Alicia Keys and the Indigenous Rights Movement in Canada Honored with Top Amnesty Intl Award

On January 5, 2013 First Nations protesters danced during a demonstration at the Canada-U.S. border near Surrey, British Columbia.
Photo Credit: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Published April 14, 2017

MONTREAL – Celebrated global music artist and activist Alicia Keys and the inspirational movement of Indigenous Peoples fighting for their rights in Canada have been honored with Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award for 2017, the human rights organization announced today.

The award will be officially presented at a ceremony in Montréal, Canada, on May 27.

Accepting the award recognizing the Indigenous rights movement of Canada will be six individuals representing the strength and diversity of the movement, which has bravely fought to end discrimination and ensure the safety and well-being of Indigenous families and communities. They are Cindy Blackstock, Delilah Saunders, Melanie Morrison, Senator Murray Sinclair, Melissa Mollen Dupuis and Widia Larivière.

Alicia Keys

“The Ambassador of Conscience Award is Amnesty International’s highest honour, celebrating those who have shown exceptional leadership and courage in championing human rights,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“Both Alicia Keys and the Indigenous rights movement of Canada have in their own ways made inspirational and meaningful contributions to advancing human rights and towards ensuring brighter possibilities for future generations. Crucially, they remind us never to underestimate how far passion and creativity can take us in fighting injustice.”

Alicia Keys: From music to activism

Alicia Keys has used her career and platform as a 15-time Grammy award-winning artist to inspire and campaign for change.

“To be given this great honor, and to be in the presence of the Indigenous rights movement is a humbling experience,” said Alicia Keys. “It encourages me to continue to speak out against injustice and use my platform to draw attention to the issues that matter to me.”

Often referred to as the “Queen of R&B”, Ms. Keys has increasingly interwoven her activism with her art. Her extensive philanthropic work includes co-founding Keep a Child Alive (KCA), a non-profit organization providing treatment and care to children and families affected by HIV in Africa and India. KCA identifies and partners with local leaders in grassroots organizations to design, implement and share innovative solutions to some of the most pressing challenges in the fight against AIDS. KCA has raised more than $60 million to provide AIDS care to hundreds of thousands of children and their families, as well as advocate for more understanding and support.

In 2014, she co-founded the We Are Here Movement to encourage young people to mobilize for change, asking the question “Why are you here?” as a call to action. Through the movement she has sought to galvanize her audience to take action on issues such as criminal justice reform and ending gun violence.

Stunned by the fact that there are now more refugees in the world today than at any other point in history, the musician helped create and appeared in a short film entitled “Let Me In” to mark last year’s World Refugee Day. With her song, “Hallelujah” at its center, the film brings the issue of the refugee crisis home to viewers by telling the powerful story of a young American family forced to flee to the US-Mexico border.

“Our conscience is something we are all gifted with at birth, no matter who we are,” said Alicia Keys. “That little voice that speaks to you and tells you when something is not right, I always use as my guide. Since I was a small girl my inner voice would yell at me! Now I just say, okay, what can I do? That is a question we can ask ourselves and then act upon.”

Shining a light for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Despite living in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Indigenous women, men and children are consistently among the most marginalized members of society in Canada. Now, after decades of public silence and apathy, a vibrant and diverse movement of Indigenous activists has captured the public attention.

This year the Ambassador of Conscience Award will be shared between leaders and activists from the movement who have shown remarkable courage in leading important legal equality rights battles, defending land rights and inspiring non-Indigenous and Indigenous people to action.

Since December 2012, the grassroots “Idle No More” movement has helped to shine a light on Indigenous peoples’ ongoing struggle to be able to make their own decisions about their lands, resources and environment. At the forefront of this protest were Melissa Mollen Dupuis and Widia Larivière, the co-founders of the movement in Québec.

Mainly led by women, the movement represents a new wave of Indigenous mobilization that gives a platform for grassroots activists, fosters the cultural pride of Indigenous youth and brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada closer together on common issues such as the environment and the economy.

On learning of the announcement, Melissa Mollen Dupuis and Widia Larivière said in a joint statement: “Receiving such a prestigious international award is an acknowledgement of the work done by thousands of people who have, in their own way, stood up every day for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in a spontaneous and peaceful citizens’ movement.

“In a society that encourages the pursuit of power and profit over the well-being of the community as a whole, the words and actions of the community – and of the members of it who are most at risk of experiencing social injustice and discrimination – are one of the most effective tools we have in combatting the effects of colonization in Canada.”

Cindy Blackstock hopes that the award will help to focus global attention on the injustices still prevalent in Canada today.

As head of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, she led a decade-long legal battle against the underfunding of social services for First Nations children. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal issued a landmark ruling calling on the federal government to take immediate action to end its discriminatory practices.

However, the Canadian government has continued to drag its feet in fully complying with the ruling, meaning that First Nations children are still suffering discrimination.

“The conscience of the people is awakening to the Canadian government’s ongoing racial discrimination towards First Nations children and their families,” said Cindy Blackstock. “Now the question is: What are we going to do about it? Are we going to allow Canada to celebrate its 150th birthday while it bathes in racism, or will we speak up and demand the discrimination stops?”

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