British Columbia

B.C. First Nations ask China to raise human rights with Harper

Aboriginals from British Columbia have asked China's president to quiz Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Canada's human rights record during his visit to the Asian country.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and his wife Laureen Harper wave as they arrive at Capital International Airport in Beijing Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (Alexander F. Yuan/Associated Press)

Aboriginals from British Columbia have asked China's president to quiz Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Canada's human rights record during his visit to the Asian country.

The Yinka Dene Alliance, a group of five First Nations that represent several thousand people in north-central B.C., has sent open letters to Chinese President Hu Jintao and to the Chinese media.

"We are writing to you to request that you raise our human rights concerns with Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper," says the letter to Hu.

"From previous reports we know that Prime Minister Harper always challenges your country on the human rights record."

Sing Tao, Hong Kong's second-largest newspaper with offices across Canada, confirmed it will be covering the story through its Vancouver bureau. The letter to Hu has been sent to his office as well as to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa.

Harper left Monday for a four-day trip to China. Travelling with him is a healthy selection of executives from Canada's energy sector.

China has been increasingly involved with oil and gas development in Canada, investing in the oilsands and making commitments for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

But the Alliance wants China to think again.

Promoting resource development without aboriginal support

The letter to Hu details a long list of issues from the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women to natives being mistreated by police to the outsized number of First Nations peoples in prison. It also says the Harper government is promoting resource development without aboriginal support.

"Open dialogue around human rights is a very positive way to create change and we hope that you hear our side of the story before this meeting (with Harper) occurs," says the letter to Hu.

The letter to Chinese media focuses on the Alliance's concerns about the Gateway pipeline, which would ship bitumen from the oilsands to the West Coast across land claimed by the bands.

"An oil spill on the coast would destroy sources of seafood and fish, like crabs, for thousands of people," it says. "It could destroy the extremely rare spirit bear —a bear with white fur that is as beautiful as the Chinese panda bear."

'Put some pressure on Canada'

Chief Larry Nooski of the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation, one of the signatories, acknowledges that it's usually Canada bringing human rights concerns to China, not the other way around. Maybe bringing Canada's problems to China's attention will get some action, he said.

"In terms of tit for tat, this will give (the Chinese) ammunition and put some pressure on Canada. We wanted (Hu) to know that First Nations are not being treated fairly in Canada in terms of their aboriginal rights."

He doesn't apologize for bringing dirty Canadian linen to a Chinese laundry.

"I don't see it as embarrassing. I see it as bringing up the facts of life as we see it as First Nations."

Fellow signatory Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik'uz First Nation was similarly forthright.

"I'm sorry we're going to be an embarrassment to this country, but we have to let the facts and truth be known."

She said the Alliance has previously contacted the governments of Japan and South Korea. It has met with the U.S. ambassador and members of the European Parliament.

Alan Alexandroff, director of the global summitry program at the Munk School of Global Affairs, acknowledged the irony of a human rights appeal being made to China.

"It's slightly odd for our aboriginal people to be sending a message to a government which is hardly a defender of international human rights," he said from Toronto.

"(But) it's sauce for the gander. The Canadian government has made an issue out of human rights violations in China."

But the real audience, said Alexandroff, is in Canada.

"This is politics. They played a little bit of a hardball game here.

"Will it lead to significant resolution? I'd be surprised."