Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Indigenous Affairs Committee in Canada (QIAC)

The Quaker Indigenous Affairs Committee (QIAC)  began in Canada in 1974, set in train by an armed confrontation between the Ojibway people and the Canadian government.  The Ojibway land was the site of one of the worst environmental and health disasters in Canadian history after an upstream pulp and paper mill dumped massive quantities of organic mercury into the river system.

Fuelled by their concern that active violence should not erupt and concerned that long-standing grievances should be heard and addressed, Friends went and camped between the two armed groups.  They heard at first hand grievances about land rights, housing, medical care, education, Native spirituality, child welfare and mercury poisoning.  Together with similarly concerned Mennonite groups, they helped to facilitate the laying down of arms by both sides.

This experience led to the setting up of a standing committee of the Canadian Friends Service Committee, originally called the Quaker Committee for Native Concerns, then the Aboriginal Affairs Committee (QAAC), and now the QIAC.

QIAC campaigned actively for the adoption of the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Since its adoption in 2007, it has continued to hold governments in Canada and around the world accountable for implementing the Declaration.

QIAC has also encouraged Friends to support Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  This commission was set up in 2007 following the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.  Residential schools for indigenous children date back to the 1870s and the last of these schools did not close until 1996. Many of the 150 thousand children placed in these schools, often against their parents’ wishes, were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture.  The damage done was recognised by the Canadian government in an apology given in 2008.  In 2011, the QIAC told Friends:

“Indian Residential Schools are a part of the shared history Canadians have with Aboriginal people. Healing the relationship between Canadians and Aboriginal peoples will require education, awareness, and increased understanding of the legacy and the impacts of the Residential Schools.”

Discrimination against indigenous children continues to be a major concern.  QIAC has joined with native groups and other human rights organisations to campaign against discriminatory underfunding that results in a disproportionate number of native children being taken into foster care, once again breaking up indigenous families.

Other issues where QIAC works with indigenous groups to uphold their basic rights include the long running land dispute of the Lubicon Cree, whose subsistence economy vanished as more than 400 wells were drilled on their land; efforts to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples when resource extraction plans affect them or their territory, and pressing the Canadian government to respect  the terms of the Jay Treaty of 1784, which enshrines the right of Indigenous peoples to move freely across the border between Canada and the USA.

Elaine Bishop, a Canadian Friend with a long history of working with native groups, reminded Friends how difficult a road it can be to balance the peace testimony with upholding the rights of others.  In her address to the CFSC in 2000, entitled ‘A Long Journey With No Easy Answers’, she spoke of a conversation reported to her from one of the Ojibway warriors involved in the original conflict that had given birth to the QIAC:  “The warrior said that they had been betrayed (more powerful word used) by the Mennonites and Quakers because they had, at the behest of these groups, laid down the only weapons the government would listen to.”  Almost forty years on, the same community is still in dispute over illegal logging that impacts their rights to culture, health, water, subsistence, livelihood and an adequate standard of living. QIAC are among the groups pressing both government and industry to respect those rights.

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