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 natives can 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.
Alex Spence marches in support of pipeline protesters in Vancouver on Jan. 8, 2019, after RCMP arrested 14 protesters at a blockade southwest of Houston, B.C., on Monday.
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 …read more