OTTAWA – A breakthrough could be at hand in the B.C.-based pipeline dispute that has brought traffic to a halt at ports and on rail lines across Canada.
As widespread rail shutdowns cost millions of dollars in cancelled passenger travel and commercial shipping, governments, companies and Indigenous communities are all taking a hard look at their possible next moves.
There are growing calls for somebody to do something.
One can be forgiven for being confused about who that somebody is, and what that something should be.
Here’s a look at some options that have been proposed to help resolve the Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute:
Meet, talk, meet, talk, repeat
There actually was significant movement Thursday in what seems like an intractable dispute. Cooler heads may yet prevail. That’s because the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs wrote a letter to request a meeting with representatives of the federal and B.C. governments. The offer to meet was an unexpected opening after previous efforts to find a path forward had stalled. B.C. had reached out to former NDP MP Nathan Cullen to broker a compromise. But the RCMP, which is the contracted provincial police force in B.C., was already on the Wet’suwet’en territory waiting to enforce an injunction as those talks were attempted, and they faltered.
The latest offer to meet comes via a hereditary Gitxsan chief, Norman Stephens, on behalf of both nations. Both levels of government have agreed to send ministerial representatives. More important, perhaps for the longer term, is that the Wet’suewet’en – among whom there are clear differences of opinion over whether the pipeline should proceed – are discussing holding an all-clans meeting to discuss the dispute, in what one chief has characterized as an extraordinary once-in-a-generation assembly on an issue such as this.
Don’t meet until the blockades are lifted
Nobody has put conditions on the upcoming talks between the two levels of government and the Indigenous leaders, but implicit in the provincial and federal governments’ acceptance of the offer to meet is that the blockades need to end.
When B.C. Premier John Horgan replied to the invitation to meet, he wrote, “I understand that on receipt of his letter and a similar commitment from Canada, the blockade of the CN line will be removed to allow for a period of calm and peaceful dialogue.”
The Trudeau government also agreed to meet, without any explicit condition such as demanding the Wet’suewet’en call off all the other demonstrations and blockades that have been mounted in solidarity with their cause.
In his request to meet with Mohawk leaders, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller asked only that they “kindly” consider removing the barricade on the train tracks near Belleville, Ont. “as soon as practicable.”
“I hope you will agree to this request and that we can meet in the spirit of peace and co-operation that should guide our relationship,” Miller wrote.
But it’s an open question whether the Wet’suwet’en would even have any control over other protests, which have spiralled out to include climate-change activists and other Indigenous groups that want their own demands met. In a video posted to Democracy Now’s Twitter account, Pam Palmater, an associate professor and chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, said, “It’s often characterized as an anti-pipeline protest; it is for some. But for most of us it’s about protecting our Indigenous sovereignty and our land rights, which are the two issues that have never been resolved.”
Send in the police (or, better yet, send in the army)
To some, this may seem like a reasonable response to what looks increasingly like a lawless situation. After all, courts have issued injunctions — to allow the gas pipeline construction to proceed, to open up the railways — but nothing’s happened.
In fact, it would be a profoundly undemocratic response.
And it could go very badly — an SQ officer died during the 78-day standoff between Mohawk protesters, police and the army at Oka in 1990.
It almost always ends badly when governments exert pressure on police to act. The Ontario Provincial Police certainly seem to be acutely aware of history at Ipperwash or Caledonia, and a spokesman said Thursday the force is keeping an eye on the “negotiations” that are clearly underway.
There’s a reason executive branches of government do not tend to order the police around. The police are, in principle, independent of political control – and that’s the way it should be in a democracy. Governments are not empowered to direct the police to act for their friends or against their enemies.
But it’s confusing when frustrations rise and those in positions of influence — like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, or former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall — demand action. “Is the country governable or not?” Wall fumed on CTV. “Can we operate Canada? Not just its economy but its political systems, or not?”
His successor, Premier Scott Moe, argued that police should clear the roads and rails because of the growing economic cost, telling CTV they “need to enforce injunctions that are put there — that’s why we have law enforcement agencies.”
But the B.C. and federal governments are steering well clear of even hinting that they’re pressuring police to act. For now.
B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said that’s not the government’s job.
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“The role of the RCMP is independent of us as government,” he told CTV’s Evan Solomon. “ Of course they have a job to do, and the courts of course we have no role there either, and nor should we as government. So we don’t tell the courts what to do, and when injunctions are achieved by a company it is the job of the RCMP, in this case, to enforce.”
Kill the pipeline project
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters may want to see the pipeline killed, but it is clear that others within the Wet’suwet’en nation and the Gitxsan nation support the project for its potential jobs and economic benefits.
What’s less clear is how deep and wide is the support for – or opposition to — the pipeline within the affected Indigenous communities. Among the 20 elected band councils along the route, there are five Wet’suwet’en councils that have struck benefit agreements with the company.
The Wet’suwet’en have many traditions that govern how they disagree or agree among themselves, including not publicly airing differences in certain instances, and it is not clear if anyone speaks on behalf of the whole nation.
Recognize Wet’suwet’en jurisdiction over the territory
Easier said than done. That would require negotiation or more litigation, which is certain to take years.
While the Wet’suwet’en and the Gitxsan nations have claimed some 58,000 square kilometres of northern B.C. territory, that jurisdiction is not settled, either in law or by treaty.
The two nations have never ceded title to the Crown in a treaty. And while some claim that a landmark 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision known as Delgamuukw recognized their rights, what it actually did was lay out guidance for courts in future decisions about what Indigenous nations need to do to prove their title. University of Victoria professor John Burrows, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law, says the decision did not actually affirm Wet’suwet’en title to the land. That will take either negotiations to resolve the claim that could lead to a treaty, or another court case to settle the matter.
Let the Wet’suwet’en use their United Nations veto
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) sets out lots of principles of non-discrimination and respect for Indigenous rights, and it declares that Indigenous peoples should receive “just and fair redress” whenever their lands are exploited without their free and informed consent.
But it did not give them a veto over projects like the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
“It totally is not a veto,” said Burrows. In fact, the word “veto” does not appear in the UN document (which B.C. has passed into legislation, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vows to do federally as well).
“What UNDRIP does is it provides the principles that should guide parties through the resolution of these issues,” said Burrows. The document sets out “principles, standards, criteria, signposts, guideposts, and measures to getting at those questions as opposed to ‘it’s my way or the highway.’”
Rather than be a reason for blockades, Burrows hopes that one day UNDRIP will be seen as an instrument of empowerment for Indigenous people to chart their own economic development.
“It’s a tool to help us talk together in ways that aren’t just dismissive of one another.”