It’s 2020. But it may as well be 1820.
In yesterday walks today, they say, and nowhere is that more evident than in Canada, on the frigid 2020 February long weekend. From remotest Northern BC – all the way across to Eastern Ontario, just off Canada’s busiest highway – that’s what all the barricades now recall: our history.
They’re happening now, but they’re nothing new. These standoffs are inextricably wound up in our nation’s history.
The white man’s nation, anyway. Many of the First Nations – the ones who were literally here first, as the name implies – reject the white man’s laws, institutions and systems of government.
The fundamentals surrounding the dispute actually aren’t. A few days ago, Canada’s federal police force, the RCMP, removed members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation from their own land. The Wet’suwet’en had set up camps because they wanted to stop construction on the Coastal GasLink project.
The police action outraged many. It cascaded across the country, like a mid-Summer wave of heat.
Fists were clenched. Angry words exchanged. The barricades started to go up.
The protests have attracted more than Wet’suwet’en. All over the country, environmentalists, progressive activists, other Indigenous people – and those who simply came to oppose, and cause trouble – have been drawn to the barricades. They’ve shut down legislatures, paralyzed downtown intersections, and stopped trains. Many, many trains.
Cargo trains are only running in part of Canada, now. Which means that, sooner or later, people are going to notice that food and fuel are getting harder to come by. Trade and business is slowing, too, as the barricades exact a toll.
All of this being a replay of history, lots of people are stepping into traditional roles. A columnist at the National Postpointed a finger of blame at the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. They, unlike the elected Wet’suwet’en leadership, are the ones who started it all, the columnist insisted.
“Canada is slowly being choked into submission,” he wrote. “Canada is slowly turning from democracy to mobocracy.”
If that seems like a bit of rhetorical overkill, rest assured: he wasn’t done. Democracy itself was being killed, apparently.
“[The Coastal GasLink] project is opposed by hereditary chiefs, who argue that they represent Wet’suwet’en’s traditional governance structure,” the columnist wrote. “The common sense view may be that the democratically-elected band governments should prevail. But there is no place for common sense when it comes to Crown-Indigenous relations.”
“The common-sense view.”
Therein lies the problem, which – as noted – is older than Canada itself: we relative newcomers want First Nations to embrace all of our ways: elections, governing, ruling the land. All of that.
And the Indians should be grateful, too. It’s “common sense,” after all. But many Indigenous people – again, having been here first – just don’t want to.
The columnist’s fulminations about how “democratically-elected band governments should prevail” is partly why. A hundred or so years ago, Canada imposed a European system of elections, and governing, on First Nations.
The problem: historically, many Indigenous leaders actually weren’t “elected” like non-Indigenous leaders are. They derived their authority from tradition and consensus and direct consultation with their people. It worked for them, for Centuries.
Too bad, said the newcomers, most of whom paid allegiance to unelected Kings and Queens.
We will fight you, said the First Nations.
And, so, that is what the Wet’suwet’en are doing right now. And they’re not alone. Just a few months ago – at another similar-looking conflict, this time near Brantford – the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council (who this writer has assisted in the past) condemned an Ontario court decision. They objected when a judge decided to give a provincial utility a licence to do whatever it wanted to do – on their land.
To the HCCC, it was more than trespass. It was, quite literally, a court wiping its feet all over a traditional form of government that, as HCCC put it, ”has been in place and governing effectively since time immemorial.”
Said the HCCC: “Traditional councils that have roots in the clan system were the first Indigenous systems of government, and preceded the arrival of the colonial settlers.” When politicians impose Europe’s conception of elections, they say, it’s just another vestige of our imperial past. And it’s an effort “to eliminate the only Indigenous body that is willing to stand up to them. It is yet another attempt by a Canadian government to impose colonialism on Indigenous people.”
As father to a West Coast Indigenous girl – and as a lawyer, and an officer of the court – this writer is torn. Democracy is imperfect, yes. But it’s still better than all the alternatives.
And the Rule of Law is preferable to the will of a mob, too.
But the will of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs should not ever be dismissed as illegitimate, or wrong, simply because it is unfamiliar to us, the descendants of colonialists. In particular, it should not be seen as lacking “common sense.”
Governments, federal and provincial, are to be commended for approaching this situation with caution. But, to this writer, it still feels like there will be blood.
That, after all, is part of our history, too.
Photo Credit: Toronto Star
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