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Washington Post, Feb. 13, 2020
A pipeline offers a stark reminder of Canada’s ongoing colonialism
By Alicia Elliott
Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River
and author of “A Mind Spread Out On The Ground.”
On Monday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided a Unist’ot’en camp
erected to protect indigenous land in British Columbia, arresting
several people as police enforced an injunction against the Wet’suwet’en
hereditary chiefs, the Wet’suwet’en people and their allies. The moment
completely encapsulated the current relationship between Canada and
indigenous people. As Coastal GasLink employees cleared the camp to make
way for a natural gas pipeline, they sawed in half a wooden gate with
one word painted on it: “reconciliation.”
That word has been used by the Canadian government to describe their
supposed desire to make things right with the indigenous people after
centuries of ongoing genocide. But “reconciliation” is not an official
policy but rather a political buzzword repurposed to signal moral
progress on indigenous issues.
However, right now it is very hard to argue that Canada’s treatment of
indigenous people actually has progressed.
Canada has a long history of disregarding indigenous rights to push
forward corporate economic interests. In fact, one could say that’s a
condensed version of the entire history of Canada. The founding and
expansion of Canada is deeply indebted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, a
fur-trading business that ultimately helped colonize much of western
Canada. This connection runs so deep that Sir James Douglas, the “Father
of British Columbia,” was both head of the Hudson’s Bay Company and
governor of Vancouver Island for several years, before stepping down
from his HBC post to become governor of British Columbia. King Charles
II even “granted” the Hudson’s Bay Company roughly a third of Canada’s
land mass, all without consulting or making treaties with any of the
indigenous people who had cared for that land for centuries. Such is the
arrogance of colonialism.
That same arrogance is what led to this moment.
Almost the entire province of British Columbia is unceded territory,
which means that there was never any legal extinguishment of indigenous
title on those lands. This position was reinforced with the landmark
1997 Supreme Court ruling Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, which found
section 35 of the Canadian Constitution protected indigenous title
claims. The Delgamuukw decision also determined that provinces could not
extinguish indigenous title. At the time, British Columbia was trying to
argue that the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan nations’ titles to their
respective lands had extinguished the moment British Columbia became a
The Canadian government has had more than 20 years since this decision
to try to find a way to legally justify controlling Wet’suwet’en land,
which they still have no title for. Since the Indian Act prevented
indigenous people from hiring lawyers without government permission from
1927 to 1951, the Canadian government had an additional 24 years to make
their land theft legitimate within their own legal framework. They could
have done this any time within the past 153 years Canada has existed.
But they didn’t.
Then there’s the tricky issue of what “consent” actually means. For
nearly 10 years, the conservative government of Stephen Harper refused
to sign on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
People (UNDRIP) because it took issue with the requirement that
indigenous nations have “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) when
it comes to any laws or land developments that impact them.
That changed when Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015. He campaigned on
the promise that when indigenous nations said no to development, it
would “absolutely” mean no. By May 2016, it seemed like Trudeau would
make good on this promise, as Canada officially removed its objector
status to UNDRIP.
But when Trudeau approved the Trans Mountain pipeline that same year, he
changed course, saying indigenous nations “don’t have a veto” over
proposed projects in their territories. Come the 2019 election cycle,
after his government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline project
without consulting either Canadians or indigenous nations, Trudeau
returned to his previous promise, saying he would fully implement UNDRIP
into Canadian law if reelected.
Since then, the Trudeau government has not elaborated on what “free,
prior and informed consent” might mean in a Canadian legal context, nor
have officials clarified how Canada can claim to have consent at all
when there is no way for indigenous nations to legally say no.
Further, though Coastal GasLink has received consent from Wet’suwet’en
band councils to build the pipeline, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs
from all five clans have insisted title lies with them, not the band
councils, and they are the only ones who can give consent. This
indigenous governance issue, too, is a legacy of the Canadian
government’s policies. Canada’s Indian Act forced band councils onto
indigenous territories, displacing traditional governance and creating
political turmoil within communities.
But though many nations no longer have traditional leadership as a
result of this political interference, the Wet’suwet’en do. So which is
the real Wet’suwet’en government: the traditional one people have held
onto despite colonial interference or the one that’s paid by — and
accountable to — the Canadian government?
Canada’s perpetual prioritizing of corporate interests above all else —
even its own laws — got us into this mess. To get out of it will require
actually working with indigenous nations as equals, which means allowing
our nations the right to say no.
If reconciliation isn’t just an empty word; if the Canadian government
really does value its relationship with indigenous people; if the rule
of law does apply to everyone, including Canadian politicians,
multinational corporations and police, perhaps it’s time for Canada to
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