Two indigenous leaders from Colombia visited the Hay River Reserve on June 7 as part of a fact-finding mission on economic development by First Nations in the NWT.
The special guests were Higinio Obispo, secretary general of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) – representing 1.9 million people – and Martha Peralta, liaison officer for ONIC and for the National Agency for the Constitution of Indigenous Territories.
“We’re on a mission,” Obispo told The Hub through an interpreter.
That mission, he explained, is a process of economic development to strengthen indigenous people in Colombia.
The June 1 to 8 trip to the NWT – centred on Yellowknife, but including trips to Behchoko and the Hay River Reserve – involved seeing how First Nations here have undertaken economic development.
Obispo said he “definitely” thinks that things learned on the trip will work in Colombia.
“Because all the things that they’ve been telling us, despite the fact that we’re in a different region, we can take all these things back with us and see how we can adapt them according to our circumstances, to our region and to our culture,” he said.
Peralta agreed there is value to the things they learned in the NWT.
“Some of them are going to help us become strengthened, and we’ll have to analyse others well to see what we can implement there,” she said, also through an interpreter.
On the Hay River Reserve, the indigenous leaders – among a delegation including eight other people – met Chief Roy Fabian and other leaders of K’atlodeeche First Nation.
Obispo said Fabian talked about how indigenous groups have worked on development in the NWT.
“But what’s been more important for us has been being able to meet with people here based on our identity and our values,” said Obispo. “That’s the core from which everything else related to development, to education, to culture, to values has to rise from.”
Fabian told the visitors there are similarities between Canada and Colombia in that indigenous people lost their lands and are now fighting to get them back.
“The only big difference is we’ve got the Canadian Constitution on our side,” said the chief. “Now, we can exercise some of these rights.”
Obispo was asked if the Colombian Constitution had similar protections for indigenous people.
“The Colombian Constitution is probably one of the most beautiful constitutions in the world,” he said. “It reads almost like a poem, but when it has to be brought down to Earth for application then it’s very vague and very diffuse. And so that’s why we have to continue to struggle and maybe that’s why we’re used to building our projects upon a foundation of struggle and having to fight for our rights.”
Peralta noted indigenous people in Colombia also have to look to international treaties on the rights of indigenous people.
“We also have laws that protect us, but many times they’re not applied or they’re just not abided by, and so what we need is a government that is willing to enforce all of these things,” she said.
Obispo explained the government of Colombia has never supported the rights of indigenous people, who have had to fight for their rights despite murders, disappearances and other sufferings by the people.
“However, we have been brave enough and we have promoted our own political projects,” he said. “And so this is why we not only have relationships within Colombia and with other groups throughout Latin America, but now we’re trying to enter into relationships here in the North.”
The visit by the indigenous leaders was organized by the International Bar Association (IBA).
Steven Cooper, a former resident of Hay River and now a lawyer in Edmonton, is the
chairperson of the Indigenous Peoples Committee of the IBA, which represents lawyers around the world.
Cooper explained that, in that role with the IBA, he met Lina Lorenzoni, a lawyer from Colombia and vice-chairperson of the IBA committee, who was also on the recent visit.
“We started over lunch at one of the conferences talking about the situations of indigenous peoples in our two countries,” he said. “And the idea came that the Canadian indigenous evolution is far advanced from what it is in Colombia. With all of its problems in various parts of the country, I looked in my own backyard and said, ‘You know, the people and places like Hay River and Behchoko and Yellowknife right up the Mackenzie Valley are economically quite advanced and sophisticated, and very successful, compared to Colombia, compared to almost any place.”
So a visit of Northern indigenous leaders to Colombia was arranged in 2015, and this year’s visit was a follow-up to that earlier trip.
“What they’re hearing here is a message that is business related,” said Cooper. “You can get on the bus or you can get run over by the bus, and right now they’re being run over by the bus. We’re encouraging them to get on the bus, but not because they’re listening to us. This is critically important – it’s indigenous to indigenous. We’re the travel agents and the proposal writers, frankly. The real work and the information exchange is happening between the indigenous groups.”
During their visit to the NWT, the indigenous leaders met the GNWT cabinet and all MLAs, toured a court in Yellowknife, and visited First Nations businesses.
“I can assure you that our Colombian guests were all flabbergasted at the progress and the sophistication of the businesses here,” said Cooper. “The bottom line is what they got to see in the Northwest Territories is what’s possible. It took the territories 40 years to get to where it is now and we’re hoping that they can get to the same place or farther without having all the pitfalls and without repeating the same mistakes.”