Three Indigenous feminist actors and the lack of a regulatory body for business enterprise in Canada

Published by Brent Patterson on

This article was written by Cheyenne Williams, a student from Vancouver Island University in a Virtual/Remote Intern/Mentorship with Peace Brigades International-Canada through the EleV scholarship program.

In light of recent and ongoing indigenous human rights infringements, and a lack of a regulatory body which enforces corporate accountability, this article outlines 3 key feminist actors fighting to uphold Indigenous sovereignty on behalf of their respective First Nations in Canada.

July 11, 2020 demarcated 30 years passed since of the siege of Kanesatage. In the passing of that anniversary, it is noted by Ellen Gabriel that many of the same threats to Indigenous human rights have been and continue to be perpetuated.

On the day of the anniversary, a news article by APTN captures Gabriel reading a joint statement on behalf of Kanehsatake and Kahnawake longhouses: “Our ancestral lands still face theft and dispossession, our traditional governments delegitimized by the governments of Canada and Quebec”.

Today, domestic issues faced by Indigenous people in Canada such as legal title to land continues to be dismissed or discounted. For instance, the Delgamuukw Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1997, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the traditional governance of the Wet’suwet’en people have all been enacted and established to protect Indigenous sovereignty.

However, while Indigenous people are entitled to their rights legally, more often than not this appears to be the case in name only. While court injunctions are issued to protect megaprojects that exploit natural resources and the government issues military or police enforcement to protect economic interests, the question of accountability begs a critical analysis.

At an international level, the regulatory body Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) examines business enterprise, their conduct and any alleged allegations that are brought to their attention pertaining to their direct or indirect responsibility to adhere to respecting Indigenous Human Rights.

While Oxfam Canada points out that the Ombudsperson “[is] without any of the independence or legal powers of investigation originally promised”, any such body does not exist at a domestic level. This may explain why extractive industries within Canada rarely face consequences when impeding on unceded and unsurrendered indigenous territory and examinations of human rights misconduct hardly result in consequences strong enough to evoke legally enforced recognition of Indigenous self-governance.

In the absence of deconstructing a systemically discriminatory state, communities continue to struggle to assert and maintain basic rights and some leaders of these communities have become key feminist actors in defense of these basic rights.

Ellen Gabriel, Freda Huson and Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas have all put their lives on the lines to stand up for their respective First Nations, their human rights and their culture. These land and water defenders have resisted megaprojects that negate the process of obtaining Free Prior and Informed Consent, including the development of golf courses and condominiums, the construction of oil and gas pipelines and the establishment of fish farms in the Pacific Northwest.

So what efforts have these women made and how have the outcomes shifted because of their work?

While they all remain the media spokespersons for their respective issues, Ellen Gabriel continues to engage with members of parliament in advocating for the upholding of indigenous title and the preservation of the unceded territory of Kahnesatake.

Freda Huson, along with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation continue to occupy the land as an act of legal obligation to the directive of the hereditary chiefs.

Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas has allied with the hereditary chief of the Namgis First Nation to protect the Broughton Archipelago of the Kwa’kwaka’wakw territory from irreversible damage resulting from salmon fish farms.

A successful outcome, is the latter example, where environmental protection and Indigenous sovereignty has been respected, after a long battle for the removal of fish farms, from Namgis territory.

Feminist actors such as these women will continue to press for the protection of Indigenous human rights, Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous title so long as industry is free from scrutiny, accountability and consequences.

In an article advocating for the protection of human rights and to avoid climate breakdown, PBI comments that “In a system that favours profit over rights, economic models that encourage the forced displacement of those defending their resource-rich territories will continue and those at the forefront will remain at risk of violence.” Human rights due diligence is long overdue and as stated by the United Nations, the tools and resources are available for business enterprise to uphold and protect human rights.

Cheyenne Williams identifies as a cis-gendered Indigenous woman (she/ her), with maternal ties to Nuu chah nulth territory and paternal ties to Coast Salish territory. Cheyenne also has colonial settler ties, originating from Wales and England on her maternal side and ties from Scotland and Ireland on her paternal side.

Photo credit from left: Ellen Gabriel, sourced from Concordia University; center: Freda Huson, sourced from The Tyee; right: Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas, sourced from the peak.

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