Square peg, round pipe­line

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - — Ed­i­tor-in-chief Neil God­bout

As per usual, the lack of un­der­stand­ing of First Na­tions gov­er­nance by far too many in the re­source de­vel­op­ment in­dus­try, politi­cians, bu­reau­crats, news me­dia and the pub­lic has been the big­gest con­tribut­ing fac­tor lead­ing up to the protests over the Coastal GasLink pipe­line project.

As the CBC’s An­gela Ster­ritt, a Gitxsan Na­tion jour­nal­ist, pointed out in her ex­cel­lent ex­plana­tory piece, there is no one-size fit­sall ap­proach to First Na­tions gov­er­nance. As frus­trat­ing as that may be for other lev­els of gov­ern­ment and the re­source de­vel­op­ment sec­tor, there is no sim­ple, stan­dard­ized ap­proval process.

From first con­tact in North Amer­ica to this day, White Euro­peans are still look­ing for the chief, the one per­son in charge to do busi­ness with. From first con­tact to this day, non-Indige­nous Cana­di­ans strug­gle with un­der­stand­ing how con­sen­sus cul­ture and gov­er­nance works. His­to­ri­ans and an­thro­pol­o­gists mocked it as back­wards and un­so­phis­ti­cated, a cul­tural view that re­mains far too preva­lent in the 21st cen­tury.

While dif­fer­ent First Na­tions im­part dif­fer­ent de­grees of power and re­spon­si­bil­ity on hered­i­tary chiefs, the com­mon theme is con­sen­sus de­ci­sion-mak­ing. To put it in a modern non-Indige­nous con­text, the his­tor­i­cal role of chiefs has been sim­i­lar to that of the chair of a meet­ing. The chief brings peo­ple to­gether and al­lows all who wish to share their views to speak on the mat­ters at hand that af­fect the en­tire group. Often these are done at pot­laches and other com­mu­nity cel­e­bra­tions be­cause mak­ing the right choice on any given is­sue is never as im­por­tant as the pri­mary goal of peace, co­op­er­a­tion and group co­he­sion.

For non-Indige­nous peo­ple used to hi­er­ar­chal lead­er­ship, whether it’s a king or an elected leader, trans­ac­tional re­la­tion­ships and con­cen­trated wealth and power in the hands of cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies, con­sen­sus gov­er­nance seems for­eign and strange.

For those who think it can’t be done in the fast-paced modern world, they would be mis­taken. The ter­ri­to­rial gov­ern­ments in Nu­navut and the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries have no po­lit­i­cal par­ties. The premier, cho­sen by the elected mem­bers of the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly, names a cab­i­net and gov­erns as the first among equals, know­ing that his or her power rests on the con­tin­ued sup­port of the whole as­sem­bly.

Elected of­fi­cials come and go, whether they are ter­ri­to­rial MLAs or band chiefs and coun­cils. As Nor­man Dale cor­rectly points out in his let­ter to the ed­i­tor be­low, elected chiefs and coun­cils were im­posed on First Na­tions by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in the 19th cen­tury as a mat­ter of con­ve­nience to im­pose the In­dian Act. Hered­i­tary chiefs work at a com­pletely dif­fer­ent level within Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties and there is plenty of va­ri­ety across the coun­try. As Ster­ritt points out in her re­port­ing, hered­i­tary Wet’suwet’en lead­ers in­herit their po­si­tions from their mother’s fam­ily but their role can be stripped from them if they are not ful­fill­ing their re­quired du­ties and a dif­fer­ent hered­i­tary chief of a cer­tain clan within the com­mu­nity can be named with the con­sen­sus of the group.

So whether it’s for ap­proval to build a pipe­line on tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory or to ad­dress his­tor­i­cal wrongs through rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, meet­ing with a chief or group of im­por­tant peo­ple within an Indige­nous com­mu­nity to gain their ap­proval is the be­gin­ning, not the end, of the process in most cases. Ev­ery­one is en­ti­tled to ask ques­tions, seek time to con­sider the mat­ter and then voice their views freely.

A per­fect ex­am­ple of this is the treaty be­tween the Lhei­dli T’en­neh First Na­tion and the provin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ments. Last sum­mer, mem­bers re­jected a pro­posed treaty through a com­mu­nity ref­er­en­dum, the sec­ond time they have done so. While Chief Do­minic Fred­er­ick and band coun­cil worked hard to reach a deal and ac­tively pro­moted the mer­its of the treaty, his peo­ple said no.

“The peo­ple have spo­ken and we must hon­our their wishes,” Fred­er­ick said after the re­sult of the vote was re­leased.

In­creas­ingly, Canada’s courts are rec­og­niz­ing both the di­ver­sity of First Na­tions and the dif­fer­ent mod­els of con­sen­sus gov­er­nance in Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try when de­cid­ing whether gov­ern­ments and re­source de­vel­op­ment com­pa­nies have made an ad­e­quate ef­fort to con­sult the peo­ple.

Some have made good steps for­ward. The RCMP, for ex­am­ple, brought in of­fi­cers from around the re­gion to en­force the court in­junc­tion and re­move the pro­test­ers block­ing the log­ging road be­cause the mem­bers of the Hous­ton RCMP, along with their col­leagues in nearby com­mu­ni­ties, have worked too hard build­ing re­la­tion­ships and re­solv­ing prob­lems through con­sen­sus, rather than a blind ad­her­ence to the law, to ir­repara­bly dam­age those con­nec­tions over a protest camp.

Build­ing con­sen­sus takes time and plenty of hard work but it makes for stronger, more uni­fied com­mu­ni­ties. Sounds like an ap­proach that could help bridge po­lit­i­cal di­vides, both at home and abroad.

From first con­tact in North Amer­ica to this day, White Euro­peans are still look­ing for the chief, the one per­son in charge to do busi­ness with.

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