Why con­flicts with First Na­tions seem in­sol­u­ble

How can you reach agree­ments with a com­mu­nity that can’t agree with it­self ?

Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) - - FORUM - KELLY MCPAR­LAND

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

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS/CHAD HIPOLITO

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.

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