By Andrew Frank
A little over a year ago, during one of my environmental legislation classes, I showed my students a picture of RCMP officers storming a Wet'suwet'en checkpoint and forcibly arresting land defenders.
“Who is breaking the law in this picture?” I asked.
“We are,” said my students, almost in unison.
Instinctively and intellectually, they understood that what they were seeing in the picture was wrong, and that Indigenous laws that predate the creation of Canada were being violated.
Fast forward a year, and the same images, issues, and reckless and lawless behavior by the BC government and its RCMP enforcers continues, only now it has sparked a national protest movement for Indigenous rights and title that is being felt across the country, and is putting pressure where it hurts most for colonial governments: on the economy.
As Canadians look for answers, Premier John Horgan and his ministers continue to play political hot potato with the feds, courts, RCMP (anyone). Oh, and they’re not too happy about it.
It is the height of hypocrisy for Horgan to chide protesters for shutting down the pomp and circumstance of his throne speech, or blockading roads and rail lines without permission, when it is his government that has sent the RCMP on a wild goose chase, trampling on consent through Wet'suwet'en territory to clear the decks for LNG Canada, a heavily subsidized multinational pipeline and LNG export megaproject which will make it very difficult for B.C. to meet its climate targets.
Horgan and his ministers knew (or ought to have known) exactly where this was all heading when they granted a five-year extension of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline’s environmental assessment certificate in the fall, despite multiple instances of noncompliance by the company in meeting the conditions of its certificate. If they had chosen, they could have withheld this extension and saved us all of a lot of grief.
More significantly, Horgan’s government could also amend provincial laws, including the Environmental Assessment Act, to actually require Indigenous consent. They have promised to do this through Bill 41, incorporating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and its core concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) into B.C.’s provincial laws. The only problem is Horgan doesn’t want to require consent retroactively (and perhaps not in the future either).
“Just one more project” seems to be the common refrain from this government. Witness its decision two years ago to continue building the Site C dam against the wishes of local Indigenous nations, a massively damaging undertaking that many have linked directly to powering the LNG Canada project.
In one of his recent media lectures to British Columbians and Canadians who have seen their daily lives upended and economy crippled by protests and blockades, Horgan said that Indigenous groups in Ontario who have been blocking rail lines “haven’t got a clue, quite frankly, for how complex these issues are”. Setting aside his increasingly disrespectful and condescending language, Mr. Horgan’s claim is, quite frankly, BS.
To be sure, there is a complex issue of governance to be reconciled by the Wet'suwet'en themselves between their hereditary chiefs and elected band councils (which were a forced creation of the colonial Indian Act), but that is something only they can resolve. What is not complex, and does not require one to be a brain surgeon to understand, is that it is irresponsible and unethical, as Horgan and his government have done, to continue approving and actively abetting the construction of a pipeline through the unceded territory of a First Nation that is grappling with a divided system of governance. These are the well-worn divide and conquer tactics of colonialism.
Despite this manipulation, and everything they have been through, Indigenous Nations continue to show true leadership to the rest of Canada. The Wet'suwet'en have recently announced they may be making moves to begin bridging the governance issues between their hereditary chiefs and elected councils through a potential all-clans meeting. This is something they are undertaking on an emergency basis due to the escalating crisis manufactured by Horgan’s government, and successive B.C. and Canadian governments, who have kicked the can of consent, and actually dealing with Indigenous rights and title, down the road.
The protests and blockades that are gripping Canada today were entirely predictable and avoidable. They were incited by a cynical calculus made by the B.C. government (also endorsed by the federal government), that a $40-billion dollar LNG megaproject and the pipeline to feed it, were worth trampling on Indigenous rights and title once more. The new protests, blockades, and deep damage being done to the work of reconciliation and the Canadian economy, may finally be changing that calculus.
Let’s hope Horgan and his government move away from their position of feigned indignation and hiding behind court injunctions and RCMP enforcement, and take up the actual political power they have to give the Wet'suwet'en the time, space and resources they need to reconcile their governance systems. This is work that should be undertaken, if the Wet’suewt’en so choose, without having energy companies and governments breathing down their neck, pressuring resolution through offers of money, or failing that, RCMP invasion.
When and if the Wet'suwet'en have reconciled their governance systems, and are ready to contemplate industrial development in their unceded territory, they will let the rest of us know. Reconciliation will not happen under the barrel of a gun.
In the meantime, the next time you’re stuck in traffic due to a protest, or your local Canadian Tire is running short of something due to a rail blockade, you can thank Premier Horgan and his government’s ongoing failure to respect the need for Indigenous consent.