“Our land, our rights, our peace”

Nenita Conduz is small in stature and pregnant with her third child. She is also courageous and defiant.

This tiny mother is leading her Subanen people in the struggle to defend their ancestral land in the southern Philippines, where a Canadian owned mining company is harming their land, their community and their way of life.

Because of her commitment to speak truth, Nenita lives under constant threat.

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Nenita Conduz. Photo courtesy Antonio Nercua Ablon

Nenita recently visited Canada, as one member of a delegation of 5 leaders from the Philippines, bringing a message of how Canadian mining companies are harming their land and their communities. The delegation met with government officials on Parliament Hill and did a speaking tour of major cities, calling for respect of “our land, our rights, our peace.” I heard Nenita speak in Winnipeg.

The delegation’s visit was sponsored by KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice coalition, of which MCC is a member. KAIROS has been advocating for years for accountability mechanisms for Canadian extractive companies overseas as part of a wider Open for Justice campaign. Canada is a global leader in international extractive industry; but has very weak mechanisms to hold mining companies to human rights and environmental standards.

The Subanen people – one of numerous Indigenous groups in the Philippines – lives on the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao Island in the southern part of the country. Zamboanga is rich in natural resources; it is also one of the most militarized regions in the country.

The Subanen have received certification of their ancestral domain, with the attending right of free, prior and informed consent to any extractive activities on their land. But this has not stopped foreign corporations from accessing the mineral resources or for using armed force to put down the resistance of the Subanen people.

Nenita focused her critique on Calgary-based TVI Pacific and its Philippine subsidiary TVIRD, which is extracting copper from Subanen land. According to her testimony, as well as the findings of a KAIROS delegation to the Philippines in 2014, the company began its operations without the due process of free, prior and informed consent.  Moreover, its arrival in the community coincided with the cancellation of business permits for small scale mining operations, the deployment of armed “security” personnel, and the escalation of widespread human rights violations.

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Philippine delegation with KAIROS hosts. Photo/KAIROS

The reported human rights violations include: extrajudicial killings, illegal detention, kidnappings, destruction of property, homes and livelihoods, forcible eviction, as well as threats, harassment and intimidation. Thousands of people have been affected.

Nenita herself is continually being watched and harassed and is currently not able to return to her home because of fears she could be assassinated.

But this courageous woman refuses to be silenced. “Defending our ancestral land is of prime importance to us,” she says. “We cannot live without our land.”

She notes that land is not just a place for the Subanen people to live. The land defines their life, their health, the social fabric of their community, and their very identity.

Nenita is aware that the struggle of the Subanen people is part of a global struggle by Indigenous peoples seeking to protect lands that are coveted by governments and corporations for their forests, waters and minerals.

“We are calling for respect for Indigenous peoples rights,” she insists. “We hope our efforts to expose what is happening in the Philippines will touch people’s hearts and minds and lead to support for the global struggle.”

open-for-justice-logo-temp-TRANS.PSDThe Open for Justice campaign, which MCC supports, urges the Canadian federal government to take action in two specific ways:

  • to appoint an independent ombudsperson mandated to monitor Canadian extractive operations overseas, to investigate complaints and to take action where needed to uphold human rights (current mechanisms are voluntary and ineffectual); and
  • to allow access to Canadian courts for non-Canadians who have been harmed by the international operations of Canadian companies.

The recently released federal budget failed to allocate funds for the creation of a human rights ombudsperson.

We owe it to people like courageous Nenita – and Indigenous peoples everywhere – to support their call for “our land, our rights, our peace.”

by Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office

Constructing a reconciliation response: Understanding the UNDRIP

If you’ve ever tried to build a Lego set without the instructions, you know it can be frustrating and that often little parts can be left out. Sometimes pictures are helpful, but it is still difficult to replicate the exact model the set is designed to make. Some sets are easier than others, and some seem like a really good idea at first, but quickly become way more complicated than originally thought. It doesn’t help that well-meaning siblings come along and ask why you haven’t put on the stickers yet.

Even though the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is much more important, its complexity might be somewhat compared to Lego. The Declaration is complex and its impact and exact application is difficult to understand at first. With dedication and patience, it can be understood and applied in a constructive manner to create a beautiful structure.

For Christians, the Bible informs our values and guides our behaviour, especially in how we are to treat each other. Since the UNDRIP focuses on how we see each other and how we treat each other, we can turn to the Bible for guidance. The Bible explains that when God created the world, He created all people equal and of value because they were created in His Image. Jesus includes loving our neighbours as ourselves in the Golden Rule, along with loving God (Matthew 22:36-40). Thus, anytime our neighbours (here and around the world) are being treated unfairly and denied rights to dignity and respect, we must seek ways to restore our world to justice and peace. One tool we have been given to articulate those injustices and envision a more equal world is the UNDRIP.

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More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation in Ottawa on May 31, 2015 at the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  MCC photo/Alison Ralph

The document is comprised of forty-six articles which both lay out explicit rights and include implementation mandates directed to states. It was created over a twenty-year span by Indigenous peoples and other parties worldwide. The document mainly focuses on three types of rights: rights to protect and live out ones culture, rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), and rights to self-determination.

Many of the UNDRIP rights have to do with cultural rights– those rights to language, religion, education, traditions, and practices that we pride ourselves on in Canada. These rights appear to be the easiest to address and perhaps the least controversial. Although they do impact government funding arrangements, they largely require that Indigenous communities are given the space to make their own choices about cultural practises. They are significant because they represent a much needed departure from previous policies of assimilation and forced Christianization. In advocating for these rights, non-Indigenous people can work alongside Indigenous communities and remind the government of the openness to other cultures that we cultivate in Canada. For Christians, at a minimum, this means taking the time to learn about and develop respect for Indigenous spiritual traditions, even as we hold onto deeply held faith convictions.

Rights to FPIC mean that Indigenous communities must be consulted, provided accessible information, and their decisions respected, especially in reference to natural resource extraction on their lands. This is similar to the way that non-Indigenous Canadians expect to be treated, but it applies to communities as well as individuals. These rights are harder to define concretely and difficult to imagine fully implemented, simply because the potential influence is huge. Many of Canada’s natural resources are on Indigenous land, making the possible refusal of communities to allow projects on their land problematic, from the perspective of those seeking economic growth through the extractive industry.

Rather than view FPIC as problematic, it is helpful to recall that these are the same rights every person is entitled to, and that as settlers, we are the newcomers to Canada. It is important that all people advocate for Indigenous FPIC rights, especially as communities who have traditionally not been consulted and have seen their lands contaminated and destroyed by mining and other activities. These rights are also one of the sticking points for the government, so it is important for us all to work with communities and discover how their FPIC rights can be respected and upheld in light of the current government hesitation.

The final group of rights are those that have implications for self-determination of communities and nations. Rather than focus on concerns about Canadian sovereignty, it is important that when treaties were signed with the European powers, they were signed at a national level and that rather than giving rights to Indigenous peoples, the UNDRIP is reminding and demanding that those rights and original relationships be respected and upheld. There is some uncertainty about practical application of these rights which have been so long ignored, but with kindness, sincere effort, and a genuine partnership between Indigenous nations and the Canadian government, they can be resolved.

As Christians living in Canada, it is important that we recognize that the existing relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the state is harmful and not as it was originally drawn up in our founding treaties. In addition to supporting a more equal and beneficial society nationally, we can work together at a local level, assisting Indigenous Peoples when it is helpful to them, and working harder to implement the equality and acceptance set out for us in the Bible.

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There was a real sense of  togetherness as people participated in the walk for reconciliation, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

Additionally, as Canadians, we have a history of taking land and resources that are not ours and robbing Indigenous communities of their ability to practice the same cultural, religious, economic, and governance autonomy that we prize so highly. Non-Indigenous people have done this through past programs such as the Indian Act, unfair land treaties and residential schools, and continue through the systems and institutions in place at a national and local level. Here we too have a duty to step forward in reconciliation and ask how we can begin making positive changes. One way that communities have identified is by fighting to hold the government accountable to UNDRIP. This method is set out by the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, as it calls on the government to implement UNDRIP and especially for Christians and their churches to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous neighbours.

The rights set out by the UNDRIP are not unreasonable. They can be difficult to understand, but through honest collaborative efforts, all levels of government—working together with Indigenous communities–may create the beautiful structure that will allow for the flourishing of Indigenous nations. Non-Indigenous people can help by being informed, reaching out in support to local communities as churches, and in reminding our leaders that even slow-moving progress is progress, and that all people should enjoy these rights to dignity and respect.

by Clare Maier, advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office

Elsipogtog: an opportunity to rebuild trust

This week’s blog is written by Christina Farnsworth, MCC representative for the Maritimes. She is based in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy; and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.  – Aristotle, Nichomanean Ethics, Book VIII, translated by W.D. Ross

The well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the last several years, treaty and aboriginals claims remain persistently unresolved, and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among aboriginal peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels. – James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Statement upon conclusion of the visit to Canada, October 15, 2013

In a blog posted here in September, I reflected on the importance of bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples together to work out how we can live in peace and friendship. The need for peace and friendship has arisen still more urgently as I have reviewed coverage of the recent confrontation at Elsipogtog and the Sacred Fire Encampment near Rexton, NB.

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Mi’Kmaq Elder Billy Lewis and members of the Halifax KAIROS cluster participate in a solidarity event on fracking. New Brunswick, June 2013. Photo courtesy of KAIROS.

Since July, a coalition of Mi’Kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Acadian and other Maritimers has gathered to protest against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick. On October 17th, the RCMP moved in to enforce an injunction to remove protestors who had been blocking access to SWN Resources equipment since September 29th. The situation deteriorated into violence with the RCMP using non-lethal force and pepper spray. Five RCMP vehicles were burned by the protestors, and it is reported that some protesters threw Molotov cocktails at officers.

Aristotle says, “When men are friends they have no need of justice,” and this sentiment is echoed in the Bible when Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:30). If we loved our neighbours and cared for them and their interests as much as we care for our own, would we need to be reminded by laws to listen to those who are struggling to make their voices heard?

The media has been full of images of burning police vehicles, police snipers, Elders and Indigenous People facing off with lines of RCMP officers. If we focus on the events of October 17th exclusively, I believe that we will miss a greater reality and opportunity: there is a legacy of struggle and distrust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous People in Canada; and we have the chance to build new bridges if we choose to engage in respectful dialogue around our differences.

The Sacred Fire Encampment has brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to peacefully protest shale gas exploration (also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) and industry in New Brunswick. When I visited the encampment this past July, I met people of all ages and walks of life who share concern for the environment and have worked together to make their concerns known. Much of the proposed fracking is on traditional Mi’Kmaq territory, including that of Elsipogtog First Nation; it should be noted that no land was ceded by Indigenous Peoples in the Peace and Friendship Treaties of the 1700s.

We cannot reduce what was over three months a non-violent protest uniting New Brunswickers of all backgrounds to a face-off between Indigenous People and the RCMP. As Canadians and as Christians, we need to be asking how we can re-build trust, how we can ensure that all involved are heard and valued.

We also need to be cognizant that this protest is speaking to two issues. One is a deep concern around the protection of the environment; the other confronts a lack of awareness of Aboriginal rights and responsibilities related to land and resources. This is not the first time Canadians have witnessed dramatic events that link these two issues. Some have referenced Oka when talking about the October 17th altercation. Others have pointed to the Ipperwash Inquiry Report as a resource that could have been useful in averting the violence. If we truly want to be inclusive, honourable and selfless as a country, as Governor General David Johnston described Canada in his recent Speech from the Throne, we cannot allow ourselves to write off legitimate problems because of the methods that were used to highlight them.

After he wrapped up his recent nine day visit, James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, noted in his Statement upon conclusion of the visit to Canada that “resource extraction should not occur on lands subject to aboriginal claims without adequate consultations with and the free, prior and informed consent of the aboriginal peoples concerned.” Until the question of rights over land and resources is addressed, how can we discuss the use of resources in good faith? And are we as Canadians requiring that our governments and our industries meet the requirement of free and informed consent before beginning any development on Indigenous lands?

Our society is deeply divided with fear, misunderstanding and a lack of safe space for dialogue. Elsipogtog, and other contexts like it, provides a new opportunity for creating such space, bridging gaps of mistrust and fear, and building a reconciled community. It offers a possibility for deeper and more just friendships.