A University of Arizona program has brought a major indigenous land rights case against Canada before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C.
Robert A. Williams Jr., who directs the UA's Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy, or IPLP, program, presented the case on Oct. 28 that concerns the 1884 expropriation of more than 585,000 acres of land on the Vancouver Island from the traditional territories of the Hul'qumi'num indigenous peoples.
Williams noted the contributions UA students and staff have made to the case, also emphasizing the historic importance of the hearing.
"It was the first time that the Inter-American Commission has heard a human rights complaint directed against Canada's comprehensive land claims process for First Nations," said Williams, also the E. Thomas Sullivan Professor of Law and American Indian Studies in the James E. Rogers College of Law.
The commission, or IACHR, is an autonomous branch of the Organization of American States, which was founded to strengthen collaboration between governments and to defend the human rights of all individuals in the Americas.
Also, "it was the largest coalition of First nations organizations and non-governmental organizations ever assembled for an indigenous human rights complaint brought against Canada," Williams said.
It could take the commission six months to one year to solidify recommendations for the Canadian government, during which IPLP affiliates with continue to investigate the case, develop partnerships and monitor activities on Hul'qumi'num lands.
Williams, who directly addressed the commission, is serving as lead counsel and UA IPLP students are assisting in the case and have been for the last five years.
During that time, IPLP has represented the Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group, or HTG, which alleges that Canada violated international human rights norms by refusing to negotiate for any form of redress for the lands. The lands are currently being used mostly by forestry companies.
"The case now before the Inter-American Commission highlights crucial issues of justice that affect not only the Hul'qumi'num people, but Indigenous peoples across Canada," said Craig Benjamin, a campaigner for Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples with Amnesty International Canada.
"The very fact that a respected international human rights body like the IACHR is investigating these issues should be a wake-up call to the federal and provincial governments and to all Canadians," Benjamin also said.
Since 2005, UA's IPLP program has involved more than one dozen students in the case, Williams said.
Last month, UA law students Akilah Kinnison and Mercedes Garcia served as members of the legal team and, like other students who have worked on the project, summarized testimony, drafted submissions and also prepared evidence and witnesses.
Both "performed like seasoned human rights advocates," Williams said, adding that IPLP staff attorney Seanna Howard, a UA alumna, also served on the team.
Williams said their work was conducted "under incredible time pressure" but said his team's work is exemplary.
He also noted that six of HTG's Hul'qumi'num chiefs were in attendance as were representatives from other major organizations, including the Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Summit, Amnesty International and Lawyers' Rights Watch.
"A good deal of time as lead counsel in the case has been spent in the past five years building that support," Williams said, "so it was very satisfying and humbling at the same time to see that type of unified opposition to Canada's land policies organize around our petition."