A small First Nation on Vancouver Island has taken the federal government to court in an effort to defeat an international trade agreement Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed with then-president Hu Jintao of China.
The Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement, or FIPPA, was signed last year. It was coming up for ratification in Ottawa last fall when the Hupacasath First Nation filed an action in Federal Court.
The band is seeking an injunction on the grounds that, before signing any international agreement that could affect treaty rights, the government has an obligation to consult First Nations.
At a rally outside the courthouse in Vancouver as the case got under way Wednesday, leaders of the 300-member band said they are opposed to the deal because it gives foreign investors powerful rights that undermine the ability of First Nations to say no to resource development.
Brenda Sayers, a Hupacasath representative, said a logging company with Chinese investors, for example, could sue Canada for damages if the band stopped the company from cutting timber on its traditional territory. And she said if First Nations in northern British Columbia put up a blockade to the proposed Enbridge pipeline, that could open Canada to lawsuits by Chinese investors in Alberta's oil sands.
"I want people to know how important this [issue] is," she told a gathering of more than 200 supporters outside the courthouse. "It will affect our children. Please spread the word about Canada-China FIPPA. It has to become a household word."
Ms. Sayers, a former Hupacasath councillor, was appointed by the band to rally support for the case.
She started a fundraising effort that has so far brought in more than $160,000, and she gained the backing of a wide number of groups, including the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, the Chiefs of Ontario, the Council of Canadians, Leadnow, West Coast Environmental Law, B.C. Federation of Labour, BC Teachers Union and Canadian Auto Workers.
Ms. Sayers said she hopes a groundswell of Canadians will express opposition to the agreement and force the government to cancel the deal.
"We need to get together … and we need to beat this thing," she said, while supporters banged drums, chanted slogans and sang native songs.
Demonstrators waved placards that read "Hello FIPPA Good-bye Democracy," "Stop Harper" and "Get Ready to Pay Billions in Law Suits."
In an interview, Ms. Sayers said the deal is lopsided because, while there is relatively little Canadian investment in China, Chinese investors have put billions of dollars into Canadian resources. She said she was alarmed when she first read the FIPPA.
"I think all Canadians should be shocked. I certainly was," she said.
Ms. Sayers said the Hupacasath band council began to discuss the FIPPA last fall and realized that if someone didn't initiate a court challenge, the deal would soon be ratified. The court case has stalled ratification and allowed opponents more time to rally against it.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs said Ms. Sayers was "absolutely relentless" in demanding that the FIPPA be challenged in court. He said he hopes aboriginal and non-aboriginal people across Canada will join forces in opposing the trade agreement.
Amanda Nahanee, a young woman of Squamish and Nisga'a heritage who goes by her traditional name, Shamentsut, said the fight is really over the rights of Canadians to have control over natural resource use.
"We are demonstrating our inherent rights to speak up for Mother Nature," she said.