Where does new Conservative leader Erin O’Toole stand on Indigenous land defence struggles?
Photo: Erin O’Toole leadership campaign video.
On August 24, Erin O’Toole was elected the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada and in turn the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons.
With 121 seats in Canada’s current minority Parliament, and a general election conceivably on the near horizon, it’s worth delving into the new Opposition Leader’s positions on Indigenous land defence struggles against energy megaprojects.
First, some context.
As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst highlighted the relationship between resource extraction and the growing number of threats faced by human rights defenders around the world.
At a UN session on strategies by States to prevent attacks on human rights defenders, Forst noted: “States must go to the root of environmental conflicts, such as imbalance of power, making nature into a commodity, impunity and the current development model in order to ensure long-term solutions.”
The recent report by 350.org titled Human Rights Abuses by Fossil Fuel Companies further stated: “The UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights and the environment have noted that those who work to protect the environment on which the enjoyment of human rights depends are among the human rights defenders most at risk, and the risks are particularly acute for Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities.”
And a recent report by Global Witness highlighted that some of the measures that governments should take to reduce the risks faced by defenders include: “Ensure national policies safeguard the rights of defenders and protesters to free assembly and speech, as well as potential recourse to civil disobedience.”
As such, these are some of the possible measures we can use to evaluate the policies of political parties with respect to land rights and measures to ensure the safety of human rights defenders, including Indigenous land defenders.
Notably, the current Liberal government bought the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline (now under construction on Secwepemc territory in British Columbia) and approved the LNG Canada terminal in Kitimat, British Columbia (that will be fed fracked gas by the Coastal GasLink pipeline that crosses Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia).
It was also the current NDP government in British Columbia that authorized the deployment of “sufficient resources to deal with” the “provincial emergency” of Wet’suwet’en opposition to the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline earlier this year.
That authorization helped to facilitate the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) enforcing a court injunction against Indigenous land defenders opposed to the pipeline on their unceded territories without their free, prior and informed consent.
In his previous leadership bid in 2017, the new Conservative leader stated: “We will not allow First Nations to have a veto [on major energy projects]. That language is already creeping in with Mr. Trudeau. Consultation is not a veto.”
In his platform, O’Toole now pledges to: “Finish the Trans Mountain Pipeline and Pass a National Strategic Pipelines Act. This would allow the government to declare a pipeline to be nationally strategic and subject it to an expedited review process.”
He also notes: “Projects like LNG Canada build our economy while benefiting the world and show how Canadians can work together.”
Furthermore, O’Toole promises in his platform to: “Pass a Freedom of Movement Act to prevent radicals from shutting down the economy [and] strengthen the legal penalties provided for in the criminal code for persons hindering the proper functioning of energy transportation infrastructure.”
This in part refers to the railway blockades across this country that were organized earlier this year in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders.
The National Post has commented: “For such legislation to stand up, the courts would have to find it is compatible with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It would also still ultimately rely on the police making an operational decision to take down the blockade. Currently, many of the blockades are already considered illegal and the courts have quickly granted injunctions to remove them. Despite the injunctions, police in some jurisdictions have been hesitant to do so, not wanting to escalate the situation.”
Significantly, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network noted this past February “an uptick in online calls for vigilante action against Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests among hate groups and far-right activists”. One of O’Toole’s leadership campaign videos released at that time appears to show one such dismantling of a road blockade.
In terms of the other federal parties, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has stated “There’s a lot of complexity to the situation” with the Wet’suwet’en, while Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May has commented “You cannot say you respect [the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] and then send in the RCMP to remove hereditary chiefs from their own land when they have not provided consent.”
Peace Brigades International observes with growing concern the fatal attacks against Indigenous land defenders around the world.
Last month, Global Witness noted: “Indigenous peoples are at a disproportionate risk of reprisals. Last year, 40% of murdered defenders belonged to indigenous communities. Between 2015 and 2019 over a third of all fatal attacks have targeted indigenous people – even though indigenous communities make up only 5% of the world’s population.”
No country is immune to this.
Peace Brigades International-Canada calls on all federal parties to be aware of the importance of peacefully addressing the land rights issues at the core of land conflicts in this country and to affirm the important role of Indigenous land and environmental rights defenders in upholding internationally recognized human rights.