U of O hosts panel on treaty rights, issues facing Indigenous communities

On Sept. 13 the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law teamed up with Amnesty International to present “Keep the Promise”, a seminar on the Site C dam—a hydroelectric dam being built near British Columbia’s Peace River—and its impact on local Indigenous communities.

Some panelists were present at Federal Court in Montreal on Sept. 12 to challenge the project.

The event, which was also broadcasted online, featured West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Wilson, Allisun Rana, a lawyer working with Indigenous communities to fight the dam, William David from the Assembly of First Nations, and Craig Benjamin from Amnesty International. The discussion was moderated by Sarah Morales, a professor from the U of O’s Faculty of Law.

“We’re trying to make space for some of the First Nations who have hearings before either the federal court or the Supreme Court of Canada outside of the courtroom context to share their story, their struggle, their views to the broader public and with our students,” said Morales.

Morales, who helped organize the event, said it was brought on in large part by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was created to remedy those affected by Canada’s residential schools.

Morales noted that the TRC’s Calls to Action 27 and 28 deal with the legal profession in Canada, striving for appropriate cultural competency training and more education on Aboriginal issues. She said that the Faculty of Law plans to have a number of events this year that highlight the issues facing Canada’s Indigenous population.

“We feel that if we make our students attuned to those struggles, maybe they’ll practice law in a different way that’s more reconciliatory,” said Morales.

Benjamin, who also helped organize the event, said “It’s really important for law students to get exposure to the practical dimension of Aboriginal rights, how it really plays out on the ground for communities.”

“We are the Indigenous people of that area, and we’re a hurdle. They push us off to the side,” Chief Wilson told the audience about the state of his community. “It’s hard—we were in Montreal, all these cultures, this melting pot of people being accepted there, and we’re outcasts.”

Rana also explained the legal side of the case, while David and Benjamin gave broader insights into the issue of Indigenous rights in Canada.

“We offered to do what we could to help spread the word,” said Benjamin. “Making sure that having these great powerful voices here in Ottawa we could bring everybody together and spread the word out wider.”

Both of the organizers thought the event was a success.

“I think it was very timely,” said Benjamin. “Today is the adoption of the UN declaration (on the rights of indigenous peoples) and the day after their court case.”

Morales says the Faculty of Law hopes to host an event featuring members of the Ktunaxa nation, who have a similar hearing before the Supreme Court of Canada scheduled for Dec. 1.