Submitted by John Redekop (Professor Emeritus, Wilfred Laurier University)
Given Canada’s crisis involving Indigenous rights, governments and the public should note the following factors:
1. In dealings with First Nations, federal governments of both parties have a bad reputation. Ottawa has transferred huge sums of money to First Nations leaders, some of it badly mismanaged, but living conditions on many reserves remain lamentable. It’s time for a bold step. To show goodwill, the Trudeau government should announce within one year all reserves will have safe drinking water. Most of the pollution was caused by mines, factories and logging camps operating with a provincial or national government permit. Given that in a recent Ipsos Reid poll 75 per cent of Canadians agreed the government “must act now to help raise the quality of life” for First Nations, there would surely be public support, even if that required a surtax. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could then speak with greater credibility and authority.
2. The right to protest does not include the right to obstruct. Time and again reporters and politicians falsely describe law-breaking obstructionists as protesters. The distinction is basic. In our democracy, the right to protest and demonstrate must be protected. Blockading rail traffic and road transportation is not legitimate protesting. The Trudeau government failed badly in this area.
3. It’s hard to clamp down later on major illegal action. Every parent, teacher and police officer knows if you tolerate a certain level of misbehaviour, it is very difficult to raise the standards later when the misbehaviour escalates. Misguided, the Trudeau government allowed that to happen. The prime minister turned a blind eye to limited lawlessness and then had no moral argument when it got out of hand.
4. No country can function with two equally valid codes of law. In several decisions the Supreme Court of Canada has decreed within limits First Nations’ laws must be respected. Surely, that can only involve local matters. In matters of national significance, all of Canada is governed by Canadian law. To have two legal systems equally valid in national courts would be chaotic. Recently, on Feb. 21, a hereditary chiefs spokesperson stated, “Our territories are not part of the Dominion of Canada.” Such a dichotomy must be rejected. True, the 1997 Delgamuukw decision affirmed First Nations’ title over their lands – but it did not give their leaders a veto power, let alone political autonomy. The 2020 Trans Mountain pipeline decision further clarified matters by insisting First Nations must be adequately consulted, but they do not have a veto authority to prevent development.
5. B.C.’s NDP government acted hastily in approving the Wet’suwet’en gas pipeline construction. For many years, it has been known the 20 elected band councils have authority only over the reserve lands – while the hereditary chiefs have authority over the much larger Wet’suwet’en territory. It was puzzling negligence for the Horgan government to grant Coastal GasLink construction permits without first getting approval from the hereditary chiefs.
6. The B.C. Horgan government has painted itself into a corner by adopting the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Premier Horgan continues to assert the Coastal GasLink pipeline will be built across Wet’suwet’en territory even if the hereditary chiefs object. The UN Declarations states otherwise: “Indigenous peoples [shall have] control over developments affecting them and their lands, territories and resources” (p.4). Also, “States shall consult and co-operate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples… in order to obtain free and informed consent before adopting… measures that may affect them.” (Article 19). Requiring consent gives veto power. Further, Article 26.2 states Indigenous peoples shall “develop and control” their lands and resources.
These statements contradict the Horgan government’s assertion the pipeline will be built despite opposition by hereditary chiefs. The adoption of the UNDRIP by the Horgan government was clearly one of the most ill-advised actions which that government has undertaken. These basic realities should inform Canadian public opinion and governmental policies.