Why conflicts with First Nations seem insoluble
How can you reach agreements with a community that can’t agree with itself ?
It might not seem immediately evident, but it’s possible the confrontation that has been taking place in a remote northern area of British Columbia will prove to be an important moment in Canada’s long, difficult struggle to come to terms with First nations bands.
the situation offers a distillation of the dilemma that often makes relations with natives seem insoluble. that is, how can you reach agreements with a community that can’t agree with itself ? the dispute between Coastal Gaslink, a subsidiary of transCanada Corp., and some elements of the wet’suwet’en nation, rests not with the gas company, the government, the police, the courts or any of the people doing their best to meet all required parameters for dealing fairly and equitably with First nations. It’s an argument between one set of native leaders and another. It’s also a problem only the native scan solve, and it raises a serious concern over whether aboriginal communities will ever make serious advances in putting behind them the poverty and despair that plagues so many of their people until they find a way to resolve it.
In this case, the elected representatives of all 20 band councils along the route of a 670-kilometre pipeline have agreed to the plan. and no wonder: it would provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of benefits, jobs, income and hope, and give the bands an enormous boost from the lands they have fought so hard to protect. But, as anyone with a passing awareness of aboriginal politics knows, Canada’s First nations communities are not one big unified family, but a vast, complex, diverse, sometime fractious and often competing universe of interests and agendas. It is rarely clear where the power lies, who speaks for who, and what level of support can be claimed by any individual or group.
there is no overriding governing body to render final decisions when needed, or a judicial system able to issue judgments all parties are compelled to obey. although Canadian courts make rulings on First nations questions, it’s a toss-up as to whether they can be enforced. In instance after instance we have seen judges issue orders, only to have them ignored by bands who maintain they’re not bound by “settler” or “colonial” law. the majority does not necessarily rule; a small but determined portion of a larger community can stymie the will of the others. “our law trumps Canada’s law,” declared Joyce eagle, in justifying defiance of the B.C. court’s order.
as a result, no agreement can ever be deemed final. there is always the danger a deal struck with good intentions on all sides will come unstuck when the consensus among First nations members suddenly dissolves over matters non-natives are helpless to affect.
Pandering by Canadian governments at all levels has made a difficult situation far worse. Federal, provincial and municipal governments have all shown themselves to be too terrified by the prospect of confrontation, and the public backlash it has often produced, to respond to native challenges with anything but abject surrender. all it takes is a small roadblock, a moderate-sized protest march or a few tents by a roadside to send elected politicians scurrying for cover.
even as police were preparing to clear a blockade under a B.C. Supreme Court injunction, the province’s natural resources minister, doug donaldson, turned up with his wife to hand over a box of goodies and offer his support to the hereditary chiefs defying the court. Prime minister Justin trudeau, who was forced to relocate a meeting with one set of chiefs when a protest group invaded the venue, pleaded for a cooling of temperatures, but trudeau is as culpable as anyone — and more so than many — in striving to settle intractable differences with promises that can’t be kept and are bound only to increase the sense of aggrievement and accusations of bad faith.
It was trudeau who, on the day the truth and reconciliation Commission issued its 2015 report, immediately pledged to implement all 94-plus recommendations, without bothering to calculate the cost or practicality, or to consider the impact on First nations’ sentiments when he inevitably proved unable to fulfil his vow. having shown himself to be just another big-talking politician, he now finds himself lacking the authority or influence to deal with situations like the one in B.C. he says he won’t visit the site and pleads for understanding. as with so many previous examples of liberal happy talk proving ineffectual in solving real-world conflicts, he seems wholly unprepared for the fact many people can’t be won over by boyish charm and an arsenal of cheery bromides.
there is a healthy dose of schadenfreude to be had from the trouble in B.C. the province’s new democratic Party government has blatantly obstructed the trans mountain oil pipeline that is of such vital concern to alberta and the larger Canadian energy industry, meeting every plea with weasel words and left-wing posturing. now it finds itself similarly stymied in a project it considers as crucial to B.C. as trans mountain is to alberta. the gas pipeline is part of a $40-billion liquefied natural gas project unveiled with great fanfare by trudeau and Premier John horgan in october. trudeau hailed it as “a vote of confidence in a country that recognizes the need to develop our energy in a way that takes the environment into account, and that works in meaningful partnership with Indigenous people.”
then, with the plan suddenly under threat, the best he could offer the CBC was: “there are a number of people and communities who are supportive, there are a number of folks who disagree.”
with projects in alberta and B.C. both in danger, perhaps — just perhaps — “progressives” like trudeau and horgan will begin to understand the need to come to terms with Canada’s aboriginal communities in a way that moves beyond apologies and high-toned rhetoric, gets past pandering and posturing, and treats Canada’s need to develop its resources for the benefit of all Canadians with equal weight as the guilt it feels over injustices perpetrated by past generations. twitter.com/KellyMcParland
Todd Nelson and Christy Brown from the Nisga’a Nation arrive in support of the Unist’ot’en camp and Wet’suwet’en First Nation gather at a camp fire off a logging road near Houston, B.C., on Wednesday.