The past week plus in Canadian politics has been dominated by one issue and one story above all else; the protests by the hereditary chiefs in Wet’suwet’en territory in Northwest British Columbia and the protests that have some since in other parts of the country in response to it. I haven’t had much to say about this situation (thought you can hear comments of mine about this from earlier in the week here and here) and that’s simply been because I’m torn on this. This is a complicated case that’s far from being straightforward and involves much more nuance that, frankly, most of the Canadian political scene can handle.
I’ve stayed relatively quiet because my view might seem has incongruent to some and honestly doesn’t fit perfectly into anyone’s narrative. On the specific case that started this, the CGL LNG pipeline, here is my view. The hereditary chiefs are legally reasoned and legitimate in their assertions in this case. The elected band councils, all twenty that supported this project and held votes and referendums on their decision, they are also legally reasoned and legitimate too. And the proponent in this case, they have acted in good faith and have not acted in a way that we’ve seen other corporate actors in the past act, ways that epitomize bad faith. While some in the media are trying to say it’s the fault of any of these three, or any combination there of, I don’t believe that is the case, a view that does not fit that kind of neat narrative. It simply doesn’t.
As I have alluded to in the two posts I linked to above, this is a clusterbleep of a situation that has been created by political inertia, blindness and complete laziness when it comes to dealing with what underlies everything here; title and land. All parties share this blame, federally and in BC, and they all share the shame that has been created by this. The history and law here are simple:
- the Royal Proclamation of 1763 made it clear that the British Crown recognized that Indigenous Nations in North America had the title to their lands and the rights attached to it. This was so clear that this proclamation became on of the “Intolerable Acts” that lead to the American Revolution, because they couldn’t accept the idea that Indigenous peoples were actually people who had rights.
- If that wasn’t enough, in December of 1997 the Supreme Court of Canada, in the Delgamuukw decision, made it clear that the Wet’suwet’en had never had their rights and title extinguished.
So for everyone who has been trying to say that the Wet’suwet’en have no title to this land because a court has never said “you have it”, let’s be clear; a foundational document of Canada states that Indigenous peoples have title (which lead to two centuries of the Crown signing treaties all over Canada to deal with that fact) and the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that the Wet’suwet’en never gave it up. To argue that those facts don’t mean they have title is like arguing the following: All Canadian citizens have the right to vote, and a Canadian citizen named John Smith went all the way to the Supreme Court and got a decision saying that “Canadians have not extinguished their right to vote”. But then someone, trying to deny John Smith that right, says “well, you don’t have a court decision that specifically says “You, John Smith, have the right to vote.”” Most Canadians would never accept such an argument to be used to deny their rights, yet that is exactly what some are arguing out there today. I would point out that no one directly involved in this case (the elected chiefs, the hereditary chiefs or the project proponent) argue against the rights here. They are just dealing with a project, but I digress.
Back to the history, after Delgamuukw and what it meant what needed to happen here was very clear; the Crown needed to deal with the title issue, the rights issue and negotiate treaty. Regardless of the specifics of the treaty that would come or how you feel about what other nations have negotiated for in their treaties, negotiations should have happened. Basically, that’s what the Supreme Court of Canada was saying to the Crown; “get off your rears and do the hard work”. And in what has been the historical approach in Canada to issues like these, the governments of Canada and British Columbia simply didn’t do it. And as a result, we get to a case like today.
So, where does all of this make me feel so torn? When I look at the history here, what’s happened in the past and what needs to be done, that’s not it. What’s been tearing at me has been everything else that has gone on around this. Let me be clear, for me this whole case comes back to one very simple principle; Indigenous Nations need to be able to decide for themselves what projects they do in their territory. For me, that is one of the keys of self-governance and self-determination. And obviously in a difficult case, arriving at that decision is not easy. It’s damn hard stuff. If there is one thing I have fought for in my time in politics it is for that very principle, regardless of what the decision that nation may take. And I say that because if it’s not my nation, it’s not my place to tell them what to do, if I agree with it or not.
In my view, not only is that the principle that this whole situation should be about, it’s in that principle where the solution to this case and for the Wet’suwet’en lays. This case isn’t happening in a vacuum and isn’t happening without history. Part of the history of Canada was the attempt to remove Indigenous peoples and nations from the map, destroy our cultures, eliminate our languages and all of that. That included our governance structures, whatever they were. Some nations were able to hold onto those structures, including the Wet’suwet’en. But at the same time we did see these colonial structures put in their place, like band councils. And over time every nation has taken different approaches to how they govern themselves in this context, as messed up as it is.
I started off by saying that both the hereditary chiefs and band councils are legitimate, and that might seem incongruent to some but to me they are not for one simple reason; legitimacy comes from how those who are governed by them view it. From everything I’ve seen so far, most people in that territory see legitimacy of both. Forget how the Crown or others may see them, put that aside. What matters is how the people view them and they are doing their best to make the best of this crap history. Many other nations have faced the same situations, and treaty negotiations have helped sort a lot of that out and helped put other nations on a path going forward, on a path of their own choosing. But as I mentioned above, that hasn’t happened here.
I also view them both as legitimate because of what they have backing them. The hereditary chiefs do have case law and government inertia on their side, while the elected band councils have receipts in the form of votes, referendums and consultations. Both hold legitimacy, period, and need to be respected. And this is where I start to get very torn by all this. We’ve seen some media, politicians, activists, NGO’s, the entire alphabet soup of the fight around energy, pipeline and climate change politics making judgments about who is and who isn’t legitimate. We’ve seen some trying to call the hereditary chiefs royalty-like figures acting fully on their own whims, and we’ve seen others trying to call the band councils sellouts, colonial pawns and corporate shills, all of these slurs in an attempt to bolster their own part of this other conflict and such.
That tearing has continued as we’ve seemed more and more piling on from across the board, outside groups trying to use this case to bolster their own goals and doing nothing to actually help find a solution to the actual problem at hand. I’ve said that they are treating this case as a proxy for the bigger fights happening across the country and that to me is something I’m not cool with because of one very simple fact; that other fight, that other war that those people are trying to use this as a proxy for, those taking part in it don’t give a flying fig about if the Wet’suwet’en will have the right to make their own choice. They don’t because I’ve yet to hear many of these groups say “I will respect whatever choice they make”. They aren’t doing that. Period.
And folks, this is on all sides that I am seeing this. We’re seeing this from Conservative politicians like Jason Kenney saying this will happen elsewhere, Erin O’Toole trying to win leadership votes by wanting to direct the police, Andrew Scheer doing the same trying to remain relevant and Brian Pallister trying to use his “action” on blockades to raise money. Those people are being craven and showing no interest in finding a solution, to the point where the OPP of all groups had to come out to tell them to stop.
But on the other side we’re seeing Green politicians trying to use this to say that nothing should ever get build, we’ve seen NDP leader Jagmeet Singh make comments that left me seriously wondering if he understands the nuances here and minor-league politicians like Victoria City Councillor Ben Isitt trying to get his 15 minutes by crap-talking the Victoria Police caught in the middle of this. From none of these politicians have I heard a word about that underlying principle. No it seems like they are only cool with it when they back their specific point of view. And we can extend that same observation to some environmental NGO’s and other activists out there because I’ve seen the same from a lot of them.
On top of that, you can add another layer here that has probably torn at me more than anything else. I’ve seen and heard comments from many people in the Indigenous community out there that I respect so highly, some who I consider friends, on all sides of this issue. I’ve stayed quiet as a result because I have feared what some of those people might think, that’s the truth. It’s all been too much and I’ve felt the need to stay away from social media and the flood of everything in this because of those fears.
When talking about this yesterday with a friend someone brought up “Idle No More” and tried to compare what is happening today with those days back then. And honestly, it was that conversation that finally pushed me to write this because that chat gave me a slight moment of clarity when I’ve felt nothing but an emotional haze for the past week plus. When that friend compared this to that, I couldn’t help but disagree. “Idle No More” was an energizing experience and brought thousands out to get involved for the first time, waking many Indigenous peoples, but that experience felt much more unifying and uniting. INM unified so many of us and pushed us in a direction with our action. INM was positively reinforcing our culture and using that to make a political point. During INM we had non-Indigenous allies come out and support us, but they supported us and our concerns. Those allies didn’t make INM about their issues or use INM to advance their goals. They supported us and pushed Indigenous peoples to the front.
In this past week I haven’t felt that or seen that same spirit. We need to be honest, we Indigenous peoples are not united on the underlying issue of resource development, we’re just not and you’re seeing that in the protests and comments out there. It shouldn’t be expected or demanded of us that we all agree on this, that’s not fair, but we have to acknowledge the fact that we have a divide here. We’ve seen groups on either side of that divide start to peel Indigenous peoples to their sides, advancing their goals and not those of our nations. We’ve also seen some of these “allies”, like certain politicians and NGOs, push their goals to the front and are using this as a platform to advance their well being. We don’t see them advancing that fundamental principle that I mentioned at the very start; Indigenous Nations need to be able to decide for themselves what projects they do in their territory. A true ally would be putting that in the forefront above all, and we haven’t seen that.
So what do we do going forward? Do I have any optimism? Honestly, I don’t know what will come and I always try to do my best to remain optimistic. The fact that sides are now talking and we’re seeing discussions taking place is good and I hope to see that continue. That does give some hope, but my biggest hope is that the temperature is brought down and that people within spitting distance of microphones or a Twitter account decide to be more responsible when they are. The fact is that the situation that’s happening in Northwest BC is something that has been over 150 years in the making. We’ve inherited the result of past governments trying to kick this can down the road and no amount of bluster and loud threats will change that. Reconciliation, as alive or dead as you may think it is, is not an easy job. It’s a damn hard one, one that involves a lot of pain and hard work. My sincere hopes and prayers are that now is the time that work starts. That may be too optimistic on my part but even though I feel very torn, I need some hope to look ahead to. That is why I’m clinging to, that something good will eventually come from the tumult and pain of these past days.