First Nations’ frustrations with government are nearing a boiling point where confrontations are increasingly likely to turn violent, B.C. aboriginal leaders warn.
In a telephone interview, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip told the Georgia Straight that recent clashes between RCMP officers and First Nations members in New Brunswick are part of a struggle shared by aboriginal people across Canada.
“I think Prime Minister Harper has done an incredible job provoking a conflict between the economy and the environment,” the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said. “It’s shaping up to be a war between oil and water. And it applies to the eastern part of this country as well as British Columbia.”
On October 17, the RCMP broke up an Elsipogtog First Nation protest that for three weeks had peacefully blocked access to a fracking project operated by SWN Resources Canada outside the town of Rexton, New Brunswick. Videos show teams resembling military commandoes armed with heavy weapons positioned alongside a large number of regular officers donning riot gear.
Six RCMP vehicles were set on fire. Authorities used pepper spray and fired nonlethal “sock rounds” to disperse the crowds, and 40 people were arrested.
“All you have to do is connect the dots to recognize what happened in New Brunswick is not an isolated incident,” Phillip said. “The brutal response on the part of the RCMP…was, in part, to send a message—a very strong message—to the First Nations and the environmental movement in British Columbia.”
Phillip claimed he’s been informed Canadian law enforcement officials have been instructed to intensify how they respond to First Nations and environmental protests. He said that authorities will be less likely to seek court-issued injunctions ordering demonstrators to disband. “We have been told that from now on, the RCMP are going to simply arrive, and that from that moment, they are going to move in with enforcement actions,” Phillip said.
Those remarks echoed comments Phillip made at an October 19 rally in downtown Vancouver that was attended by hundreds of supporters of the Elsipogtog First Nation. There, he was joined by Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who called the day a “moment for collaboration or collision”.
Gord Hill is an activist with the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation and a contributor to Warrior Publications, a website that aggregates news related to aboriginal issues. In a telephone interview, he told the Straight that the Elsipogtog fracking fight mirrors B.C. protests against oil pipelines.
Hill noted that the October 17 incident was the culmination of months of peaceful demonstrations during which tensions slowly grew. He added that he sees the same thing happening in B.C.
“It’s building towards a conflict,” Hill said. “They will use any means that they have at their disposal to push through and impose these pipeline projects, fracking projects, and whatever onto the people here.”
Both the Canadian Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and its provincial counterpart declined to make representatives available to comment. The B.C. RCMP responded to an interview request with an email stating its officers are impartial and uphold the law.
Douglas Bland is a 30-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and former chair of defence studies at Queen’s University. A May 2013 report he drafted for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute warns that First Nations’ marginalized position in society combined with economic and resource factors “provides motives for an insurgency”.
“The fact that Canada’s natural wealth flows unfairly from Aboriginal lands and peoples to non-Aboriginal Canadians is a long-standing and justifiable grievance,” the document states. “Therefore, it is morally and ethically just that Indigenous peoples act in their own interests and in the interests of their future generations to correct this unfairness.”
On the phone from his home in Kingston, Ontario, Bland told the Straight that Canada’s economy is “very vulnerable to disruption” via the country’s transportation infrastructure. He recalled that in 2012, a Canadian Pacific Railway strike was estimated to cost the economy $540 million per week.
“Imagine if the thing was shut down for three months?” Bland added. “The economics of transport are very important to British Columbia and they are very important to the rest of the country. If they shut down the railway lines going over the Rockies…as the strike with the railways proved last year, it would be a very serious problem for the government.”
A book Bland authored in 2010 called Uprising is scheduled for reissue next month. “It’s a political novel but I wrote it over a long period of research with aboriginal people and government and so on,” Bland said. “In a number of ways and in detail, it describes how an aboriginal insurgency would unfold in Canada.”
He suggested that a peaceful path forward depends on meaningful government dialogue with First Nations groups, something that, he noted, most aboriginal leaders maintain is not the current state of affairs.
Several First Nations people the Straight spoke with for this story also put heightened tensions in the context of glaring inequalities. On October 15, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples said that Canada is facing a "crisis" when it comes to the situation of aboriginal people.
“Canada consistently ranks near the top among countries with respect to human development standards," said James Anaya, "and yet amidst this wealth and prosperity, aboriginal people live in conditions akin to those in countries that rank much lower and in which poverty abounds."
Khelsilem Rivers is a community organizer with the Skwxwú7mesh Nation who has worked with the Idle No More movement. Like Phillip and Hill, he also voiced concerns about the growing possibility of violence between First Nations groups and Canadian law-enforcement agencies.
Rivers lamented that for years, Canada's aboriginal people have known that the federal government regards their protest movements as illegitimate. He recounted how in 2007 the public learned that the military was using a counter-insurgency manual that listed Native groups alongside international terrorist organizations. More recently, Rivers continued, the RCMP used the Elsipogtog incident to denounce First Nations’ protests as a threat to public safety.
“It’s a tactic that’s meant to separate supporters from each other and try to create dissent, as well as a level of doubt within the Canadian public,” he said.
Rivers described rising frustrations as part of fundamental disagreements that go back more than 100 years. “The main issue in all of this is indigenous jurisdiction,” he explained.
"The B.C. government, just like the New Brunswick government, wants to build its economy on shale gas and bitumen pipelines, and so there is going to be a conflict coming to a head,” Rivers continued. “It thinks it can ram these projects through, and I think that indigenous people need to get ready to fight that belief.”