PJSA statement on Rights of Indigenous People

Approved by the Board of Directors on Jan. 9, 2014.

The Peace and Justice Studies Association, a bi-national organization devoted to the promotion of peace and justice and to the creation of a better world through scholarship, education, and activism, unequivocally implores the governments of Canada and the U.S. to adhere to their treaty agreements with indigenous groups, which in international law have the same status as any other treaty agreements between sovereign countries. We deplore the horrific treatment of indigenous peoples in these and other countries and call on activists, advocates, and allies everywhere to support the land and resource rights of indigenous peoples.

Despite centuries of negotiating hundreds of treaties with indigenous groups, the governments of the United States, Canada and other countries continue to usurp native lands, pollute the air, water, and soil with deadly contaminants, disrespect the vibrant cultures of these peoples, marginalize them through policies and practices, and demonize those who seek to challenge this misuse of power. In direct violation of international human rights treaties and domestic legislation, these governments have negotiated and then reneged on treaty agreements.

United States governments have negotiated some 600 treaties with Native people, most of which have been violated. As just one example, were it to have adhered to its own agreement, the Lakota Nation would have encompassed much of the Midwest, with the vast resources offered by the land and water in that region. Instead, many Lakota live on reservations (or prisoner of war camps, as many indigenous groups call them) like Pine Ridge, which is annually one of the most impoverished places in the United States. Unemployment rates run around 70 percent, almost 50 percent of Pine Ridge residents live below the federal poverty line.(link is external) Comparable to a developing country, life expectancy rates hover in the later 40s and early 50s(link is external), in stark contrast to the rest of the U.S., where the average woman lives to be 81 and the average man to 76. But, when Native peoples have organized, like the American Indian Movement did in the 1960s and 1970s, they are presented as a threat, not as part of the solution. AIM was a major target for the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a mass surveillance and infiltration effort that, under the guise of breaking up subversive threats to national security, decimated much of the native activism in the U.S.

Canada has done no better. Instead of honoring its agreements to indigenous groups, the Canadian government has stolen the land and poisoned the water, soil, and air in which many from the First Nations live. Here, too, indigenous peoples often live in third-world conditions. The unemployment rate of the Elsipogtog, for instance, hovers around 80 percent.(link is external) On October 15, 2013, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples James Anaya issued a scathing report, noting that twenty percent of aboriginal peoples in Canada live in homes in need of serious repairs and that the suicide rate among aboriginal youth is five times greater than that of all Canadians. Anaya called the situation a “crisis,” and, among other factors, traced it back to Canadian government policies that broke up homes and destroyed indigenous cultures(link is external) by sending indigenous youth to horrific boarding schools where they were forced to become as White as possible.

But, instead of critically reflecting on Anaya’s report, the Canadian government elected to further oppress this already marginalized group. Just days ago, when indigenous peoples and their allies organized to protest fracking in New Brunswick (a natural gas extraction process that devastates the land) the RCMP responded with force. Instead of listening to the voices of indigenous peoples about the Tar Sands pipelines, the Canadian government has criminalized their voices and continues to plunder on. Some 40 indigenous protesters were arrested and six were held in jail for a weekend out of fear that they would exercise their right to peacefully assemble. The six face a total of 37 charges(link is external): including mischief, threats, and obstructing a peace officer, in relation to a clash between police and protesters. The RCMP, aided by media coverage that reinforced traditional stereotypes of violent natives, has claimed it was justified in its response. Actual reports show that the protest was peaceful before it was invaded by approximately 200 RCMP, officers, some heavily armed and in army-style camouflage, with their dogs, teargas, and assault rifles. In fact, SWN Resources had been losing $60,000 per day because of the nonviolent protests that began in 2010. While a court injunction prohibiting anyone from obstructing the shale gas staging area and storage facility of SWN Resources was denied(link is external) on October 22, 2013, to the great joy of the many members of the Elsipogtog First Nation who had been protesting there, the issue is far from over.

In another example, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that the Mi’kmaq had the right to fish for a living because in an 1871 treaty they never surrendered the land. But, when the Mi’kmaq attempted to exercise their right to fish, government officials blocked them and spread faulty information that instigated non-native fishers to destroy their equipment. That same issue applies with the Elsipogtog who still own what SNW Resources is now using.The Elsipogtog remain ready to protest at any shale gas extraction site. “It is our responsibility to protect Mother Earth, to protect the land for non-natives too,” says Susan Levi-Peters(link is external), the former Chief of Elsipogtog. “My people are speaking up for everyone.”

The U.S. and Canada are two of the wealthiest nations in the world, and both should bear the responsibility and pay the price for becoming so through the extraction of resources and land that did not and does not belong to them.

A Call to Action

Indigenous people and their supporters have not and will not be silent about these issues. Groups like Idle No More(link is external) and the Indigenous Environmental Network(link is external) have organized, taken to the streets, and used traditional indigenous dance and culture as well as teach-ins and other nonviolent direct action to organize communities to speak out about the repressive policies. Similarly, Honor the Treaties(link is external) uses art to amplify the voices of indigenous peoples and their allies and to call on governments to honor the treaties they negotiated. PJSA stands with indigenous activists everywhere who are using peaceful methods of nonviolent resistance to protest government oppression and neglect. We call on all members of the peace and justice community to support nonviolent indigenous activism aimed at protecting ancestral lands and ensuring safe and healthy environments for future generations. As allies to indigenous activists, PJSA advocates for deeper understanding of the rich history and tradition of native peoples in the U.S. and Canada and for listening to the voices of those whose voices are too often silenced and marginalized.

We also implore the governments of the U.S. and Canada to respect the treaties they negotiated, as they are the supreme law of the land. Governments must also adhere to the rights spelled out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples(link is external) (PDF) and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination(link is external), both of which specifically recognize the ways that colonialism and imperialism have impacted indigenous peoples and require the recognition of sovereignty and land rights, the equal treatment of all, and the prohibition of cultural genocide.