U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Delivers Talk at LU

By: Connor Mantey

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Sarah McPherson

That the stewards of a land have the right to choose what to do with it should be not only incontrovertible, but also the most sacredly held principle of neoliberal world order. Unfortunately, as many as five percent of the global population have the right to their self-determination in jeopardy.

As part of an ongoing research project headed by Laurier professor Dr. Terry Mitchell, experts from all across the Americas—from the Northwest Territories to Chile—gathered in Thunder Bay to exchange ideas and to hear from the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.

The main theme of her talk was the concept of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) a description of how governments should approach Indigenous communities with prospective development projects (the focus of this talk was resource gathering). Presented as a progressive model for consultation, Tim Heron of the Métis Nation of the NWT described a system in which applications for exploitation projects were not even submitted until the community was consulted. In contrast, the Diaguita of northern Chile, whose experiences the group’s research project Governance and Indigenous Rights: Understanding Intercultural Frameworks for Negotiating Free Prior and Informed Consent focuses on, have had their land rights exacerbated recently by an expedited resource exploitation approval system which has aided Canadian mining companies such as Barrick Gold in ventures like the Pascua Lama gold mining project.

At the reception, The Argus had a chance to discuss Chile’s situation with José Aylwin, a law professor who specializes in Indigenous rights. Among the subjects we breached was the correlation between Chile’s neoliberal economic policies and its disregard for Indigenous rights.

Before democratizing in 1990, Chile was ruled for seventeen years by a military dictatorship run by Augusto Pinochet. Under his rule, Chile’s economic policies were shaped by a group of economists known as the Chicago Boys, due to their being influenced by Chicago school economists, the most notable being Milton Friedman.

Aylwin conveyed that Chile’s unwavering support for policies like free trade agreements and industry deregulation arise from the fact that although democracy returned to Chile in 1990, the bulk of Chile’s present constitution was drafted in the eighties while Chile was still under the rule of Pinochet. For this reason, the present constitution of Chile overemphasizes property rights, while ignoring the rights of its Indigenous peoples. On the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, to which Canada and Chile are signatories, Aylwin expects a continuation of present policies in Chile, but warns that the agreement could empower companies to bypass Indigenous rights in other signatory countries such as Mexico or even Canada.

But while policy makers seem disinterested in FPIC, the public talk by Tauli-Corpuz garnered mass interest. In addition to a packed lecture hall, provisional seating for the event had to be made to accommodate the huge audience. In addition to local interest spurred by prospective mining projects in Northern Ontario such as the Ring of Fire, protests over the Dakota Access pipeline in the United States has made the topic of Indigenous rights more prevalent than perhaps at any time in history. For Tauli-Corpuz, this fervent interest, especially among Indigenous people, is exactly what makes her hopeful for the future, indicating that it’s ultimately the empowerment of Indigenous people to handle their own affairs free of coercion that will ensure their right to self-determination.

In the question period that followed her presentation, Tauli-Corpuz also emphasized why defending Indigenous rights is important for everyone. Citing that 80% of all biodiversity is found in the traditional territories of indigenous peoples, she sees traditional ways of life as an alternative to neoliberal policy, or what she calls “the dominant ideology.” Commenting on the spiritual and reciprocal connection between Indigenous Canadians and nature, she remarks that this “is what makes Indigenous peoples indigenous,” a lifestyle that seeks harmony with nature rather than to conquer it.

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