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Canada fails to respond to Wet’suwet’en Nation’s claims in hearing at Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

The Government of Canada’s remarks to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in response to allegations of serious human rights abuses show an “embarrassing disrespect” towards the rights and experiences of Indigenous Peoples, the Wet’suwet’en Nation and Amnesty International Canada said this week.

On Monday, representatives with the Wet’suwet’en Nation testified virtually to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) about the unjust criminalization of land defenders opposing the construction of the Coastal GasLink (CGL) liquified natural gas pipeline on the Nation’s unceded ancestral territory. They also decried Canada’s and British Columbia’s decision to construct the pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Nation — a violation of the Nation’s rights under Wet’suwet’en law, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Though the Canadian government had advance access to the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s written submission to the IACHR, Hugh Adsett, Canada’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States and the government’s representative at the hearing, failed to respond to the Nation’s claims. “My goal in participating today is primarily to gain a better understanding of the petitioners’ concerns and provide some general and initial context that may help inform the commission’s own analysis,” he said in his introductory remarks.

‘An embarrassing disrespect for our Nation’s rights’

“Canada’s unwillingness to explain its actions shows an embarrassing disrespect for our Nation’s rights and the rights of all Indigenous Peoples in so-called Canada,” said Chief Na’moks, of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, on Tuesday. “Over and over, international human rights watchdogs and civil society groups have condemned Canada for violating our right to defend our territory, our laws, and our way of life. The government should have no trouble speaking to the attacks on our people that they have committed in the light of day.”

Watch: The Wet’suwet’en Nation’s hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English-speaking section, said the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s allegations demand a serious response from the Government of Canada. “Canada’s refusal to engage with the specifics of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s testimony raises uncomfortable questions about the government’s commitments to respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples,” she said. “Today’s lack of response reflects poorly on these commitments.”

Canada’s comments also caused frustration among the members of the IACHR. “It is disappointing that the state did not prepare a full response to the allegations,” Commissioner Carlos Bernal Pulido told the hearing. “No one questions that Canada, in general, has a constitutional democratic framework. The point is not that. This hearing is about whether the allegations are true or not, whether the state has a response, whether there is justification for the behaviour of the police, and also whether there has been respect or violation to the rights of the Indigenous community in this specific case.”

Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their allies have for years been advocating against the construction of the 670-kilometre CGL pipeline through the Nation’s territory. British Columbia approved the pipeline’s route without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs.

More than 80 arrested in police raids Wet’suwet’en Nation’s territory

In a series of raids since early 2019, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have unjustly arrested and detained more than 80 people, including land defenders, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and matriarchs, legal observers, and members of the media. During these offensives, the Wet’suwet’en Nation reported that RCMP forces, armed with military-style assault weapons, helicopters, and dog units, operated alongside Coastal GasLink and its private-security company to bulldoze and burn down buildings and desecrate ceremonial spaces.

“Canada must be held accountable for the atrocities happening to Indigenous Peoples and their lands,” Chief Na’moks said after Monday’s hearing. “Words are not enough when they apologize for the loss of freedoms, incarceration, and removal from lands. They must act immediately to cease destroying the so-called democracy of this country.”

In addition, more than a dozen land defenders still face criminal charges for exercising their right to defend the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s unceded traditional territory. The Nation has called for the charges to be dropped and for pipeline construction on Wet’suwet’en territory to halt until the Nation gives its free, prior, and informed consent to the project.

“Canada’s and British Columbia’s decision to allow the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Nation is a flagrant violation of Canada’s human rights commitments and the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said France-Isabelle Langlois, Executive Director of Amnistie internationale Canada francophone. “Amnesty International urges the Commission to investigate the abuses caused by Canada’s and B.C.’s actions and to demand that they respect the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s right to free, prior, and informed consent to resource-extraction projects that affect their territory.”

Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs have never sold, surrendered their territory

In the 1997 Delgamuukw decision, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs as the authorities of the Nation. The Hereditary Chiefs have never sold or in any way relinquished their collective title to their territories.

“As Indigenous Nations, we have a right to protect our ways of life as People of the Land,” said Chief Na’moks. “We are here to protect clean waters, fight climate change, and defend our unceded territory. It is Canada who promotes violence and destruction by supporting industries that are destroying this planet.”

Monday’s hearing transpired as Canada grapples with punishing heat waves and the most ferocious start to the wildfire season on record — harbingers of environmental catastrophes to come if Canada and other industrialized countries do not act quickly and decisively to transition away from fossil fuels.

“We will continue to accompany the Wet’suwet’en Nation in their pursuit of justice,” Nivyabandi said. “Investment in fossil fuels is a severe threat to the rights, lives, and traditions of Indigenous Peoples today. Canada must listen to — and ultimately, respect the rights of — Wet’suwet’en land defenders rather than punish Indigenous Peoples for protecting their territories and the environment.”

Header photo: Sleydo’ (Molly WIckham) Wing Chief of the Cas Yikh House, Gidimt’en Clan, Wet’suwet’en First Nation, presents to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on July 10, 2023 (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights/YouTube)