B.C.’s human rights commissioner is defending her calls for the Coastal GasLink pipeline to be cancelled over Indigenous opposition after a collective of First Nations reaffirmed their support for the project.
The First Nations LNG Alliance wrote open letters to independent commissioner Kasari Govender and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) last week, reminding them that all 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline route have consented to its construction.
“Just as these bands have the right to give their consent, other Indigenous rights-holding groups impacted by resource projects proposed on their territories also have the right to withhold their consent,” Govender said.
“As human rights commissioner, I take no position on whether these projects should move forward except in so far as they are required to uphold domestic and international human rights principles in their implementation.”
Coastal GasLink is building a 670-kilometre liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline from northeastern B.C. to an LNG export facility in Kitimat.
The $6.6-billion project is being opposed by hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who argue that only they hold title over their ancestral lands and are blocking construction near Houston, B.C., in the province’s north.
The chiefs and their supporters are fighting a B.C. Supreme Court injunction that could be enforced by RCMP at any time. The force has said they are looking to broker a peaceful agreement between the chiefs and the company first.
The community is fearful that police action will be a repeat of last January’s enforcement of a similar injunction, which saw 14 people arrested amid allegations of police brutality.
Govender took to Twitter on Jan. 10 saying she supported a CERD report’s recommendation that the Coastal GasLink pipeline and other projects be suspended due to the “escalating threat of violence” against Indigenous Peoples who have not consented to the pipeline.
But in an interview with Reuters last week, CERD chair Noureddine Amir admitted the committee did not study First Nations views toward the project, saying he “did not know” that most communities supported it.
“I did not know that most First Nations agree on that,” he told Reuters. “This is something new that comes to my understanding.”
He further said he did not seek out further information on the project because the role of the committee does not involve investigative work.
In her letter to the CERD, First Nations LNG Alliance CEO Karen Ogen-Toews said Amir’s comments showed a lack of due diligence and understanding of the issues, and she called for the report and recommendation to be withdrawn.
“This decision as issued was clearly ignorant of Canadian laws and regulatory procedures,” she wrote. “The pipeline (and the other projects) have been fully reviewed, and First Nations have had opportunity for years to ensure that they are consulted and accommodated.”
Ogen-Toews then turned to Govender, saying her comments about violence against Indigenous Peoples ignore Coastal GasLink’s stated commitments to consultation and finding a peaceful resolution.
“If anyone should understand the importance of dialogue and the fairness that accompanies hearing both sides of a complex story, it should be the B.C. Human Rights Commission,” she wrote.
“If anyone should understand the need to be respectful of the voice of Indigenous people, it should be the commission.”
Govender said she wants to ensure human rights exist not only for the majority of Indigenous Peoples impacted by the project but for all who have an argument for or against it.
“Indeed, human rights are the hardest to guarantee for those who find themselves in an unpopular minority, but this is when our commitment to human rights principles are truly needed,” she said.
The commissioner added she has a “moral and legal obligation” to prevent RCMP from using excessive force in any future operation, saying any militarized police response is “not acceptable.”
“The relationship between the government, Canadians and Indigenous Peoples of this land will outlast all of these projects,” she concluded. “It is my position that our commitment to these fundamental principles of reconciliation and human rights must be our first consideration.”
Premier John Horgan sent Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser to meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs this week, but the meeting has yet to take place.
Supporters of the opponents’ cause have mounted several protests throughout B.C. this week, including one that blocked traffic at the Swartz Bay ferry terminal and another outside the office for the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.