Pipeline Investment ‘Goes Palliative’ in Wake of Unist’ot’en Blockade
Opinion & Analysis
Two separate news outlets are declaring the end of pipeline investment in Canada, while several focus in on the differences in jurisdiction between elected and hereditary First Nations chiefs, in the wake of last week’s RCMP raid and subsequent “peaceful resolution” of the Unist’ot’en blockade along TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline in British Columbia.
“This was the week international investment in Canadian energy transportation went palliative following multiple bouts of protracted suffering,” writes CTV Power Play Host Don Martin. “The industry obit will detail how a few chiefs, bestowed with the ceremonial title by their ancestors, finally proved there’s no way to move oil, bitumen, or natural gas from the ground to the ocean.”
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Martin recounts the 20 elected First Nations bands along the route that approved the project, the C$1 billion in economic benefits the communities were to receive, the court injunction intended to allow construction to proceed, and the “giddy support” the project had received from B.C. Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “When plans were announced last October to build a $40-billion liquefied natural gas project in British Columbia, Justin Trudeau couldn’t contain his glee,” adds veteran columnist Thomas Walkom in the Hamilton Spectator.
“It is a vote of confidence in a country that recognizes the need to develop our energy in a way that takes the environment into account and that works in a meaningful partnership with Indigenous communities,” Trudeau said. “This is a spectacular day for British Columbia,” Horgan agreed. “I can’t stop smiling.”
But as Dogwood Initiative Communications Director Kai Nagata pointed out last week, that massive project depends on the four-foot (122-centimetre)diameter pipeline that must pass through Wet’suwet’en ancestral lands.
“After years of stalemate over pipelines, it seemed that Canada had finally managed to come up with an energy project that could proceed,” Walkom writes. “But as this week’s events have demonstrated, in the world of Canadian pipeline politics nothing is ever really settled,” and “the fundamental questions raised by [the blockade] remain unresolved. Who speaks for Indigenous communities? What happens when, as in the case of the Wet’suwet’en, elected representatives and hereditary leaders disagree?”
Walkom’s is one of several reports in the last week that have begun delving into the parallel political structures in many First Nations communities—chiefs and band councils elected under the Indian Act, and a traditional clan system led by hereditary chiefs. “In this case, the hereditary chiefs argue they have jurisdiction over all unceded Wet’suwet’en land outside the reserve’s settlement proper,” he writes. “The elected council clearly disagrees.”
On CBC, artist and master carver Hayalthkin’geme (Carey Newman) describes the hereditary system as “a governance model that varies from one nation to the next, where chieftainships, titles, and responsibilities are passed down through generations. It is not beyond reproach, and in some cases it may need to be adjusted to reflect the capitalist world of today. But it is our traditional way, it has sophisticated checks and balances, and it has been in use since before Canada claimed sovereignty.”
The Indian Act chiefs and councils operate on authority delegated by the federal government, and “the division between elected and hereditary leaders is no accident,” Hayalthkin’geme explains. “It was engineered by Canadian colonial policies that have disrupted traditional ways, and is now strategically exploited to enable access to valuable resources.”
For Indian Act councils, “the reliance on federal funding to maintain services makes it incredibly difficult for elected band officials to stand on principle,” he writes. “I don’t mean to detract from their efforts or the sincerity of their leadership, but they are elected to keep services flowing, and the reality is that for them to resist too strongly risks getting nothing at all.” Hereditary leaders, for their part, “are not beholden to the same obligations and are much freer to demand that their inherent rights and title are recognized.”
Another point of confusion is the difference between the reserves over which Indian Act councils have jurisdiction and the “traditional territories” that remain the purview of the hereditary chiefs. “Traditional territories are larger and much more difficult to define,” but “title is not owned by the Crown,” Hayalthkin’geme stresses. “At the very least it is shared with—if not exclusively held by—the Wet’suwet’en Nation under the leadership of the hereditary chiefs. Without their approval, the fact that elected band members had approved construction was essentially irrelevant.”
On CTV, on-air host Martin says the story of the blockade shows that what he calls “consultation perfection” still wasn’t good enough. “Every clan inside every First Nation must now consent to a pipeline, railway, or road or else the backers will face widespread condemnation,” he writes. But “there no muddling the harsh Canadian reality for the small pool of deep-pocket pipeline investors. They’ll study the casualty list from the last few years—the passing of the Northern Gateway megaproject; the abandonment of the Energy East pipeline extension; the forced government takeover of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion—and conclude the obvious about Canada: Anywhere Else is a better investment.”
But Hayalthkin’geme says there’s a deeper issue at play.
“The general confusion between elected and hereditary leadership, and reserves and traditional territories, has been used to make it appear as though government and industry have Indigenous consent, while casting land protectors as ‘protesters’ who represent a fringe element. Instead of divide and conquer, it is a tactic of divide and deceive,” he writes.
“Until this country is willing to listen to their own Supreme Court and recognize hereditary rights and title, these unresolved issues will continue to end in confrontation. The only way forward is for government and industry to follow the principles of UNDRIP [the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] and to work with both hereditary and elected leadership. But as long as they are willing to resort to force instead of diplomacy, we haven’t even begun to engage in meaningful reconciliation.”