The PBI-North America Project on structural violence against Indigenous peoples
The Toronto-based Peace Brigades International-North America Project (PBI-NAP) functioned between April 1992 and December 1999.
PBI began exploring the possibility of a North America Project in September 1990 after the 78-day July-September 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec that saw a confrontation between the Canadian army and Mohawk land defenders who opposed the expansion of a golf course onto Indigenous burial grounds.
PBI-NAP’s “principles and mandate” statement highlighted, “The North America Project is concerned about and committed to working against racism and structural violence. We recognize that the problems faced by many Indigenous communities are outcomes of structures that do not represent their culture or tradition, and whose imposition is experienced as violence – an ongoing experience of conquest.”
One way that the PBI-NAP carried out its work was to have a team spend two and a half months with Innu communities in Goose Bay, Labrador, beginning in March 1995, to research the structural violence experienced by the Innu.
They interviewed Innu Nation President Peter Penashue who told them, “The Canadian judicial system has failed the Innu. The European colonizers set up institutions and laws which came from a foreign European perspective. They didn’t consider the economic, cultural or social needs [of our peoples].”
In 2016, Steve Molnar, a U.S.-based coordinator of PBI-NAP, reflected, “We were bringing our experience from other Projects and trying to use that in the North American context. There were a lot of things that we did in Guatemala that were quite applicable and then some things that were just totally new.”
“We explored creative strategies. PBI worked with indigenous people in El Salvador, for example, and we brought some of these people to meet indigenous people in North America to have exchanges, so they could share their struggles with one another.”
Molnar also noted, “In Guatemala, we might see massacres or open violence. We didn’t see as much of that in North America, but we did witness a type of genocide, a cultural genocide. A lot of our work was spent recording that.”
Years after the PBI-NAP concluded, former prime minister Paul Martin (in 2013), former Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin (in 2015), and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (in 2015) have all stated Canada committed “cultural genocide” against Indigenous peoples in this country.
Presently, the life expectancy for Indigenous people in Canada is 15 years shorter than the general population; infant mortality rates are two to three times higher; and the incidence of diabetes is four times higher.
The suicide rate among Indigenous youth is about five to six times higher than for non-Indigenous youth; Indigenous youth made up 46 per cent of admissions to youth correctional services, while accounting for just 8 per cent of the youth population; and as many as 72,000 Indigenous people do not have access to clean drinking water.
When 144 countries at the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on September 13, 2007, Canada was one of four countries to vote against the declaration.
While the Canadian government then stated on May 9, 2016 at the United Nations that it has fully endorsed UNDRIP, it has been criticized by the UN for violating the right to free, prior and informed consent.
In December 2018, the United Nations instructed Canada to suspend construction of the Site C dam on the Peace River in Treaty 8 territory in British Columbia until the project obtains the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples.
And in June 2019, Bill C-262, which would have aligned Canada’s laws with the global minimum human rights standards for Indigenous peoples, died in the Senate.
Cree Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash, who had introduced Bill C-262 into the House of Commons, commented, “The struggle for human rights is a long one.”
Photo: “I helped to start the North American Project together with Alaine Hawkins from Canada, and other returned volunteers from the Guatemala Project (pictured left with Steve in purple).” – Steve Molnar, PBI-NAP