CHELSEA, QUE.—The dispute between a giant resource company and a northern British Columbia Indigenous nation over a proposed gas pipeline is multi-layered, and important details are contested, but the images were simple and provocative: Indigenous protesters, peacefully trying to protect their traditional land, hauled away by RCMP at the behest of a powerful corporation and its federal and provincial enablers.
This does not look like reconciliation. In fact, it looks like a continuation of this country’s long history of over-riding Indigenous concerns when they clash with the ambitions of resource-hungry corporations. The government’s tone may be less imperious these days, the attempts to consult with, or buy agreement from, affected populations more sophisticated, but does anyone doubt how this story will end? It will end with a pipeline being built and the concerns of Indigenous nations once again being dismissed.
As the week ended, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who are leading opposition to the pipeline, agreed to dismantle their barricade and let some pipeline company vehicles on to their land—primarily, they said, “as a safety measure,” to ensure no protesters are hurt by police and so that the 14 people arrested last week could return home. But they re-iterated that they are not giving permission for the pipeline to be built.
That this is happening under Justin Trudeau’s watch is particularly bitter. The prime minister seemed so sincere when, long ago, he declared that “no relationship is more important” than the one between Canada’s First Nations and non-Indigenous Canadians. There was no obvious political upside: Indigenous votes only count in a handful of federal ridings and, while many liberal-minded Canadians are shamed by the deplorable living conditions on many reserves, that concern seems to diminish when jobs (usually short term) are on offer, or in peril.
At a fiery town hall in Kamloops, B.C., last week, Trudeau again deplored the “long and terrible history” between Canada and the first people, a history marked by paternalism and “the colonial relic that is the Indian Act.” He spoke again of the need for First Nations to “take control of your land, to control your destiny.”
Just not yet, apparently. The process will take time, said Trudeau, as frustrated Indigenous people berated him from the stands for authorizing the RCMP action. “I can understand your impatience,” said the prime minister, often speaking over the barely-audible protests. (He alone was holding a microphone). But he was the one who sounded impatient with arguments he has heard, but apparently not deeply listened to, many times. He didn’t sound quite as sincere any more—and not only to Indigenous ears.
The controversy over the disputed pipeline in northern B.C. is both similar to, and different from, the fight over the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to Vancouver harbour. First, it is a gas pipeline, and leaks—while still dangerous—are less environmentally pernicious than leaks from oil pipelines, or, worse, than spills from ocean-bound tankers. However, construction of the $6.2-billion project—intended to bring fracked gas from northern B.C. to a new, $40-billion LNG plant in Kitimat—runs right through the land of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation near Houston, B.C.
“It will never be the same out there,” protester Carla Lewis told reporters. “A huge camp and construction activity for years in an area that’s usually quiet and pristine.” She, and the nation’s hereditary chiefs, strongly oppose the line because of the immediate, and long term, impacts on the environment. (Liquified natural gas is, like oil, a fossil fuel and the energy-intensive Kitimat plant will blow a hole in B.C.’s greenhouse gas reduction targets.)
Underlying the conflict is disagreement over who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en nation. Some 20 band councils along the pipeline route, lured by the promise of $625 million for social services and short-term construction contracts, have signed agreements with the TransCanada Corp. subsidiary that is building the project. But, unlike the hereditary chiefs, who are stewards of traditional lands and title according to court rulings, the elected chiefs are like mayors who are responsible mainly for services on reserves.
Trudeau has been more than willing to exploit this division. He told the Kamloops audience there are Indigenous leaders who support the pipeline, adding, with feigned virtue, “it is not for the federal government to decide who speaks for you.” In fact, that decision was made by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997, when it declared that hereditary chiefs of B.C.’s many Indigenous nations—almost of all of whom never signed treaties ceding their land—are the ultimate custodians of their culture and way of life. That decision has since been re-enforced by two subsequent court rulings.
Elected band councils, a creation of the 1868 Indian Act, are also “a colonial relic” (in Trudeau’s words)—a non-Indigenous governing system imposed on Indigenous people. Those band councils are accepting money from the company mostly because their communities are poor and need help—and funding from government is insufficient, or tangled in bureaucratic delay. No one is blaming them for capitulating, but their desperation is an indictment of decades of federal neglect and incompetence.
Nor is the federal government living up to guidelines in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People—a declaration it endorsed—which, among other things, calls for “free and informed prior consent” before any development project proceeds on Indigenous lands.
Pipeline supporters argue that the 1997 SCC decision does not apply to the particulars of the Wet’suwet’en situation and that another expensive and lengthly court appeal would be required to settle the matter. But who will pay for that and who will wait for that?
Not the pipeline company, not B.C. Premier John Horgan, a full-throated fan of the LNG project, notwithstanding its significant environmental impact. And not Trudeau, whose claims that the environment and the economy must proceed hand in hand (whatever inconveniently located Indigenous communities think) ring increasingly hollow.
The contradiction was most obvious in the prime minister’s steadfast commitment to expanding the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline. Despite Trudeau’s double-speak, “jobs”—at least, in the oil patch—definitely take precedence for this government, as they have for all governments before them. And if Indigenous groups along the route don’t agree, Trudeau has opted to “consult” them into submission, rather than resorting to the cruder methods of the past.
After the first round of consultations on Kinder Morgan, for example, the National Energy Board concluded that government efforts to reach out to the many bands along the route were cursory and insincere. These consultations consisted of federal officials taking notes, saying nothing, and, eventually, doing nothing to answer complaints—including complaints that were relatively minor and fixable. So they are back consulting again—being careful not to impose a deadline, but still unwilling to abandon the pipeline (which they have now purchased for $4.5-billion.)
Meanwhile, most of the country’s old-economy, environmentally-damaging resource projects happen far from media and political centres in Ottawa and Toronto. Many non-indigenous Canadians count on front-line warriors at the distant barricades to stop projects that contribute to the climate change that hurts us all. The last few years have been educational for everyone, too, as the horrors of the residential school system, of murdered and missing aboriginal women, of continuing poverty on northern reserves claim headlines.
But others are seduced by the promise of jobs above all—jobs that last only as long as the resource, on projects that enrich domestic and foreign corporate executives more than anyone.
Trudeau calls it this unholy process reconciliation, but it appears to mean, for the Wet’suwet’en and others, that they must reconcile themselves to loss. Striped of the lofty rhetoric, it looks more like the same old bribery and bullying.
Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.
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