s rhetoric. In September 2017, Mr. Trudeau used his first speech to the UN General Assembly to make new promises about his commitment to human rights and dealings with Indigenous peoples, saying “the world expects Canada to strictly adhere to international human rights standards”, and pledging his government would uphold the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

He knew then, just as he knows now, that the central requirement of the UN Declaration is to secure the “free, prior, and informed consent” of Indigenous peoples. What he might not have known, was that the UN might actually expect him to do just that.

The UN’s top anti-racism body, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has denounced the Prime Minister’s handling of Site C in unequivocal terms, decrying the “irreversible damage due to flooding of their [Treaty 8] lands, leading to the elimination of plants, medicines, wildlife, sacred lands and gravesites.” It has called on Canada to suspend construction at Site C on three separate occasions: in August 2017, again in December 2018, and a third time in January of his year.

Our people have suffered too much at the hands of colonial governments to be impressed by the bold talk of future valour. Truth lies in action, and the bulldozers haven’t slowed down after Mr. Trudeau took the seat of power. So don’t expect Mr. Trudeau’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council to fare any better than his predecessor’s. Site C has shown that while Trudeau’s antiracist rhetoric is second to none, his government’s record on Indigenous human rights hasn’t progressed at all.