Bill C-51 seeks to criminalize indigenous activism

By Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill, MB (NDP)

As we know, indigenous peoples—first nations, Métis, Inuit, or indigenous peoples in general—have often been at the forefront in fighting for what is important to them and, in many ways, what is important to all of us. These activists, these leaders, these members of their communities are not terrorists and do not pose a danger to the lives of anyone. These individuals have taken it upon themselves to stand to protect their inherent land rights, the welfare of their people, and the environmental integrity of this planet. These are the indigenous activists who work across this country seeking justice, and they are all deeply concerned by the threat posed by Bill C-51.

The problem with this legislation is very simple. It lumps legitimate dissent together with terrorism. Indigenous peoples have a right to seek environmental and social justice through protest, communication, and activism. This bill would call that work criminal. It would call that work terrorism.

I have taken it upon myself to reach out to a number of indigenous community leaders across the country and have gathered some of their comments in this speech. Theirs is a perspective that must be heard, as we stand on the brink of passing into law a bill that would greatly curtail all of our rights and freedoms. The Conservative government is seeking to use its powers to control and censor the voices it does not want to hear.

Pam Palmater, the Mi’kmaq lawyer and Idle No More activist, gave me permission to share her thoughts. She said:

As treaty and territorial allies, First Nations and Canadians face a formidable foe and threat to our collective futures. Idle No More raised awareness about the break down in democracy in general and human and Aboriginal rights specifically. Hundreds of thousands of people across Canada rose up against Bill C-45—the large, unconstitutional omnibus bill pushed through Parliament without debate which threatened our lakes and rivers. This time, the threat is personal—any one of us could go to jail for thinking or voicing our opinions. All of the rights, freedoms and liberties upon which Canadian democracy rests will be suspended with Bill C-51. This bill creates what has been described as Harper’s “Secret Police force” with terrifying expanded powers.

Ms. Palmater is not wrong. This 63-page omnibus bill includes measures that would give increased powers to CSIS not only to spy on citizens who it believes pose a threat but also give it the right to disrupt their activities whenever it deems necessary. CSIS may do this without a warrant or any checks or balances.

Under Bill C-51, no one will have oversight over the will and whims of Canada’s spy agency. Without calling into question the ethics or integrity of those people who work at CSIS, I can say as a citizen that I am uncomfortable in principle and in practice with any one government body having this kind of unchecked control.

Upon until now CSIS has been an intelligence gathering agency. This bill would give it powers to act as a quasi law enforcement agency. The Prime Minister is in actuality creating a special secret police force in Canada, and these secret police will be able to surveil and target anyone they want.

Indigenous and environmental activists are afraid about what that could mean when they organize to protest a pipeline, when they communicate among themselves to reclaim territory that is theirs, and when they speak out in defence against the government in any way, which is their right to do.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, a renowned activist, wrote to me today about the work he does:

Our movements are about justice. To criminalize Indigenous dissent, then, is to repress Indigenous rights in Canada, and our responsibilities to protect the land. We are transparent, open, base-driven movements that take a non-violent, peaceful direct action approach…. The state is criminalizing Indigenous peoples who are acting within their right to exercise jurisdiction over their lands. This is an abuse of democracy. It is clearly about providing a right-of-way for the mining and energy sector.

On the front lines of much environmental activism are the first nations of the northwest coast in British Columbia. Many nations have made it their responsibility to oppose the Enbridge pipeline and other projects they see as grave threats to their lands, their fish, and their sovereignty. These people have already been targeted and insulted by the government. They have been called dangerous radicals by the Minister of Natural Resources.

Are these the dangerous people that CSIS will exert its new powers over? Will these people be spied on, arrested, and detained for unacceptable lengths of time with no clear charges? Art Sterrit, the director of Coastal First Nations, is afraid they will be. He wrote to me this morning and said:

The pipelines and oil tankers that this legislation apparently seeks to build under the guise of fighting terrorism, strike real terror in the hearts of our communities.

An oil spill in our coastal waters would be a terrorist attack. It would kill our livelihoods and wipe out our culture. How can [the Prime Minister’s] government talk about threats to Canada’s territorial integrity while he threatens the territorial integrity of first nations in BC and across Canada with his government’s support of risky and dangerous projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline? If passed, this legislation would be a major setback in building trusting relationships between First Nations and the Government of Canada.

As well, I spoke with Geraldine Fleure of the Yinka Dene Alliance. She said to me that she and her community already feel heavily targeted by the government for their anti-pipeline work. They are trying every day to create a safer, thriving community for their children. It’s hard. They are challenged by poverty, but the fight to protect their lands and their waters is not one that they will ever give up. Bill C-51 will make it harder. It is another blow to their ability to provide a safer future for their children.

It is not enough for members of the House to rise and say to indigenous people that they do not have to worry about being treated as terrorists. First nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples have reason not to trust the government. For years, they have been targeted and harassed. No one knows this better than Ellen Gabriel of the Khanesatake Mohawk Nation in Oka. She writes:

During the 1990 Oka Crisis, Mohawk people on the front lines were attacked by police, shot at, denied their basic human rights and their right to privacy violated hundreds of times by the authorities under the direction of the Government of Canada and Quebec. Many Mohawks received notices by mail from authorities that they were being monitored and their phone lines tapped, and were not given much of an explanation except being provided with a photo copy of the criminal law code highlighting the reason their privacy was under attack: “suspected of criminal and terrorist activities…threat to public security”. This continues today and has always been the case for Indigenous peoples who resist colonial laws and dispossession from their lands.

Too much is at stake with this bill for all Canadians, but it is crucial that those who will be disproportionally affected will have their chance to be heard in the House. It is crucial that those fighting for justice, for dignity for their communities, and for all of us be heard.