Canada’s Battle Against First Nations Shows Slide Toward Authoritarianism

Canada seems to have bucked the global trend toward authoritarianism that we have seen from the U.S. and Brazil to Turkey and India. But to what extent is this reality rather than mere appearance?

In a sense, the writing was already on the wall when, in the immediate aftermath of the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, an article appeared on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website acknowledging that the former military man’s politics were profoundly authoritarian, but the extractivist (and therefore anti-Indigenous) platform on which he was elected “could mean fresh opportunities for Canadian companies looking to invest in the resource-rich country.”

The Canadian state has always, if only tacitly, understood this relationship between authoritarianism, resource extraction, colonialism and what Karl Marx called “primitive accumulation” — the looting and pillaging of wealth. Like the U.S., Canada has a long, ignominious record of abusing, locking up and betraying promises to Indigenous peoples.

Now, however, in the context of a turbo-charged neoliberalism, we witness an intensification of these extractivist practices that disproportionately impact Indigenous communities and their ancestral hunting grounds and waters — not unlike what we have seen, for example, in the United States and Brazil.

In these latter countries, neoliberalism has given rise to proto-fascist politics as manifested in (among other things) the brutal crackdown on the Water Protectors at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline, and violence against Indigenous peoples in the course of the accelerated development of the Amazon Basin, respectively.

Since forming his first government in 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a very different kind of politics from that of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, who made clear that he had little or no interest in engaging constructively with First Nations peoples.

In 2012, Harper refused repeated requests to meet with then-Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. In response, Spence undertook a hunger strike to secure a “nation-to-nation” meeting with the prime minister and the queen’s representative to Canada, the governor general. Chief Spence wanted to discuss the abysmal conditions on her reserve, and indeed, across the country’s Indigenous communities, including substandard housing stock and lack of potable water.

In fact, in the same year, the Harper government passed one of many omnibus bills, Bill C-45, that, among other things, eliminated protections for freshwater across the country. This materially threatened the traditional hunting and fishing practices of Indigenous peoples across Canada. Along with muzzling federal scientists and librarians, and putting into place new controversial anti-terror legislation, this was part of Harper’s strategy of transforming Canada into an “energy superpower” or a “petro-state.”

In response to Bill C-45, a massive outpouring of Indigenous opposition throughout the country took the form of protests, teach-ins and traditional Native dances in shopping malls across the country. Young, social media-savvy female Indigenous activists led a kind of Canadian version of the Arab Spring, called Idle No More.

In contrast to Harper, Trudeau promised a new kind of politics — “sunny ways,” as he put it. The new prime minister promised to take immediate action on climate change and also to amend the recently passed (and universally criticized) Anti-Terrorism Act, a piece of legislation that, as a leaked Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) memo would reveal, specifically targeted Indigenous and environmentalists’ resistance to development projects. Trudeau also promised sweeping electoral reform that would see the replacement of the Single Member Plurality with a version of the more representative proportional system.

But the most important of Trudeau’s promises was the one he made to Indigenous peoples across what First Nations call “Turtle Island”: that the government would adhere to the true “nation-to-nation” relations between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples. In what seemed to be a truly historic step, Trudeau included in his cabinet the first Indigenous minister of justice/attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould*. Trudeau’s promise of a new nation-to-nation relationship aimed to distinguish his government from that of Harper’s and might have been seen as a belated response to Chief Spence. It was, of course, also a tacit recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, at least in principle.

Despite all of this, Trudeau’s hypocrisy was revealed in the last two weeks of the recent election, when he was exposed as having worn Black and Brown face in earlier years. This resulted in a firestorm of well-deserved criticism led, surreally, by the Conservative Party of Canada — which was not exactly known for a steadfast commitment to the principles of anti-racism. Yet this scandal only highlighted the relative silence surrounding a much more serious issue.

This was the Trudeau government’s handling of the relatively long-standing antagonism between the hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and TransCanada-owned Coastal GasLink (CGL)’s $4 billion pipeline for fracked natural gas through the ancestral territory of the Wet’suwet’en.

The pipeline would deliver liquified natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to a facility near Kitimat, British Columbia, in preparation for shipping to global markets. At issue here is the fundamental principle to which the Canadian government committed itself both in its stated adherence to United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), as well as to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC): that in all development projects that affect unceded territories, Indigenous nations must provide their “free, prior and informed consent.”

In the case of CGL, the company insists that it has engaged precisely in such a consultation process and has signed “mutual benefit agreements” with some 20 First Nations across the path of the pipeline. This is taken, then, as evidence of “engagement with Indigenous communities” and meaningful consultation. However, these agreements have been signed with reservations’ elected band councils — governance structures created by a deeply racist, misogynist colonial law called the “Indian Act.”

The problem with band councils entering into these agreements is the fact that their writ doesn’t extend beyond the reservations they were created to administer. This means that traditional territories such as those currently in contention are not under the jurisdiction of these councils. In fact, two important Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decisions, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997) and Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014), establish Indigenous communities and their traditional governance structures as possessing authority over such territories.

The Wet’suwet’en have for several years now struggled hard to defend their lands, building the Unist’ot’en Camp to prevent the CGL and the RCMP from accessing their territories. They have insisted not only on UNDRIP and TRC’s recommendations and Canadian legal decisions establishing the jurisdiction of their traditional governance structures, but also on the authority of Wet’suwet’en law under which all five clans have unanimously rejected the pipeline project. The Wet’suwet’en have also invited settler allies to come and join them on their territories and have engaged in myriad fundraising and educational activities.

Despite both the normative force of UNDRIP, TRC and the legal decisions, as well as the resistance of the Wet’suwet’en themselves, the federal and provincial governments as well as the RCMP, taking direction from CGL, have doubled down on the pipeline project under the guise of consent. Insofar as the government is an enthusiastic backer of this project, it is as if the government secured consent from itself. In fact, as The Guardian has recently revealed, the RCMP have threatened to use “lethal” force against the Wet’suwet’en for simply enjoying their own ancestral territories.

This threat to use lethal force must be seen as credible insofar as had already previously been revealed, the anti-terrorism legislation targeted Indigenous communities, and about a year ago, when the RCMP forcibly removed members of the community, including elders and children, whose only crime was to simply be present on their own traditional territories (again, as mentioned above, the right of which was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada).

At the time of writing, the RCMP have ramped up pressure on the Wet’suwet’en by establishing an “exclusionary zone” around the territory and are allowing only the hereditary chiefs passage — other Wet’suwet’en members and the media are being kept out. Such developments portend a human rights catastrophe of terrible proportions. It is for this reason that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called for the immediate withdrawal of the RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territory, and for the right of the Wet’suwet’en people to continue in their actions to protect the lands, waters and futures of their people.

“We are doing this to save humanity…. If we destroy the Earth, the Earth will recover; … we won’t,” Wet’suwet’en Spokesperson Freda Huson said in a public statement. “The Earth doesn’t need us; we need it.”

The hereditary chiefs refuse to sit down with CGL because it is in violation of Wet’suwet’en law as well as the SCC decisions mentioned above. They are therefore calling upon John Horgan, the premier of British Columbia, to respect the principle of a “nation-to-nation” process and engage in diplomacy rather than rely upon a court injunction that would allow CGL back on their land.

The government’s utter disregard for the very Indigenous communities it had clearly pledged to enter into dialogue with in good faith is disturbing enough. Yet Horgan has illustrated the disconnect: “I think the patience of Indigenous communities has been well demonstrated over the 200 years of colonial activity here in [British Columbia] and across Canada,” he said last fall. “I’ve been invited to speak to the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa next week about what we’ve been able to accomplish here, and I’m sure I’ll get some advice from elders and others about how we proceed in the new year.” Apparently, we’re not one step closer to ending such “colonial activity” at the start of the new decade.

Here we have the federal and provincial governments and the federal police force engaged in forcing a pipeline through the ancestral territories of an Indigenous nation, the Wet’suwet’en, over which this nation clearly has jurisdiction. This flies in the face not simply of the government’s aspiration to a new “nation-to-nation” relationship, but also in the face of two SCC decisions assigning title to unceded lands to its original inhabitants.

If in Canada the executive branch of parliamentary government is not held in check by either the Constitution or the courts, then surely we are headed ever so subtly down the path to authoritarianism. As one of the Indigenous Youth leaders, Ta’kaiya Blaney, from the Tla’amin First Nation, recently stated, “When you attack one, you attack us all… We, as Indigenous youth, know that what Canada is willing to do to Wet’suwet’en people is a demonstration of the measures they are willing to go to bulldoze and destroy Indigenous lands in the name of profit and industry.”

Perhaps this is also an indication of the measures the state will take, at the end of the day, against Canadian settlers as well.

The Wet’suwet’en have received solidarity statements from around the world, as well as protests across Canada supporting their struggle, including the shutdown of the Swartz Bay ferry terminal just outside of Victoria, British Columbia.

Indeed, Indigenous youth of the Nuuchahnulth, Tla’amin, Sto:lo, Namgis, Heiltsuk, Lil’wat, Xwlemi, Qayqayt, Lue Chogh Tue, Shishalh and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nations just launched an occupation of the Office of the B.C. Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. They state that, “Indigenous people defending their lands from destruction are not criminal or disposable. As Indigenous youth, we urge you to uphold Indigenous rights and Wet’suwet’en law by advocating for the removal of CGL and RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territories.”

Indigenous communities across the country are watching very closely. The Canadian state’s heavy-handedness in this case in the context of the climate emergency might very well provoke further widespread civil disobedience and resistance.

*Jody Wilson-Raybould subsequently resigned in protest at having been pressured to interfere in the prosecution of a company, SNC Lavalin, based in the strategically important province of Québec in the lead up to the general election.