Members of Canada’s Indigenous communities are warning that a new deal reached by the federal government and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs may not be enough to end rail blockades that have disrupted the country’s economy.
The deal is meant to put an end to protests that have spilled out across the country in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who oppose the 670-kilometre Coastal Gaslink pipeline from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat that is expected to be built through their unceded territory.
The proposal, which has yet to be formally agreed upon by the hereditary chiefs, is said to address broader land claims, rights and titles.
But even if the agreement is ratified, Lee Maracle, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Studies, said, “It’s not really up to what happens with the Wet’suwet’en and the government” whether the blockades come down. “It depends on the people making the blockades.”
Maracle, who is also an award-winning First Nations fiction author, said the blockades have become about more than just a pipeline. She said different people are manning the blockades for different reasons.
“Some of the blockades are because people don’t want pipelines, period. And some of them are in support of Wet’suwet’en having some say in what happens in their territory,” Maracle explained.
“If they have decided that they’re going to keep the blockades up in opposition to pipelines, then whatever the Nation decided with the government may be affected.”
Tensions between the Canadian government and Indigenous Peoples have been mounting for decades, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau being accused of not taking reconciliation seriously and criticized for ignoring the plight of the First Nation until it reached its boiling point.
According to Maracle, the turmoil felt by Canadians affected by the blockades is happening because its government “refused to have a conversation” and undergo what she described as “legally required” consultation.
“We’ve endured a lot of turmoil. Canada’s now sharing in the turmoil. That’s what’s happening.”
Coastal GasLink maintained they had the support of 20 elected band council members along the pipeline’s construction route, but the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who also lay claim to their ancestral territory, were not consulted.
Prior to the finalized agreement proposal, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said she hoped it would serve as the “beginning” in a new relationship between government and Indigenous peoples.
She said the agreement could lead to a new consultation process where “at the very first idea of a project, the rights holders would be there at the table with their Indigenous knowledge and the voices of their nations.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said in a statement to Global News that they were working “around the clock” to resolve the issue in a “peaceful and lasting way.”
This arrangement, they said, will breathe life into the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa decision — the first comprehensive account of Aboriginal title in Canada — “so that future generations do not have to face conflicts like the one they face today.”
“While work remains, these talks have been an important step on reconciling complex matters of rights and title. We understand that we are at a critical time, and we need to begin to build a new path together,” they said.
But when it comes to the proposed deal, Andrew Brant of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory said “actions speak louder than words.”
Brant, who works as a teacher and is an active participant in the blockades, would not give a definitive answer on what exactly would be enough for him to end the blockades, but he said that a good first step would be for the government to redefine reconciliation and “come clean” about how much the government has hurt Indigenous communities over the years.
“The truth is the treaty has been broken and it’s been broken for a long time,” he said, referring to the Numbered Treaties, which were signed between 1871 and 1921 and outlined Indigenous land ownership.
Brant said he would like to see the government own up to what he called a past “genocide” against Indigenous Peoples and for the disproportionate violence against First Nations men, women and children to come to an end.
“They’re spending more resources and time fighting us than they are trying to help us, we’re treated as subhuman,” he said.
“They need to take some action that’s peaceful, non-forceful — because you can’t force people to negotiate, you sit down and negotiate as equals.”
When asked if there was anything the government could do to end the blockades quickly, he said only time would tell.
“Our lives have been blockaded for over 500 years. So I think a few days, weeks, years of trying to negotiate something, sit down and come to a peaceful resolution is not much to ask,” he said.
“We respect them and we want us to continue living together, but we want to have an equal voice.”