Sunday, October 28, 2018

Saskatchewan: The Land of Living Skies and Lethal Racism

                   (Justice for Our Stolen Children Camp, Wascana, Saskatchewan, 2018)

Saskatchewan is known as the “land of the living skies” for its breathtakingly colourful northern lights. It is also one of the most beautiful prairie-provinces in Canada, with stunning purple sand beaches and the incredible Sahara-like Athabasca Sand Dunes that stretch for nearly 100 kilometres. The province also boasts over 100,000 lakes and rivers, making it nearly 12% water. The diverse Indigenous Nations which have thrived on these territories since time immemorial have tied their customs, practices and traditions, and even their traditional Indigenous knowledge systems to the life-giving resources from these rich lands, waters and eco-systems. The very land that has sustained the Nehiyaw, Anishinabe and other Nations for thousands of years is firmly rooted in their identity as individuals, families, and Nations. Sadly, Saskatchewan is also well-known as one of the most racist provinces in Canada. With colonization and the clearing of the plains, came brutal acts of genocide, land dispossession and violent racism against First Nations – a legacy that has and continues to be a lethal reality for First Nations.

Saskatchewan is the home to farmer Gerald Stanley, who shot and killed an unarmed First Nation youth, Colten Boushie, in cold blood in 2016, but was found not guilty by an all-white jury two years later – a result that shocked the nation. But it’s not just white farmers killing Indigenous peoples – 62.5% of people who died from police encounters in Saskatchewan were Indigenous, despite being only 11% of the population. But this should not come as a shock to anyone. It wasn’t that long ago in 2004 that the Neil Stonechild Inquiry exposed the Saskatchewan police practice known as “Starlight Tours” to the world. Starlight Tours occur when police officers detain Indigenous youth, drive them out of town and leave them stranded in sub-zero temperatures causing their deaths. While this racist practice was well-known by First Nations as common practice, Canada had a hard time accepting the persistence, prevalence and lethal nature of racism in this country. Meanwhile, the rate of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls continued to climb.

In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) released a report on the “known” cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada which showed that Indigenous women and girls make up only 2.5% of the Canadian population, but 16% of the murder victims in Canada. However, Saskatchewan had the highest provincial rates - 55% of all murders of women were Indigenous. This unique intersection of racism and misogyny creates a situation where sexualized violence is perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls at alarming rates with relative impunity, and by all walks of society. While it is true that domestic violence is part of the issue, many of the murders and acts of sexualized violence were committed by society – doctors, lawyers, teachers, judges, social workers, foster parents and even police officers. Human Rights Watch released a report about police officers in Saskatchewan who commit sexualized violence against Indigenous women and girls in their custody, including sexual harassment, assault, invasive strip searches by male officers, and groping.

Racialized violence, abuse and neglect of First Nations is so ingrained in Saskatchewan that it is not only reflected in societal attitudes, but those of its governing bodies and agencies. Nowhere are the socio-economic conditions worse for First Nations than in the sister provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. More than 80% of all children in care in Saskatchewan are Indigenous – second only to Manitoba’s 90% - primarily due to discriminatory agency practices or conditions of poverty from chronic and discriminatory government under-funding of core social services. Racism has a multiplier effect where not only are Indigenous children wrongly apprehended, but because of that race-based apprehension, they are less likely to get a high school education, and more likely to end up in youth corrections. More than 2/3 of all Indigenous peoples in prison were in the child welfare system. It should be no surprise then that Indigenous foster girls are also over-represented in murdered, missing, and sex trafficked and those exploited in the child porn industry. Human traffickers know exactly where to get them - foster and group homes.

These multiple, over-lapping crises rooted in racism and violence against Indigenous peoples is getting worse. The Supreme Court of Canada, the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator, the Auditor General, child welfare advocates, and numerous United Nations human rights bodies, together with countless research findings, commissions, inquiries and coroner’s reports all point to continued failures by federal and provincial governments to take concrete action to stem or reverse these crises. This failure, which is nothing less than colossal in Saskatchewan, sends the very toxic message to society that Indigenous lives have less value. Despite all the symbolism in a post-TRC report Canada, provinces like Saskatchewan have made very few substantive changes that have addressed any of these issues. All the political meetings, negotiation tables, and other so-called partnership initiatives haven’t stopped the suffering of the people – instead conditions are getting worse.

This is the reason that Idle No More was born. Not only did this organic social movement grew from Indigenous grassroots community members – it was inspired by federal and provincial government inaction on these social issues and their constant breach of our Aboriginal and treaty rights. Omnibus bills to remove protections for the many lakes and rivers which make up Saskatchewan, together with provincial leases, permits and other authorities for corporations to continue to steal from Indigenous lands helped inspire a Saskatchewan born, nationwide movement to demand action. Idle No More wasn’t the first public show of protest over racial injustice, and it won’t be the last. First Nation family members of lost loved ones organized the Justice for Our Stolen Children Camp to again raise awareness and demand action. Their message was simple - the gross injustices committed against First Nations peoples in the name of racism and misogyny, like poverty, homelessness, over-incarceration, over-representation of our children in foster care and murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls – are all getting worse, not better.

It would appear that Saskatchewan’s Premier is wholly detached from the problem. His focus seems to be on maximizing extraction of resources from First Nation lands; ignoring Aboriginal, treaty and lands rights; and clearing the legal playing field for more violence. In his recent Throne Speech, Moe announced that he will pass “trespass” legislation to allow more policing in “rural” areas. His focus is on the property rights of rural farmers without any mention for the safety of rural First Nation communities. We all know what this means. More laws to protect farmers who may hurt or kill other First Nations youth. His plan is eerily similar in nature to the bills proposed in the United States by certain states, to protect those (white people) who run over protesters with their cars, for example. Then add to Moe’s trespassing legislation, the fact that he is planning to arm conservation officers with AR-15 type carbine rifles! The very same conservation officers, who have recently been authorized to enter reserves through an MOU with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN).

There is a political storm brewing in Saskatchewan that further risks the lives of First Nations people. Trespass legislation and semi-automatic weapons are the not answer. Land and resource transfers back to First Nations, ending discriminatory practices, implementing treaty rights - all of those would contribute to justice for First Nations. Pumping more weapons into First Nation territory will only lead to more deaths.

It is long past the time that the province of Saskatchewan take real steps to stem the race-based violence and deaths of First Nations from whose lands and waters every single resident of Saskatchewan benefits.

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Indigenous right to say no

                                     (photo by Michelle Girouard)

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily on October 12, 2018.

The federal government recently announced that it will not appeal the court decision which quashed Canada’s approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Instead, Canada will engage with the 117 impacted First Nations in a consultation process led by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci.

If ever there was a sign that the government was going to force this pipeline expansion through the review process, this is it. After all, federal elections are just around the corner and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become the face of the Trans Mountain pipeline dispute and all the broken promises that it entails.

Being criticized from all sides — the provinces, industry, Canadians and Indigenous peoples, and now the Federal Court of Appeal — Trudeau decided to bring out the big guns: Iacobucci.

There is little doubt that he was engaged to lead this process to ensure that the technical aspects of consultations are met, thus insulating the government from an appeal of its decision. Even the most trusting person would be hard pressed to believe that the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) would hear an appeal about Iacobucci’s consultation process let alone consider it in a truly neutral fashion.

Even if I am wrong about this, what kind of message does this send to First Nations who have been taking their cases to the SCC in the hopes of fair and impartial consideration for decades? Will they now wonder if their cases will be heard by justices who, after they retire will work with governments against their interests?

Remember that conflict of interest is not only the presence of an actual conflict, but also reflects the appearance of conflict. Justice Canada describes judicial independence as the “cornerstone of the Canadian judicial system” and refers to the clear separation of government and the courts. While some might argue he is no longer a sitting justice and may be perfectly legal and ethical according to the rules of ethics of the federal government and even law societies — it still doesn’t feel right. In law school, we learned that lawyers are duty bound to uphold the honour of the legal profession while at work and in our personal lives — even after retirement.

To my mind, Iacobucci carries with him the honour of Canada’s highest court in all his actions, even after retirement. While this may not be a legal ethic issue, it is certainly a moral one. With all due respect, joining the federal side of this pipeline dispute feels a lot like taking sides against First Nations. It feels like a betrayal.

This is a similar story of betrayal that many First Nations feel when the RCMP takes the side of government in every single conflict between government laws and Aboriginal rights. The mandate of the RCMP is to not only prevent crimes and maintain peace and order, but also enforce laws.

According to Canadian law, the Constitution is the highest law in the land. In theory, First Nations should be able to seek the assistance of the RCMP to protect their constitutional rights from being breached by governments or industry. Instead, the RCMP seems to always abide by the will of government and stop us from exercising our rights and/or provide physical protection and security for the extractive industry to allow them to breach our rights.

The government is using these national institutions, the RCMP and the courts, against us to force the expansion of this pipeline. The RCMP arrested land and water defenders in B.C. and now a former SCC justice will be used to insulate Trudeau’s future approval of the pipeline expansion.

Therein lies the real injustice of this process. Regardless of whether the new consultations are led by a former SCC justice or Trudeau himself, Canada has already decided that the pipeline will be built, before ever talking to any of the impacted First Nations, including those that have asserted Aboriginal title. This renders our constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights meaningless. What legal value is the federal government’s constitutional obligation to consult, accommodate and obtain the consent of First Nations before taking actions that would impact our rights and title, if “consent” is interpreted as the right to say yes but excludes the right to say no? It makes no logical sense to interpret the law in such a way, especially to a constitutionally protected right.

Imagine if consent was interpreted this way in both the ordinary and legal understanding of the word consent. When a school sends home a permission form seeking a parent’s consent to allow their child to take a field trip, if the parent does not give consent, the school cannot allow the child to participate. Similarly, if a patient refuses to give consent to an operation to have their hip replaced, then the doctor cannot perform the operation. The absence of consent means no — in other words, a veto that has real legal power and meaning. Imagine if consent was interpreted in this illogical and diminished manner for sexual relations as it is for Aboriginal rights. Imagine if sexual consent in law meant that a man could consult with the woman on whether she wanted sexual relations, and was even willing to accommodate (“where appropriate”) her wishes about how to have sexual relations, but she had no right to say no — no veto over whether or not sexual relations occurred? That is called sexual assault and it is a crime.

The greatest injustices that have ever been committed against First Nations in Canada have resulted from denying the sovereign right of our Nations to say no. The right to have a real veto over infecting our blankets with smallpox; from scalping our people; from stealing our children and raping, murdering and torturing them in residential schools; sterilizing our women and girls; from the forced adoptions of our children into white families during the Sixties Scoop; to the murders and disappearances of our women and girls; to forced human trafficking and now the destruction of our lands and waters for profit.

The right to say no is an inherent part of the legal concept of consent. To interpret this concept otherwise is racist, discriminatory and self-serving, not unlike the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius. Surely, even the SCC would not interpret their own decisions in such an impoverished manner. To do so would render s. 35 an empty shell of a constitutional promise.

No former SCC justice should take part in such an exercise as between Canada and First Nations. I think the honourable thing for the former justice to do would be to withdraw from the process. It might just help even the playing field in a game which is already skewed by a major imbalance of power.

The link to the original article published by The Lawyer's Daily on October 12, 2018

We should also be able to exercise our right to say no to Trudeau's proposed legislative framework that will impact our rights: