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Let’s not squander this moment and all the attention generated by the protests – such as those by First Nation's members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, seen here in Tyendinaga, Ontario on Feb. 23, 2020.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

You have to give credit to the clutch of hereditary chiefs from British Columbia’s remote Wet’suwet’en Nation. They’ve grabbed our attention.

From the Prime Minister and corporate executives to ordinary Canadians, everyone is talking about them.

But to what end?

Ostensibly, the Wet’suwet’en-inspired protests and rail blockades across the country are about stopping TC Energy Corp.’s $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in Northern British Columbia.

Suppose, then, the chiefs get what they want – the RCMP pulls back and construction on the pipeline comes to a halt.

That would have a devastating domino effect on Canada’s already-fragile economy. And Indigenous peoples would be among the first to be affected.

The long-planned pipeline would not deliver plentiful natural gas from Dawson Creek, near the B.C.-Alberta border, to the Pacific coast, some 670 kilometres away. Roughly $1-billion in economic benefits from the pipeline promised to First Nations people along the route would not happen.

Meanwhile, LNG Canada, an international consortium led by Royal Dutch Shell, would have no choice but to suspend construction of its $18-billion liquefied natural gas export terminal in Kitimat, B.C. – the only one so far approved and under construction in Canada.

The plant would super-cool and liquefy natural gas that flows through the Coastal GasLink pipeline, load it on ships and deliver it to markets in Asia. There, it would displace dirty coal-fired power plants in Asia, which are fouling the air and warming the planet.

So the protests aren’t about saving the climate.

More importantly, billions of dollars in contracts and as many as 10,000 jobs at the peak of construction – many destined for First Nations in and around Kitimat – would be lost. At risk is an opportunity for Indigenous workers and investors to share the benefits of resource wealth on and around their land, rather than watch helplessly as others do.

Capitulation to the demands of an apparent minority of Indigenous people along the pipeline route won’t disrupt the global LNG trade. The United States, where more than a dozen new terminals are now under construction or approved, would quickly steal the business, and the riches. Canada will be shut out of a once-in-a-generation economy-boosting opportunity.

The economic destruction won’t stop there. Failure to get this massive industrial project built would tell the world that Canada is a country where investments go to die, rather the flourish. The reputational damage could live on long after this moment in the spotlight for the Wet’suwet’en. Countless other projects could be put at risk, including the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion, which is on a course to become one of the largest Indigenous-owned projects in the world.

The blockades are already hurting the broader Canadian economy by thwarting the movement of vital products across the country and disrupting passenger rail service.

But that’s a temporary blip compared to the lasting toll this showdown will have on First Nations. Without jobs and economic opportunity, the future for the country’s rapidly growing Indigenous population will get bleaker, not better.

Blockades and obstruction won’t fix the litany of socioeconomic problems that afflict too many Indigenous people. Compared to other Canadians, they suffer from high rates of poverty, joblessness, suicide, family breakdown, homelessness, lack of clean drinking water, poor health and educational outcomes, crime and incarceration. Indigenous people, for example, make up 5 per cent of Canada’s population, but 30 per cent of the federal prison population (and the share is still rising).

It would be a good thing if the crisis helps move Indigenous-federal relations into the 21st century. That will likely mean addressing long-standing grievances over unresolved land claims, land title and the Indian Act.

For example, the showdown with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs has highlighted the obvious tensions between the elected band councils – created by Ottawa – and Indigenous legal traditions, which courts have also recognized as a legitimate part of Canadian law. Jennifer Ditchburn, of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, pointed out in a recent online commentary that “Indigenous laws and rights are part of the rule of law in Canada.”

Sorting out how to reconcile Canadian law with those traditions is essential, or the Coastal GasLink showdown will be a prelude to chronic political dysfunction and economic gridlock.

Let’s not squander this moment and all the attention generated by the protests. Yes, deal with historic grievances. But without economic opportunity, improving the lot of Indigenous peoples will be much more difficult in the future.

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