OPINION: Canada Rail Distruptions and the Need for Reconciliation

CANADA'S rail system has been disrupted by blockades of lines by indigenous Canadians angered by a pipeline construction dispute in northern British Columbia, which has upset some local hereditary chiefs. While this dispute is happening thousands of kilometres away from where most Canadians (settler or indigenous) live, this dispute illustrates how tough it is to get appropriate sign-off from indigenous communities on pipeline projects and how it is underpinned by centuries' old struggles involving indigenous Canadians.

The local problem, which has sparked all this conflict, is a dispute over who represents aboriginal Canadians. Band councils running legally constituted reserves – highly autonomous local government units – within the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en people in northern British Columbia have signed off on a gas pipleline being built in the area, but their reserves are a tiny patchwork of territories that cover a small fraction of the region. See – see https://catalogue.data.gov.bc.ca/…/indian-reserves-administ… – (find Houston, BC and look at reserve territories around it). You can see bulk of the area is actually not covered by these reserves (we’re talking about at least 3,300 people in total of whom more than half live off the reserves) – see https://www2.gov.bc.ca/…/first-nations-a-z-listing/office-o… 

And these lands, which the Wet’suwet’en regard as having never been negotiated away to other landowners in a way that they recognise culturally, are controlled – in the mind of many Wet’suwet’en – by a complicated system of chiefs, some who are hereditary. And it is this second level of community governance which doesn’t want the pipeline built. Because they do not have a formal position within the Canadian Indian Act (yep – still called that) system, the decision of the elected band councils has been given precedence and the Mounties (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) have gone into the Wet’suwet’en area to ensure a legal project (in Canadian jurisdictional terms) gets built.

Some locals are freaking out – because they say it is not legal because the hereditary chiefs have said no. All the rail blockades have been set up – across the country by other indigenous groups in solidarity. And while many Canadians think this action is a massive pain in the backside – and it is (loads of trains cancelled in a country that relies on goods trains), there is a huge power principle at stake here. When Canada was built – way before it became independent from the UK, and even when the French ran the show, agreements were struck with aboriginal communities about where they should live and what rights they had. Before, when they had the run of north America – they could live where they liked and the concept of legal land title was alien, but as European norms of land ownership parcelled up soon-to-be Canada, indigenous Canadians struck deals (from a position of immense weakness) on having rights to live in small areas ‘reserves’ of which there are now around 3,100 across Canada. Given these are now home to around 650,000 people and there are another 650,000 indigenous Canadians living off reserve (more if you count Inuit – who run their own Territory (like a province) of Nunavut), then you can see that there is a lot at stake here.

In British Columbia, the government has been trying to reform the old reserves treaty system by negotiating new agreements with entire indigenous nations, like the Wet’suwet’en, that would give rights to big blocks of land, that go well beyond current reserve territories. But progress has been very slow, partly because these communities are complicated and lack consensus on how to proceed. And that is the case in Wet’suwet’en lands, where some want a pipeline and some don’t. But if you assume these negotiations do what they are supposed to, give indigenous communities major land-based resources as a final reckoning with the Canadian state and all the non-indigenous people who live in it, then the principle of whether elected band councils and existing reserves or broader traditional chiefs and clan structures are the key negotiating partners is of massive importance.

In Ottawa, hardly a public event or performance goes by without someone saying it takes place on the ‘unceded territories of the Algonquin nation’ (Ottawa has no reserves) – which frankly, I regard as politically correct lip service. But at some point, those Algonquin (there’s a reserve 130 km to the north Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg) might want to make real claims on these ‘unceded territories’, and that would be a big deal indeed, and the legal rights of hereditary chiefs who are not linked to the reserve system would be all important.

So that’s why these blockades are happening and why the Canadian government is treading warily in taking them down. There are more than 1.3 million indigenous people in Canada out of 37 million people, many nursing historic grievances that have stuck around, especially on reserves, which can have high unemployment and terrible social problems, so the potential for trouble in the short, medium and long term is huge. Bone-headed Tories who have called for the troops and armed cops to go in heavy on these blockades entirely miss the point. This is potentially a dispute that illustrates a problem, but could also show a way forward on reconciliation between settler Canadian communities and indigenous communities – and that can only happen through just agreement, no matter how difficult achieving it will be.