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Opponents of telescope development in Hawaii urge UN to hold Canada accountable

Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope rally at the Hawaii state Capitol on January 15, 2020 in Honolulu as lawmakers gathered for the opening day of the state Legislature. Canada is under fire for its support of a controversial telescope slated for development on Hawai'i Island over allegations the project violates Indigenous rights. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Audrey McAvoy) Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope rally at the Hawaii state Capitol on January 15, 2020 in Honolulu as lawmakers gathered for the opening day of the state Legislature. Canada is under fire for its support of a controversial telescope slated for development on Hawai'i Island over allegations the project violates Indigenous rights. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Audrey McAvoy)
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OTTAWA -

Canada is under fire for its support of a controversial telescope slated for development on Hawai'i Island, the largest island in the state, over allegations the project violates Indigenous rights.

A group of academics and advocacy organizations asked the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last Friday for early warning and urgent action on the Thirty Meter Telescope development.

"The government of Canada is a major partner and supporter of the TMT project, which for decades Native Hawaiians have challenged legally and opposed physically," said Uahikea Maile, the director of Indigenous-led research group Ziibiing Lab and a professor at the University of Toronto.

"We must not tolerate the status quo of Canadian human-rights violations against Indigenous Peoples, whether in or beyond its borders."

The telescope is slated to be built on Mauna Kea, a place researchers say has ideal observation conditions because it's located above 40 per cent of the Earth's atmosphere and has a climate favourable for capturing sharp images.

The summit of the volcano also holds cultural importance for the Kanaka Maoli, the Indigenous Peoples of Hawaii, some of whom have staunchly opposed its development.

The National Research Council, which provided some of the $30 million Canada contributed to construction costs, says it is reviewing the petition and notes the federal government stands by the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which came into force in Canada in 2021.

In 2015, the previous Conservative federal government pledged another $243 million to help fund the telescope project over 10 years.

Petitioners argue Canadian astronomical organizations wilfully misrepresented getting the consent of Indigenous Hawaiians, despite some having policies in place stating they would not proceed without it, and that Canada is violating Indigenous political self-determination as well as civil and political rights.

Dr. Robert P. Kirshner, the executive director of the TMT International Observatory, of which Canada is a member, said those opposed to the project "contribute to an important conversation" about its future on Mauna Kea. He said through discussions, the people of Hawai'i and Native Hawaiians will decide whether the project goes forward.

It isn't the first time the project has been the subject of criticism.

In 2019, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs penned an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Hawaii's governor calling for TMT's construction plans to be halted and for Canada to withdraw support for the project, which they said impacts Mauna Kea's geology and endangered wildlife as well as cultural practices vital to the Kanaka Maoli.

Also in 2019, elders, known as kupuna, who were protesting the telescope's development were met by police resistance and arrest. That led one University of Toronto professor and founding TMT project director in Canada to issue a letter saying their "institutional values are quite fundamentally opposed to the construction and operation of research facilities through police and military force."

Kirshner said TMT's approach to community engagement has changed since 2019 and, led by a Hilo-based team, it has held "genuine and in-depth conversations with hundreds of people who protested against TMT."

While Canada is the subject of this plea to the United Nations, other countries are also involved in the development of the telescope, including the U.S., Japan, China and India.

Still, those involved with the letter want the UN to hold Canada accountable for "violations of Indigenous rights" during its upcoming session.

Vincent Wong, a member of the Transnational Law and Racial Justice Network and a lawyer who helped in the letter's submission to the UN, said Canada has unique international human rights obligations to fulfil through its adoption of UNDRIP.

Wong pointed to Article 32 of the declaration, which is the right for Indigenous Peoples to "determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources."

The question Wong has now is whether Canada will take steps to ensure it's in compliance with UNDRIP and cease its participation in the "ongoing rights violations" of Kanaka Maoli by divesting from the project.

"That course correction needs to be made," said Wong.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 18, 2023.

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