The PBI-North America Project on structural violence against Indigenous peoples

Published by Brent Patterson on

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

The Toronto-based Peace Brigades International-North America Project (PBI-NAP) functioned between April 1992 and December 1999.

Formation after the Siege on Kanien’kéha:ka territory

PBI began exploring the possibility of a North America Project in September 1990 after the 78-day July-September 1990 the Siege on Kanien’kéha:ka territory.

Commonly referred to as the Oka Crisis, this was a confrontation between the Canadian army and Mohawk land defenders who opposed the expansion of a golf course onto Indigenous burial grounds.

Toronto-based author-activist Len Desroches has written: “The summer after the ‘Oka crisis,’ some members of Peace Brigades International and myself spent an intense week in Kanesatake and Kahnawake [and] explored the possibilities of active nonviolence with members of the Mohawk community.”

The PBI Annual Report further explains: “Part of the training was held in The Pines, site of the armed confrontation between the Sûreté du Québec and Mohawk Warriors a year before. PBI’s internationalism was especially valued, above all because one of the trainers was himself an Indigenous person from Central America.”

The year after that, the Peace Brigades International-North America Project (PBI-NAP) was established with a focus on Indigenous rights.

Principles and mandate

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.”

Training on Stó:lō territory – 1992

Its work began with a training that took place in March-April 1992 on Stó:lō territory in British Columbia. The training was informed by Elizabeth Little Elk, a member of the Lakota Sioux Nation and a member of the PBI-USA national coordinating committee.

At that time, Alaine Hawkins of PBI-NAP wrote: “The training was organized to prepare people in Western Canada to do PBI-type observing within the North American context, particularly applied to Native peoples’ struggle for justice.”

PBI-NAP observation missions

From 1992 to 1999, PBI-NAP visited various frontline struggles including NitassinanIpperwash, Barriere Lake and Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church).

The Sainte-Marguerite III hydroelectric dam – 1992

In an April 1993 PBI-Canada newsletter, Steve Molnar wrote: “Rivers play an important role in the Innu lifestyle by providing salmon, a staple of the Innu diet. Hydro-Quebec, a government owned corporation of the province, has already built 19 dams in Nitassinan and plans to build one more on the Sainte-Marguerite River.”

On December 7, 1992, the Coalition for Nitassinan asked Peace Brigades International to provide observers for a barricade it was setting up in Maliotenam. It also asked PBI to escort Coalition spokesperson Gilbert Pilot when he spoke at the United Nations in New York and upon his return to the community of Maliotenam.

Two PBI volunteers maintained a 24 hour a day presence at the barricade that was set up between December 12 and December 16, 1992.

NATO over Nitassinan – 1994

Flight training over Nitassinan, the ancestral homeland of the Innu, began in the 1950s with the Royal Air Force flying out of Goose Bay, Labrador.

By 1981, the German Air Force began low level flight training there, followed by the United States and the United Kingdom in 1986, and the Netherlands in 1987.

In 1996, the Multinational Memorandum of Understanding with the UK, Germany and the Netherlands was renewed for a 10-year period that allowed for up to 15,000 low level and 3,000 medium/high level training flights annually.

Innu Elder Tshuakuesh Elizabeth Penashue has stated: “Canada sees our land as uninhabited land. It is inhabited by the Innu, and it is inhabited by wildlife. This is hunting territory, nomadic territory. It is not for war games.”

In October 1994, the Peace Brigades International-North America Project commented: “A continuing issue for the Innu of both Labrador and Quebec is low-level flight training over their hunting territory by Canada and other NATO countries.”

Meeting with Innu communities – 1995

A PBI-NAP team two and a half months with Innu communities in Goose Bay, Labrador (Nitassinan), beginning in March 1995, to research and document the ongoing structural violence experienced by the Innu peoples.

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].”

Land defender Dudley George killed by police – 1995

Indigenous land defender Dudley George was killed by an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) sniper on September 6, 1995.

George had been part of a land reoccupation action at a provincial park.

On September 10, the Peace Brigades International-North America Project (PBI-NAP) was invited to “be observers for First Nations people if needed [and] do accompaniment for anyone fearing further violence on the part of the police.”

By the following year, PBI-NAP had made at least four visits to the area.

Reflections

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.”

Ongoing human rights violations

Years after the PBI-NAP concluded, former Canadian 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.

By the UN definition, it was/is a genocide.

Wet’suwet’en land defenders are currently peacefully struggling against the construction of the Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline on their territory. It is being built without free, prior and informed consent. Gidimt’en water protector Sleydo’ has described the megaproject as part of the ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples.

PBI-Canada was present on Wet’suwet’en territory when 29 land defenders were arrested on November 19-20, 2021.

Photo: PBI-North America Project trainer Karen Ridd at “North America training” from March 26 to April 24, 1992, near the town of Hope in the Sunshine Valley on Stó:lō territory in British Columbia.

Photo: Innu Elder Tshuakuesh Elizabeth Penashue and Peace Brigades International-North America Project activist Anne Harrison in 1995.

Photo: Excerpt from PBI newsletter, April 1993.


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