Reconnection with land key to building Indigenous economies: UBC’s Gitxaała academic Charles Menzies

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      In 2010, Freda Huson built a cabin in the woods outside Houston, B.C.

      The cabin, which grew into a camp, stood in the path of three gas and oil pipelines.

      But the structure wasn’t only an act of defiance against the pipelines by Huson, a member of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en people.

      It was also a reconnection to the land where her ancestors lived for millennia.

      About a decade later, Huson and other Unist'ot'en matriarchs were arrested on February 10, 2020 after RCMP entered the camp standing on the way of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

      From Charles Menzies’ perspective, the reoccupation by Indigenous people of their traditional lands, like what the Unist’ot’en did, is a significant act.

      Menzies is a member of the Gitxaała Nation and a professor in the anthropology department of UBC.

      According to Menzies, reconnection to the land is the key to building autonomous native economies.

      “What we actually need is to re-establish oneself on the land, and let that relationship begin with food, shelter, and clothing,” Menzies told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      According to Menzies, the whole idea is about moving away from a consumer-driven system.

      To drive home his point, Menzies related a conversation he had with a man who once headed a large container shipping company.

      “He ruminated that he spent his life shipping things that people don't need and shouldn't want,” Menzies said.

      For Menzies, that “captures that we're stuck in this system where we're filling our houses, making them bigger filling with more and more stuff that we don't need and that we shouldn't want”.

      Part of his model for autonomous Indigenous economic development comes from being self-reliant, and “without being reliant upon the whims of a marketplace an ocean or two continents away”.

      “We need to de-articulate globally, rather than more seamlessly integrate globally,” Menzies said.

      According to Menzies, reliance on the global economy typically involves dependence on the industry, which is prone to cycles of boom and bust.

      Menzies noted that this boom-bust cycle is a “perennial problem” with the so-called “natural resource economy”, which includes oil and gas ventures.

      “We need to move beyond that, and the means is focusing away, building up away from attachments globally,” Menzies said.

      However, Menzies pointed out that as long issues around Indigenous rights and title are not dealt with in B.C., First Nations communities will have challenges charting a path to independent economic development.

      For Menzies, the Wet’suwet’en situation clearly illustrates the problem.

      “What's happening with Wet’suwet’en is a kind of microcosm for the failed Crown-First Nations relationship,” Menzies said.

      In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the existence of unextinguished Indigenous rights and title to lands being claimed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their Gitxsan neighbours.

      The ruling sent back the trial the determination of what lands actually belong to the Wet’suwet’en.

      However, neither a trial nor negotiations with the government happened.

      “What you have is a situation, which is fairly well documented, where there's a good long court decision that got sent back, in which they're supposed to engage in negotiations over rights and title, and the government dragged its feet,” Menzies said.

      Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have declared that they did not give their consent for the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline that will cross their traditional territory.

      As Menzies watched the unfolding Wet’suwet’en situation, he’s got one big question for government.

      “Personally, I shake my head, and say, how could you not see this coming?” Menzies said.