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The two-day conference focused on Industries Governance and Indigenous rights. Photo: Sarah Crookall.

U of O experts discuss challenges in extractive industries, Indigenous rights


Over twenty Indigenous and environmental rights experts gathered at the University of Ottawa to explore the socio-environmental concerns surrounding extractive industries in Canada.

On Nov. 29 and 30, the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Territories of Extractivism (IRGTE) held a conference-workshop titled Extractive Industries Governance, and Indigenous Rights: Spaces of Struggle and Social Innovation.

“We’re at this really interesting moment in history where the federal government is verbally committing to some interest in recognizing Indigenous rights,” said conference organizer and U of O sociological and anthropological studies professor, Willow Scobie.

“They’re not following through on that when it comes to resource extraction, so it’s both an opening and some kind of false promises that we think should be challenged.”

Sponsored by the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue, panelists discussed how to protect Indigenous lands. But, many Indigenous communities differ in modern and traditional ways of living, said coordinator for Anishnabe O’T”Akiwa, Maurice J. Kitabish.

To bridge the difference, experts consulted communities by asking whether full or balanced protection was preferred. Over 80 per cent of community members voted for balanced protection.

“We’re going to protect what we can and then we’re going to negotiate an agreement to decide what opportunities we’re going to be able to take advantage of,” said Kitabish.

Drawing on the efforts of Guatemalan community members, Amnesty International reviewed community consultations around mine development on Indigenous lands. “In Guatemala, over one-million people have taken part in community consultations, and just over 99 per cent have said no (to mining),” said Tara Scurr, Amnesty International Canada business and human rights campaigner.

“They’re defending their land from the basis of principles, from Indigenous law, natural law, and thinking about future generations.”

In Canada, Scurr referred to the Mount Polley gold and copper mine, where 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of slurry flooded into Polley Lake. A study looking at the health impacts on the Indigenous communities around the area found “psychological impacts, health impacts, and impacts on the ability to practise culture and spiritual practices,” she said.

Prioritizing Indigenous title to land as the basis for decision-making, Amnesty International suggests communities seek solutions beyond voluntary initiatives from large companies.

“We also think that Canada’s directive to economic diplomacy is at odds with Canada’s international human rights obligations, and so we would like to see that reconciled,” said Scurr.

In assessing the impacts of extractive developments, Stella Masty-Bearskin, Aboriginal liaison officer for the Commission for Inquiry Listening Reconciliation and Progress, said the most significant impact she sees are spiritual and educational.

“A lot of people are in an education system now where we still have our values, we still have a socio-economic system,” said Masty-Bearskin, adding that the loss of Indigenous values in the school system displaces Indigenous peoples.

Speaking on additional challenges around extractive industries in Canada, Scobie said transportation by large companies in Canada’s arctic leaves environmental impacts.

“The tundra is very sensitive to dust, and so building roads and driving on roads can kill the tundra which has a domino effect on wildlife,” she said.

Following the conference, IRGTE hopes to bring forward up to 12 policy recommendations to the federal government on Indigenous rights and extractive industries.