By Peter McKenzie-Brown
Canada has become a leader in the movement against the racism practiced against indigenous peoples that has so long been common practice in much of the world. Is it possible that Ottawa will really follow the lead of Alberta and other provinces by recognizing the rights given to aboriginal people in the Constitution without hassle? Such an act would shift cases out of courts into nation-on-nation negotiations.
It’s taken 36 years since repatriation of our constitution for our national government to reach this point, and it will take many years more for the system to move from legislation into practical reality. But in the end it will reduce legal conflict, generate goodwill and save taxpayer dollars. That’s a lot, and it’s part of a larger story I’d like to share. This tale began when the dogs of war were raging across the Atlantic during WW2.
Although he was a life-long pacifist and supporter of human rights causes, Albert Einstein will ironically be remembered also as the man who convinced US president Franklin Roosevelt to begin the Manhattan Project. Led by the United States with support from Britain and Canada, the development of nuclear weapons took place during World War II. It led to the only use of nuclear bombs in anger (so far), at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In a now-famous letter, Professor Einstein suggested that nuclear chain reactions in large masses of uranium could release “vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements.” And, he speculated, “Extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.” While America had only poor ores of uranium, Einstein said, “There is some good ore in Canada.” Therein lies a tragic story.
Twenty years ago, an indigenous woman from the Sahtu First Nation described that tragedy to a United Nations conference on Human Rights. Cindy Gilday spoke on a panel considering whether the environment, the economy and human rights were “cross currents or parallel streams.”
The company I worked for, Amoco Canada (now BP), had sponsored Ms. Gilday’s presentation at the conference. Held in Edmonton, its purpose was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document largely drafted by John Peters Humphrey, a Canadian who served as the first director of the United Nations’ Division of Human Rights.
The Edmonton conference brought together human rights activists from around the world. Many had been jailed for having the impertinence to suggest, for example, that their national governments endorse democracy.
One speaker after another described the global struggle for human rights. They argued forcefully that rights are universal, and do not conflict with cultural or religious values. Ms. Gilday’s presentation spoke to the experience of one Indigenous nation during the Second World War. At the time, her people lived a largely nomadic existence: few spoke much English, and they knew almost nothing about the war. As it happened, however, their traditional territory was near the uranium mine being developed for the Manhattan Project.
The ore came from a rich deposit of uranium and radium along the shores of Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories. During the long days of summer, a wartime mining company hired local men to carry 40-kilogram burlap bags of ore from the mine to the Mackenzie River. They carried those loads for long hours, for months on end. When the bags ripped apart, the Sahto people shifted the spilled ore off the trail, but took the contaminated bags to their temporary village. There, the burlap found many uses.
Years later, the ore-carriers began dying of cancer, and the community (today a settlement of some 450 known as Deline, 544 km northwest of Yellowknife) became, in Ms. Gilday’s words, “a village of widows.” The people became aware of the connection between radioactivity and cancer. They also came to understand that they had unwittingly helped contaminate their remote northern homeland with radioactive waste.
The families of the men who served as ore-carriers during the war had wounds that are yet to be healed, Ms. Gilday said. “Like most Native Americans, their culture, spirit and their very beings are linked intimately with the well-being of mother earth. This has been compromised by uranium mining contamination....If their environment is compromised, their lives are compromised.” She said their wartime experience involved a breach of human rights, which no government had ever attempted to redress. But there was a war on, and that took precedence over everything else.
But whichever side of this argument you take, I thought at the time, Ms. Gilday’s story illustrated three powerful trends in modern society. The dynamic relations among public health, safety and the environment were a single issue. Another was that many of the world’s indigenous peoples were learning to mobilize public opinion in their effort to reclaim traditional lands and livelihoods. The third was that moral claims based on human rights have economic and political force. “Each has powerful implications for globally organized business,” I reported.
Declarations of Human Rights. Another important source of change in Canadian attitudes to each other came indirectly from the human rights efforts of John Peters Humphrey, a Montréaler. Montréaler Mr. Humphrey drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN passed in 1948. The following year, he drafted and the UN passed a group of related international agreements, which included the four Geneva Conventions.
The Soviet Union’s UN representative, Andrei Vishinsky, dismissed the declaration as just a “collection of pious phrases.” Sadly, for the first two decades of its existence, Vishinsky’s assessment seemed to be accurate. But by the 1970s the declaration had begun gathering momentum. For example, in 1977 Canada passed the Canadian Human Rights Act, with the express goal of extending the law to ensure equal opportunity to everyone with our country.
Western democracies expected their leaders to raise human rights issues when they visited such countries as China. Large corporations that bought from Third World sweatshops or operated within the countries that were the worst abusers of their citizens frequently found themselves the targets of boycotts and picket lines. And countries that systematically violated human rights found the world’s economic powers imposing embargoes and economic sanctions upon them.
No one understands this better than South Africa’s Anglican archbishop emeritus Desmund Tutu. As a critic of the former South African system of Apartheid, Mr. Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. His moral influence led to intense international economic and diplomatic pressure on the racist government of South Africa, and his efforts contributed to abandonment of institutional racism, in 1994. This was an important victory for the human rights movement outside the western world.
Tutu was the keynote speaker at the human rights conference in Edmonton. The charismatic archbishop characterized South Africa’s victory over Apartheid as a “spectacular victory over the forces of evil and wickedness.” In his introduction to a wide-ranging address on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, which he had led, this tiny man added a small but enormously significant comment, to thunderous applause. “Our victory is your victory,” Mr. Tutu said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for your support.” His work, as a matter of interest, led to the formation of Canada's own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on residential schools. Here is a link to the Commission's report, which is worth reading.
After centuries of human rights abuses, Mr. Tutu said, “We in South Africa are a wounded people, in need of reconciliation. By enabling this reconciliation to occur, perhaps God is setting up South Africa as a beacon to the world.” He chuckled about “the perverse sense of humour” of the Divine, which he said could make “a troubled country like South Africa a beacon of hope for such countries as Bosnia, Rwanda and Serbia.”
The movement that Mr. Tutu so articulately represents had gained strength in recent decades. Why?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a group of related international agreements, including the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949, created a body of thought respecting human rights, war crimes and humanitarian law. Although it took some time, national governments and international bodies have given teeth to this body of law. And publicity promoted by human rights groups is combining with TV and computer screens full of graphic scenes of humanitarian disasters. Victims are no longer seen as someone else’s problem.
There is also the question of the moral high ground. Many – perhaps most – of the world’s human rights activists are driven by a sense of higher purpose. Albert Einstein famously remarked that “God does not play dice with the universe.” Cindy Gilday talked about the “culture, spirit and very being” of Indigenous peoples as being “intimately linked with the well-being of mother earth.” And Archbishop Tutu’s profession speaks for itself.
While spiritual values are no doubt one important value behind the human rights movement, “the struggle for democracy” is another. In a notable book by that name, Patrick Watson and Benjamin Barber put the point concisely. “We found that to tell the story of democracy is also to explore the fundamental human urge towards self-mastery and liberation: the inclination to speak openly, communicate freely, pray according to one’s beliefs, dance to one’s own tune, think as one pleases – but to do so in the company of other men and women in a spirit of cooperation.”
At the time, I was a true believer. Many forces shaped the human rights movement. The expansion of democracy was one. The human spirit is certainly another. A sense of the Divine, perhaps, is a third. And a growing body of international law underlies all three. Whatever the causes of this remarkable movement, people throughout the world have benefited.
This movement took on a new character with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The UN issued the declaration in 2007, but Canada was one of four countries that initially objected to it – the others were the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. That began to change after July 2015 when the Government of Alberta announced plans to incorporate UNDRIP provisions into law and policy. The federal government followed suit and withdrew Canada’s objector status in May 2016, although at the time Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the government’s stance on the declaration couldn’t be adopted as is into Canadian law.
“Simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work actually required to implement it back home in communities,” Wilson-Raybould told the chiefs at the 37th annual Assembly of First Nations.
Will it continue? That’s the question of the hour. The decline of the once-great American democracy worries me greatly. So do wars and environmental damage throughout the world – disruptions which have created conditions in which our planet now hosts more than 65 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people.
As the map at the beginning of this piece illustrates, Canada, Scandinavia and a few smaller nations in Oceania are the lucky countries in the world. In those countries, dynamic democracies are fighting the racism Sahtu activist Cindy Gilday described with such fervour twenty years ago.