The Wet’suwet’en protests of the past few weeks illustrate vividly why B.C. should not have adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Our provincial government took this step last November, with a vague but sweeping statute that promised to align public policy with “the distinct languages, cultures, customs, practices, rights, legal traditions, institutions, governance structures, relationships to territories and knowledge systems of the Indigenous peoples in British Columbia.”
But how is this to be done when there is no agreement within the aboriginal community itself about many of these cultures, rights and institutions? The Wet’suwet’en protests are a case in point.
Five of the six elected band councils within this First Nation support the Coastal GasLink pipeline. And for good reason.
The project will bring hundreds of jobs to the region, jobs that are desperately needed in a remote part of the province with few other opportunities. As well, the bands will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in payments over the life of the pipeline.
However, a group of unelected, hereditary chiefs who are also part of the Wet’suwet’en are opposed.
What’s playing out here is in part a power struggle within that First Nation. But it is also a reminder that B.C.’s Indigenous peoples are not a single, unified group, with whom government can sit down and work out a collective agreement.
Rather, they are 198 First Nations, each of them fiercely independent and protective of their individual identities. That has led to a long and troubled history of disagreements over territory, boundaries, linguistic traditions, governance systems and so on. The pipeline dispute is merely a symptom of this underlying reality.
Now you might say, with good will, these differences can be overcome. But can they?
A better approach would have been to preserve the existing system of managing conflict. Extensive consultations on the Coastal GasLink pipeline were held with all the First Nations in the region.
In the end, the project gained approval because a broader interest existed— the need to bolster the country’s economy and attract offshore investment.
When the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs then organized blockades, B.C.’s Supreme Court issued an injunction and the RCMP removed them.
This is how an orderly country conducts itself — by listening, giving dissenters a voice, weighing competing interests and eventually issuing a decision, if necessary, using the legal system to enforce it.
But it’s difficult to see how this model can be sustained after the province has committed to proceeding by consensus, when no such consensus exists.
Nor has the prime minister helped matters. Here is what Justin Trudeau said after protests had shut down a large part of Ontario’s rail line system: “You need to know we have failed our Indigenous peoples over generations, over centuries. And there is no quick fix to it,” a reference to the protests.
This is just about the most unhelpful statement Trudeau could have made. He virtually invited the uproar to continue.
But more important, how do we make amends for past failings by backing away from firebrands who have vowed to shut down the country? One wrong does not excuse another.
And it is clearly wrong to stop people getting to hospital for operations they may have waited months for. Ditto causing passengers to miss flights, or blocking trains that carry essential goods such as drugs and medical supplies.
When Premier John Horgan adopted the UN declaration, no doubt he believed, in good faith, that he was sending a message of kinship and reconciliation. Unfortunately, it is apparent that message was not heard.
With our political leaders tying their hands, it’s hard to see how this ends well.