House Call with Carol Hughes

Indigenous standoffs were avoidable

For the better part of a decade, Canada has undertaken some important exercises with the intention of building a stronger relationship with Indigenous communities. The Residential School Apology, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls make it seem that a lot of progress has been made in a short amount of time when, in fact, these amount to first steps in a journey to understand hundreds of years of colonial history. Now, as we stand at an historic moment, with trains at a standstill and critical infrastructure blocked, it’s fair for us to wonder what the government means when they speak of reconciliation or their claim that there is no relationship more important than the one with Indigenous people.

As tensions mount, hard-line politicians are calling for the ‘rule of law’ to prevail, saying the government should send in the RCMP- which is actually something the government cannot do. While people’s frustrations are real and not to be dismissed, the language these politicians use is divisive and opportunistic. They characterize protestors as illegitimate fringe actors instead of hearing the message: there is too much of a gap between what the government says and what it does.

On top of that, if arrests would solve the problem, we wouldn’t find ourselves at this point. On two occasions, the RCMP removed protestors from Wet’suwet’en territory only to have those protests carry on while others pop-up in solidarity. In many ways, the Wet’suwet’en see history repeating itself.

It was only 100 years ago that RCMP accompanied Indian Agents to forcibly remove Wet’suwet’en families from their traditional land. For many in the community, these are the stories of their grandparents’ experiences. Now, they see RCMP arresting dozens of people to enforce an injunction on behalf of Coastal GasLink (CGL) so that company can develop a liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline through their territory. Territory they had to fight for at the highest court in the land.

Part of the challenge we face is the disconnect that exists because the Crown has always focused on the relationship with Indigenous peoples as transactional. As a result, Indigenous governance structures—elected band councils, etc.—were forced upon communities in order to create a system that favours commerce as the foundation of the relationship. Perhaps it’s time to believe Indigenous communities when they explain that this is not how things work. This is part of the reason objections of hereditary chiefs carry so much weight in the CGL standoff. But there is more to that.

These are the same hereditary chiefs who fought all the way to the Supreme Court to affirm their title to land they had occupied for thousands of years. The court recognized their standing and it set a precedent ruling that the federal government had “a moral, if not legal, duty to enter into and conduct those negotiations in good faith” on the question of their Indigenous title. One big take-away from that ruling was that hereditary chiefs represent a legitimate decision-making body for indigenous people outside of reserves.

Today, politicians frustrated by this are labelling this traditional decision-making body illegitimate. Some have accused them of being late to the party, but these objections have long pre-dated the CGL standoff. The refusal of these chiefs came about after they suggested alternative routes that the company rejected. All along, the federal governments, past and present, have been missing in the process.

Although much of the issue is provincial in nature, there is no doubt the federal government has exacerbated the problem. It has been more than 20 years since the Supreme Court ruling and successive governments have failed to even begin the difficult work of upholding, acknowledging and affirming Wet’suwet’en title.

In an era of Indigenous frustrations, as Canada learns how to acknowledge, reconcile and grow beyond a colonial history, the events unfolding in British
Columbia have set in motion the stand-offs in solidarity that we are seeing today. The rail blockade near Belleville is the most prominent but there have been others. Part of the frustration relates to police action in British Columbia which threatens to undermine any chance of real reconciliation.

An even larger part of the frustration relates to the fact that, for all the talk of changing our relationship with Indigenous people, precious little has changed. The only way forward will be through dialogue and positive action. Brute force will set us back and light a match at the same time. The costs of that kind of action could far exceed those experienced today. We have arrived at a watershed moment and must choose a path that will guide our future. We have to challenge the status quo and the way we do business.