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Canada's Tibetans
by Martin Lukacs
May 2, 2008

In this small, impoverished northern village, people eke out a miserable existence. One of the world's most powerful countries occupies their land, plunders their resources, interferes with their governance and seems intent on assimilating them into wider society.

With its Olympic Games at hand, the country would rather the international community dwell on its national achievements than cast scrutiny on these abuses.

The country? Canada, of course.

No doubt Canadians would be shocked by the comparison to China: a liberal democracy, Canada doesn't militarily occupy Native people's land and hasn't imprisoned or executed thousands of Native prisoners.

So when Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine suggested the comparison was "compelling," and Canada's own 2010 Olympics might warrant protest, editorials stormily reproached Fontaine. He was being "irresponsible," according to the Ottawa Citizen.

But Barriere Lake, an Algonquin First Nation 350 km north of Ottawa, might think otherwise. From their viewpoint within Quebec's boreal forest, China and Canada's long-term objectives appear strikingly similar: to absorb a culturally "backward" people, and gain exclusive control of their lands and resources.

Neither government has thought twice about dispossessing or displacing them to secure their first priority: unimpeded resource-extraction and industrial development. Human rights seem negligible when the spoils – oil, natural gas, and mineral deposits in Tibet, and a lucrative forestry industry and hydroelectric power on Algonquin land – are so precious.

Nor has the Canadian government been shy to crack down on protests. As Chinese police tear-gassed and arrested dozens of Tibetan demonstrators on March 10, the Canadian government was ousting Barriere Lake's leadership, a thorn in its side for years. When community members blockaded the return of an unpopular faction recognized by the government as the new leadership, a provincial riot squad pepper-sprayed and arrested ten.

Conspicuously silent about Barriere Lake, Canadian media instead sounded off about Chinese inequities. "China had hoped to long ago seal off Tibet from the world, to make of an ancient land a tomb in which Tibetan religion, language and culture would die," thundered the National Post on March 22. "Yet there is life within that tomb." Swap the countries, and would the storyline have still roused the Post’s indignation?

Yet for centuries the Algonquin were officially non-existent, after Euro-Americans deemed North America a terra nullius: a land without people. Their lands were blithely seized and their sacred sites flooded. Their subsistence economies were destroyed as they were squeezed into puny reserves. Their children were stolen and reared in residential schools, in the hope that such brutalization would "civilize" them.

Little wonder that Barriere Lake has succumbed to social ills common on many reservations – rampant unemployment, physical and sexual abuse, and alcoholism. But it's still a greater wonder that they've tenaciously maintained their language, culture, and customary governance – that "there is life within that tomb."

For all their misdeeds past and present, China and Canada never tire of reminding Tibetans or Native people just how much government revenue they receive. It's as if someone occupied your house, sold off your furniture and belongings and then proclaimed their generosity after throwing you a meagre allowance.

The frenzied pre-Olympics expansion in Vancouver is itself a microcosm of continuing injustices. Many of the mountains being carved up for ski hills and resorts, and crisscrossed by new highways, are on traditional territories used by B.C. First Nations – territories which have never been ceded by treaties and the titles to which were affirmed in the seminal 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court decision.

Canada deals with this awkward fact through the Comprehensive Claims Policy, which is fair-minded only in name. Even before discussing Natives' grievances, the government forces them to surrender collective rights to their territories. Assimilation by any other name would smell as rotten.

While negotiations drag on for decades, destructive resource extraction continues unabated. Native communities end up with small parcels of money and land whose underlying title remains with the Crown, a practice the UN's Human Rights Committee has repeatedly condemned for "extinguishing" indigenous rights.

Barriere Lake has joined many B.C. indigenous nations in rejecting Comprehensive Claims, proposing alternative frameworks for redress. In 1991, they signed a landmark co-management agreement with Ottawa and Quebec to gain joint management of their territories and a share in resource revenue, while reconciling their land use with the logging industry's interests. Despite this accommodation, neither Ottawa nor Quebec has wanted to relinquish exclusive control of the land. They have undermined the agreement at every turn – the latest effort being last month's regime change.

As denunciations of China reach an ear-splitting din, Canadians concerned for human rights might note a final, crucial difference between the governments. Even the perfect storm of international protest has not made an authoritarian regime budge. But a democracy guarding a sensitive reputation might be more easily swayed.

When the spotlight shifts from Beijing 2008 to Vancouver 2010, let the protests begin.