It is a grim irony that a Liberal government elected on a promise of renewing relations with First Nations based on “trust, respect and the true spirit of co-operation” is now being accused by some Indigenous chiefs in British Columbia of provoking a new Oka crisis.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, believes Justin Trudeau’s promise to build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion ignores the inherent right of Indigenous people to free, prior and informed consent for resource projects.
“If the federal government tries to ram through the pipeline, it could mean going back to one of the darkest times in modern Canadian history: the Oka stand-off with the Mohawk Nation,” he wrote this week in an opinion article in the Globe and Mail, invoking the violent conflict that took place in Quebec in 1990 and that still makes federal politicians break out in cold sweats.
Indigenous leaders in B.C. who support the pipeline say the prospect of another Oka is real. “That’s one of my biggest fears,” said Keith Matthew, a former chief of the Simpcw First Nation in the central interior of B.C.
“There are threats and intimidation that mean a lot of Aboriginal leaders are afraid to speak up. It’s not politically correct to say, ‘I support economic development,’” said Ellis Ross, a Liberal MLA in Victoria and a former chief councillor of the Haisla Nation.
Matthew said leaders like Phillip have misled many Indigenous people about the role of pipelines and resource projects.
“He’s full of crap. A lot of elected leaders have a responsibility to look after the welfare of their people. Stewart Phillip has none of those responsibilities. He stands on his soapbox because he doesn’t have to answer to anyone. Quite honestly, he’s hurting a lot of people in rural communities who depend on these major projects,” said Matthew.
Ross also condemned a “vocal minority” who want to block Trans Mountain.
“What really bugs me most of all is that that these leaders opposing the project do not care about individuals suffering in poverty. These leaders are getting all their perks and are leading the opposition to people digging themselves out of poverty,” he said.
Matthew is now a private business-owner but was part of the negotiating team that hammered out a mutual-benefit agreement on behalf of the Simpcw with Kinder Morgan, a process that took 18 months.
Trans Mountain crosses 92 streams as it runs through Simpcw territory, and there were concerns about the impact on the environment, the consequence for the First Nation’s titles and rights, and the financial benefits that might flow to them from the 20-year agreement.
The upshot was a referendum among the Simpcw that yielded 80-per-cent support for the negotiated agreement — free, prior and informed consent, by any measure.
Phillip has called Trans Mountain “a learning moment for Canada,” and, one way or another, it promises to be just that. As Ross put it, if the activists win the day, it will set a precedent. “It won’t stop after that,” he said.
Trudeau seems to be determined that the rule of law will prevail but keeping moderate British Columbians on side is a fine balance.
Ottawa could hold back $4 billion intended to flow to the province in the form of infrastructure payments, mostly for Vancouver’s transit project, but that might prove counterproductive. Invoking the Emergencies Act might also be seen in B.C. as an overreaction.
The latest betting in Ottawa is that the government will call on the Conservative opposition to support risk management legislation that reasserts the federal government’s jurisdictional primacy and provides financing to backstop the expansion.
The sense is that there is insufficient time to negotiate a complex equity deal that would see the federal government itself take a stake in Trans Mountain.
Trudeau will return to Ottawa from Peru this Sunday to meet with B.C. premier John Horgan and Alberta premier Rachel Notley, but the expectations that a deal can be hammered out are lower than a well-digger’s keister.
Horgan is said to be concerned that capitulation on the issue could see some members of his Cabinet defect to the Green Party, and cost him the Green support he needs to prop up his minority government, potentially ending his tenure in the best job he’s ever going to have.
“John is a pro-resource guy who is probably personally in favour of Trans Mountain, but people say he is worried about his coalition with the Greens,” said one federal government official who knows Horgan.
Horgan’s strategy is said to be to delay the project to death — or at least until the courts force him to buckle.
This is perhaps Trudeau’s best hope — that the silent majority of British Columbians recognize the leaders trying to block the Trans Mountain expansion are self-interested, short-sighted and irresponsible.
The proponents of Trans Mountain — corporate and Indigenous – have operated within the rules. If its opponents do not, right-thinking people from coast to coast to coast should register their disapproval and disgust.
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