Canada: Do protesters speak for the First Nations?
The Canadian economy is being held hostage by environmentalists and indigenous rights activists, said the Toronto Sun in an editorial. Coastal GasLink is planning to build a 420-mile natural gas pipeline through the British Columbian interior, and it has signed agreements with 20 elected First Nations band councils along the route, including five of the six councils in the Wet’suwet’en nation. But Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claim the authority of these councils applies only to federal reservations, not to the 8,500 square miles of traditional territory—land that was never formally ceded to Canada—that sit in the middle of the $5 billion pipeline’s path. The chiefs have refused to give Coastal GasLink access to the land, and last week police enforced a court injunction and cleared indigenous activists from the work site. Protests soon erupted across the country. Vancouver, Edmonton, and Ottawa saw sit-ins and marches, while Mohawk activists blocked train tracks in Quebec, causing Canadian railways to shut down freight traffic as well as passenger train service affecting tens of thousands of riders. Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal government supports the pipeline but who loves to play First Nations defender, has not ordered the troublemakers arrested, leaving law enforcement just “twiddling its thumbs.”
This is “social justice extremism,” said Jonathan Kay in the National Post. The white-guilt folks who claim Canada was founded on genocide have partnered with eco-radicals who oppose all energy projects. They are breaking the law and hurting working-class people who rely on trains. Where are the protests in solidarity with the First Nations who back the pipeline? asked Robyn Urback in The Globe and Mail. The elected councils want “change to come to their communities.” Ordinary Wet’suwet’en don’t support the hereditary chiefs, some of whom actually ran for council seats in the last election and lost to pro-pipeline candidates.
These elections are a colonialist sham, said Doug Cuthand in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. Governance by elected council was imposed on us to create a “one-size-fits-all Indian Act version of a federally regulated municipality.” Each First Nation has its own traditional form of governance, and the hereditary power structure of the Wet’suwet’en ensures that their land is defended and passed on from generation to generation. These chiefs aren’t totally opposed to the pipeline. They proposed “an alternate route that was environmentally more responsible,” but GasLink rejected it. That intransigence resulted in this impasse.
The issue goes to the heart of Canada–First Nations relations, said Amber Bracken in Maclean’s. The cash-strapped elected councils do govern certain regions of tribal land. And yes, some were bought off by a gas company that told them the project would go ahead regardless, so they might as well say yes to “a payout.” But the chiefs traditionally speak for the whole nation. Until a balance of power can be formally agreed, Canadian authorities—not First Nations—will continue to call the shots. ■