The Grand Council of the Crees

International Activities of the Crees

International Activities of the Crees

Posted: 0000-00-00

(An Overview)

Of the many changes that have occurred among the Eeyou of Eeyou Istcheee since we signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, perhaps the most striking has been our transformation from a small group of disregarded nomadic hunters and trappers in a far-northern wilderness, into a significant force in the international politics of indigenous people, who number some 300 million living in 70 countries.What a change ten years made to us! In 1971 we were dragged, somewhat against our will, into the modern world by the threat of the construction of the massive James Bay Hydro project. Until that time our various villages had never held regular meetings to discuss common problems, which were dealt with through the informal contacts every summer between hunters and trappers, Crees who occupied and used the vast lands of Eeyou Istchee. But by 1981 our Grand Council had made its entry on the international stage; and since then it has been active in representing our interests internationally --- at the United Nations, the European Parliament, at international conferences and meetings in Australia, Greenland and other countries, at the World Environment Conference in Rio de Janeiro, the World Conference on Human Rights --- indeed, wherever our people's views needed to be expressed and our interests defended. It was the neglect of Canadian governments that first forced us to present our views beyond the borders of Canada. After negotiating a settlement in 1975 (See - James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement) we found ourselves confronted with the intransigence and sheer indifference of governments that basically did not care about us, so in 1981 we went to the United Nations for the first time in an effort to draw attention to the appalling state of child health in our communities.

Consultative status at UN

That initiative was successful, and as a result we became one of a dozen or so aboriginal groups to obtain consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council . (This is a status that enables Grand Council representatives to speak and take part in debates held by the UN Commission on Human Rights, which has for some years been considering the rights of indigenous peoples).

Our experience in Geneva at the UN quickly showed us we were not alone: indigenous people throughout the world are suffering the same disadvantages as are we in Canada --- in many places much worse --- and we immediately began to collaborate with others from around the world in an effort to establish a permanent international role for aboriginal people, and to obtain recognition of our rights.

Honorary degree for Ambassador Ted Moses

These efforts have been so successful and have won such wide recognition that only 15 years after first venturing into the international arena, the work of our Ambassador to the United Nations, Ted Moses, was recognized by the granting of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa by the University of Saskatchewan. This is a remarkable honour granted by a university noted for its interest in scholarship and achievement pertaining to aboriginal advancement. This honour is very much appreciated by the people of Eeyou Astchee, and is a matter of pride for all of us. The degree was conferred June 27, 1996. In his speech on that occasion Ambassador Moses said it took him some time after arrival at the United Nations to realize that the drafting of resolutions was in the hands of diplomats, employed by their various countries, "who had little serious concern with human rights". He outlined the steps that led to establishment of a Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which set about drafting a Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that is still under way, and he said: "Several years were taken to convince the members of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, that the indigenous peoples were not necessarily minorities. Imagine the reaction when diplomats actually learned that in some States the indigenous peoples constituted the majority of the population? Even in these places the indigenous peoples were dispossessed, their rights were abused, and of course they did not have a voice in government."

There are four documents on this file that taken together describe eloquently the attitudes taken by Ambassador Moses and the Grand Council towards our international responsibilities. These are first, Ted's Saskatoon speech of 1996; second, the plain language version of the Draft Declaration; third, the background explanation of the negotiations for the Draft Declaration; and fourth, the article outlining the Cree attitude towards and involvement in the Draft Declaration

Self-determination and land central Cree concerns

Naturally, our representatives have been most active in the subjects that touch the Eeyou most closely: for example, the question of self-determination, so important to us in the context of Quebec's effort to seize independence from Canada; the question of huge developments in aboriginal lands, such a dominant fact in the life of all Eeyou over the last quarter-century; the questions of economic and social development, and the control that aboriginal people should have over these aspects of life, but so seldom do. On these and many other subjects our representatives have been active in the forums of the United Nations, arguing persuasively that our people, and indigenous people everywhere, should enjoy all the rights that are enjoyed by others.

Many international links

In addition to our consultative status with the UN Social and Economic Council, the range of our activities has been indeed formidable.

Our representatives have not just been passive observers.

Our representatives at the UN were among the first to raise the issue of Quebec's proposed separation from Canada at the international level, although this was most unwelcome to the Canadian government.

Human rights and the environment

The Grand Council have been leaders in making links between the issues of human rights and the environment, a position they argued before the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1991, two years before the Rio Conference. Ambassador Moses said on that occasion:

"Indigenous peoples have a special understanding of the relationship between human rights and environment. For most of the indigenous peoples of the so called "new world", there is a direct relationship between the abuse of our human rights and the degradation of the environment in which we live."This environmental assault on the human rights of the indigenous peoples characterizes the relationship between indigenous peoples and the colonial States and their successors. Next year many States will celebrate what they refer to as the "discovery of the new world". For the indigenous peoples this marks the beginning of the destruction of the environment of the Western Hemisphere, and simultaneously the beginning of the destruction, extermination and genocide of our peoples. The two processes are simultaneous and parallel."The States that occupied our lands and territories expropriated for themselves our resources and our basic means of subsistence. Ignoring our livelihoods, our economies, our use of land, our relationship with earth, they sought to utilize the land only for their own benefit, regardless of the hardship and suffering it caused our peoples."Only now are people finally beginning to realize that we all live on this earth together; only now are we beginning to realize that the harm done to the world's environment affects our ability to survive. But for the indigenous peoples the effect was immediate, and the harm done has been magnified and multiplied over time until our very existence has been thrown into doubt."To take away my means of subsistence, to poison the fish that my family eats, to cut down my trees and drive away the game which feeds my people; that is a clear abuse of our human rights."This is why we insist on the relevance of Article I of the International Covenants--the rights of all peoples to self-determination. This is not an empty political statement or some kind of slogan or politically popular claim. For the indigenous peoples self-determination is the means, the only means, to stop our continued extermination; because it is from the right of self-determination that we derive the protection against the denial of our means of subsistence."Our history is the history of the denial of our means of subsistence. This is one of the most fundamental abuses of human rights that can be conceived, because it is, in effect, the denial of our right to life."And this is not a purely historical phenomena--it continues unabated. The Grand Council had its origins in the struggle to stop the construction of a destructive hydro-electric project on our territory. But in spite of our efforts that project was constructed without any consideration of its environmental consequences on our human rights. Today the Government of Quebec, a provincial administration in Canada, is proceeding to build another hydro-electric project on our lands. It will destroy and degrade a territory as large as France. Once again our environment will be sacrificed so that electricity can be sold cheaply to the United States, so that aluminum smelters can be installed in Quebec, so that Canada can continue to consume more energy per capita than any other industrial society in the world."There must be a balance between environment and development. When we talk about 'sustainibility' we must also think of sustaining the human rights of the indigenous peoples. Not all development is in fact development. There is nothing fundamentally superior about favoured economic activities, such as dams, forestry, and mining, which degrade the environment, over the economic activities of the indigenous peoples which have largely left the earth unspoiled for future generation of human beings to enjoy.I think all peoples and States have something to learn from the indigenous peoples. We would all be better off if this could be understood. Thank you."

Contacts with European Parliament

In January 1991 our Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come addressed a visiting delegation of the European Parliament that had come to investigate and report on relations with Canada. He provided them with detailed information about the impact on our people of the James Bay hydro project, and advisedthem, in strong words, that:

"We are people who have been dispossessed of our land, our resources, and our political, cultural, and economic rights. Our interest in (indigenous) rights is not academic. We continue to live in our own territory and have never given up our fundamental rights as nations. We have agreed to co-existence, to sharing of resources, and to co-operation between jurisdictions--but we have never given up our basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Furthermore, our rights as nations have been affirmed through numerous proclamations and treaties with the various European States which recognize additional reciprocal obligations, conditions and commitments to the indigenous peoples."We are not 'ethnic and linguistic minorities'. We are sovereign peoples who have entered into treaties with other sovereign peoples. We live in our own homelands; we do not come from somewhere else. This is where we live, where we have always lived."Under Canadian law we have been made effectively into wards of the State, but we did not put ourselves voluntarily into this condition. We are the only peoples in Canada under the direct 'protection' of Parliament, yet we are the poorest most disadvantaged peoples in Canada. We have the lowest live expectancy of any group in Canada, the highest infant mortality, the highest unemployment, the lowest income, the poorest most deficient housing, the poorest education."In law, the Government of Canada is our fiduciary; but we have been poorly served. Our lands have been alienated, and our peoples have suffered from privation, adverse discrimination and prejudice. Those who are sworn to protect us have behaved, indeed, as our worst enemies.

"We need the protection of international law. We need the recognition of our right of self-determination, because we are victims of the failure of States to recognize and protect rights which derive from the right of self-determination: the right to benefit from our own resources, the right to be protected from denial of our means of subsistence. These are not just rights that we want--they are rights we need to survive as peoples."

This was not an image of Canada that Canadian diplomats were accustomed to hearing expressed directly to foreigners, or at international meetings, and, of course, diplomatic feathers were ruffled. Yet respect has followed, because our representatives have always behaved responsibly and produced serious, well-thought-out argument. An indication of this respect was the invitation extended to Ambassador Moses by the External Affairs Department (as it was then known) to address heads of Canada's foreign posts, a rather remarkable event in the history of relations between aboriginal people and the Canadian government. Our contacts with the European Parliament continued, and our representatives have travelled to Brussels several times to make our views known. For example, Ambassador Ted Moses appeared before a committee dealing with relations with Canada in February 1995, advising them that Quebec is practising a double standard by claiming that the Crees and Inuit do not have a right of self-determination; that Quebec as a province has a right to hold a referendum and separate from Canada, but that the aboriginal peoples in Quebec do not have the right to hold their own referenda and make their own choice. He said:

"Quebec insists that the aboriginal peoples will come under its jurisdiction if it becomes a separate state and have no choice but to accept this decision. Canada is divisible, Quebec claims; but Quebec is indivisible. The aboriginal peoples, Quebec states, will be treated as other 'minorities' who have no land rights. Note that the Canadian Constitution does not consider aboriginal peoples as minorities. Aboriginal peoples have specific and inherent rights under section 35 of the Constitution.

"Canada has not acted to defend aboriginal rights in the present debate. On the contrary, Canada is working at the United Nations to deny that aboriginal peoples are subjects of international law. Canada takes the position that aboriginal peoples do not have the rights of 'all peoples' that are set out in the International Covenants, and specifically denies that aboriginal peoples have the right of self-determination in international law."

Our representative drew to the attention of the European Parliament inconsistencies in the position adopted towards Quebec by the French government. He said:

"The official French government position, 'Noninterference, but not indifference', is conspicuously self contraditory. We hope that you will ask: Have the indigenous peoples given their consent? when the question of Quebec separation is raised. Please do not allow others to tell you that our rights as indigenous peoples will be respected if Quebec separates. There is no assurance in that. Only the indigenous peoples themselves will be able to tell you if their rights are being respected. So please ask us directly.

"So far, neither the secession process started by Quebec, nor Canada's response, gives the Crees any confidence that our human rights will be properly respected by either government. The European Parliament can play a large role in correcting this, since both Canada and Quebec are making their appeals for your support. This is the time for preventive diplomacy, before we are subjected to competing claims of authority and jurisdiction while our own inherent rights are denied, and we are subjected to force rather than reason and law."

Holding Canada to account

Similarly, in 1990 the Cree representatives held Canada to account in a way that had seldom been done before when the Canadian government reported to the UN Human Rights Committee, as it is bound to do, on its implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Cree representatives pointed out that Canada had assured the world in its report that even in a national emergency fundamental rights would not be limited or abrdged, yet this was contradicted by the fact that during the summer of 1990 thousands of troops were mobilized by Canada "against two indigenous communities near Montreal."It is clear that the (Canadian) legislation invoked did not permit the suspension of civil rights during this exercise, which was nevertheless declared by the Federal and Quebec governments to be a response to an 'insurrection'," commented the Cree representative. The Quebec Human Rights Commission and international observers had stated that there were multiple violations and abuses of basic and fundamental rights (protected by the international Covenant) including arbitrary detention, denial of due process, denial of equal protection of the law, unreasonable search and seizure, denial of food and medicine and access to medical treatment, denial of the right to assembly, denial of access to legal counsel, denial of the right to communicate, arbitrary use of excessive force, sexual harassment and intimidation, restriction of freedom of movement, and racial discrimination.The Crees drew to the UN's attention that the 1988 annual report of the Canadian Human Rights Commission stated that: "The situation faced by Canada's native peoples is in many ways a national tragedy. The grand promise of equality of opportunity that forms the central purpose of the Canadian Human Rights Act stands in stark contrast to the conditions in which many native people live." The Commission said indigenous human rights were the most serious and outstanding human rights problem in Canada. This kind of watchdog work, drawing international attention to Canada's failings in its behaviour towards aboriginal people, has been repeated many times over the last two decades, providing an insistent drumbeat of criticism that has gradually begun to change the Canadian attitude. A typical submission was that made by the Grand Council to the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva in the summer of 1991 which raised the issues of land, resource development, Quebec secession and human rights in a generally unfavorable light for Canada. This light that has been shone on the darker corners of Canadian experience has typified the Cree interventions over nearly twenty years.

International scope of Cree advocacy

This kind of vigorous advocacy has earned wide respect for the Crees, especially among indigenous people in other countries. Australia: In March 1992 Ted Moses was invited by the Australian museum to speak at a conference on The Future of Australia's Dreaming: the Rights and Reality of Aboriginal Peoples. He gave a hard-hitting, disenchanted account of recent treaty-making, describing the treaties signed as "exercises in legal sleight-of-hand" always involving unreasonable duress brought to bear on the aboriginal negotiators. He described the argument about secession between Quebec and Canada as "a bunch of thieves fighting over the proceeds from a recent robbery.... All done very carefully, of course, with every appearance of legality". Mexico: In February 1994 Ambassador Moses visited Chiapas, Mexico, as part of an International Indigenous Initiative for Peace, sponsored by Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum. Reporting on this to the UN Commission on Human Rights, he said, "these are extraordinary times for indigenous peoples. Our rights are finally being recognized by the world community. Perhaps even more important, our existence is finally being affirmed by the United Nations. 500 years after the beginning of the indigenous holocaust, long after many people had been convinced that we were a disappeared people, our survival has been confirmed, and at long last our human rights are about to be recognized along with the rest of humankind." Guatemala: On 31 January 1993, international day of solidarity for Guatemala, Ambassador Moses said the Crees knew enough about the abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples to understand quite well what iwa going on in Guatemala.

"I as a Cree have had my land taken away and flooded, land that has kept my people alive for 5000 years. That is the land that has fed us and given us clothing and refuge. Canada and Quebec did not ask our permission before they decided to destroy our land. So I understand quite well the meaning of 'dispossession'. Dispossession is the common experience of indigenous peoples in Canada, Guatemala, Australia, the United States, Brazil--all over the world. Dispossession is our colonial heritage."We understand very well that 70% of the land of Guatemala is owned by only two percent of the population. And it is easy to understand that the "two percent" does not include the original indigenous owners, but rather the European minority that has dispossessed the original peoples.Take away a people's land and you take away their life. That certainly is the principle in Guatemala..."At the United Nations we met indigenous peoples from every part of the world. We were all trying to figure out why the United Nations was not addressing the problem of indigenous rights abuse..."What we discovered was appalling. Canada had been actively opposing every international effort to address the question of indigenous rights. Before the Second World War, there was an attempt to raise the issue at the International Labour Organization. We obtained the diplomatic instructions to Canada's representatives. They were told to stall the proceedings, to raise objections to prevent the rights of Canadian Indians from being given recognition in international law!

"And it worked.... That Canadian policy persists to this day, and the victims are the indigenous peoples of Guatemala and the rest of the Third World. Initially, Canada took this position only with some help from the United States which also did not want the international community snooping into Indian affairs...a real coalition of States, with Canada as leader, now attempts to disrupt international progress on indigenous human rights protection."

Greenland: The Cree view of world affairs was also outlined in September, 1991 by Romeo Saganash,then vice-chairman of the Cree Regional Authority and Executive Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, to a UN meeting of experts called together in Nuuk, Greenland, to review the experiences of countries in the operation of schemes of internal self-government for indigenous populations. His statement of the indigenous right to self-determination on that occasion was typical of Cree advocacy efforts on this subject over the years. He said:

"There is an obvious reason for the historical failure to recognize the indigenous peoples' right of self-determination. Several contemporary States, Canada among them, have established themselves upon indigenous peoples' lands imposing systems of government which ignore or deny the prior occupancy, ownership, and title of the indigenous peoples, denying indigenous institutions and systems of government, and generally subjecting the indigenous peoples to a rule of law which is not their own; a rule of law which does have as its objective the best interests of the indigenous peoples."The obvious and blatant illegitimacy with which these regimes have been imposed upon the indigenous peoples, has been exonerated, however, in the very foundation of the laws which have been decreed. The courts which would judge complaints arising under these circumstances are themselves a product of the institutions which necessarily come under attack if the legitimacy of the indigenous claim is given recognition.

"If the question is asked (and it often is), 'When, and by what means did the indigenous peoples of Canada ever agree to give up their lands and abandon their sovereign institutions to the colonial regimes of Europe?", no response will be offered. Instead, Canadian law is based upon the premise that no such answer need be given, because the sovereignty of the State cannot be called into question by its own courts. In simple terms, Parliament is supreme, no matter how it came to be so, and I might add, no matter who suffers the ill consequences."

Vienna, Austria: At the momentous World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria in June, 1993, Ambassador Moses was chosen to deliver the lead statement on behalf of all North American indigenous peoples. His message was simple, and perfectly consistent with the tone of Cree international advocacy over the years:

"The indigenous peoples of North America have asked me to convey to this World Conference a most fair, modest, and reasonable request: The indigenous peoples ask to be accorded the same rights which the United Nations accords to the other peoples of the world. We ask for no more and no less than this.

"We ask simply that the United Nations respect its own instruments, its own standards, and its own principles. We ask that it apply these standards universally and indivisibly, that it accord all peoples the same universally recognized rights, that it act without prejudice, and without discrimination based on race, religion, or colour."

At this conference the Cree delegation worked in tandem with the International Organization of Indigenous Resource Development towards several important objectives. Cree proposals included

1. revisions to the working paper on the conference's outcome to affirm that indigenous peoples are not "minorities";2. to insist on the use of the word "peoples" in all references to "indigenous peoples" and their rights;3. to ask the conference to reaffirm the principles of universality, indivisibility, and non-discrimination with regard to the rights of indigenous peoples under international law;4. to urge the conference to recommend that the rights of indigenous peoples be added to the permanent agenda of the Commission on Human Rights; 5. to call on the Conference to urge completion of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, then being drafted by the Working Group in Geneva;6. to ask the General Assembly to approve the Draft Declaration in principle.

(This Declaration has still not been adopted, five years later).