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Indigenous Peoples Program Brings Case Before Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

UA law professors and students representing indigenous peoples in Canada are preparing to argue their case in an international arena, after a victory allowing the case to proceed before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. The Commission recently approved a petition to hear the case brought on behalf of the Canadian indigenous organization, the Hulq’umi’num Treaty Group. The complaint was filed by lead counsel Robert A. Williams, Indigenous Peoples Law & Policy (IPLP) Program Director and E. Thomas Sullivan Professor of Law at the James E. Rogers College of Law.

At issue is whether Canada has violated the human rights of the Hul’qumi’num indigenous peoples, whose traditional territory spans areas of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The Hul’qumi’num contend that Canada has violated their human rights by privatizing 85% of their traditional territory, making it unavailable for treaty settlement, and refusing to provide restitution for the taking of their ancestral lands.

In accepting the case, the Commission considered evidence and legal arguments advanced by IPLP and the Government of Canada, and determined that it will proceed to examine and comment on whether Canada has violated the Hul’qumi’num peoples’ rights to property, equality, religion, and culture.

It was a watershed decision, according to Professor Williams. “The Commission found that Canada has refused to address the alleged violations of the Hul’qumi’num peoples’ human rights through its domestic legal processes,” he notes. “They also held that Canadian courts have provided no adequate remedies or treaty negotiation processes in order to protect the Hul’qumi’num’s property rights to their ancestral lands.”

Williams says that the Commission’s decision to accept the case is significant because it is the first time Canada has ever had to defend its much criticized treatment of indigenous peoples’ property rights and rights to restitution before an international human rights body.

The long-awaited decision comes almost three years after the initial petition was filed. During that time, Professor Williams, along with S. James Anaya, the James J. Lenoir Professor of Human Rights Law and Policy, worked to collect and submit evidence to support the Hul’qumi’num claim. Both have pioneered the field of indigenous peoples law, and are widely regarded as leading scholars and advocates in the field. Professor Anaya currently serves as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.

IPLP Clinic students, fellows, and staff attorneys have worked on the case alongside professor Williams. Several traveled to Vancouver Island to collect evidence and interview witnesses. The litigation strategy also included an extensive effort to collect supporting briefs (amicus curiae) from other Canadian First Nations and First Nation organizations.

In addition, Professor Williams presented arguments and evidence on behalf of the Hul’qumi’num Treaty group at two public hearings before the Commission in Washington, D.C. IPLP staff and students were actively involved in assisting with the case and accompanied Professor Williams to the Commission hearings in Washington DC.

IPLP has also asked the Commission to issue precautionary measures against Canada by urging it to suspend real estate development and permitting activity on the Hul’qumi’num peoples traditional lands. That request is still being considered by the Commission.

UPDATE: See the UA News article here.

Updated: 02/19/2010