Dini Ze’ Lho’imggin and Dini Ze’ Smogilhgim are the Chiefs of two Houses of the Likhts’amisyu (Fireweed) Clan of the Wet’suwet’en People.
It was a year ago that a heavily armed RCMP tactical unit staged its second operation in as many winters to clear Wet’suwet’en people off their Indigenous territories, to facilitate construction of yet another fossil-fuel pipeline. The operations were necessary, as one RCMP officer put it in leaked RCMP notes from a strategy session, for “sterilizing the site.” Many arrests were made but no criminal charges or civil contempt proceedings were ever completed.
These encounters on Wet’suwet’en land are a microcosm of two complex and intertwined problems faced by Canada: the need to curb and then eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions, and the need to reverse and then heal the racist colonization of Indigenous people here.
We’ve seen governments and courts try to tackle the fast-moving emergencies: Floods, wildfires and forest insect infestations are resourced and attacked with military efficiency, while Indigenous land defenders, rail blockaders and legislature protesters are met with the clockwork application of injunction law and actual military enforcement. But they are far less capable of addressing slow-moving emergencies. In recent decades, the intergenerational trauma from residential schools, the sixties scoop and violence against Indigenous women, as well as the essentially irreversible heating effects of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, have persisted.
So when we filed a constitutional climate-change challenge on behalf of our two House groups against the federal government a year ago, it was a natural progression of our 10-year entanglement with Canada’s fossil-fuel industry, and 200 years of experience dealing with the Crown’s asserted jurisdiction over our territories.
In both cases, government responses have largely been comprised of solemn pronouncements, fact-finding investigations and performative legislation and policy. Court-encouraged aboriginal rights consultation, for example, has become a bureaucratic note-taking and box-ticking exercise, resulting in business-as-usual resource development. Meanwhile, Canada has promised to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions in four international agreements since 1992, and even declared a climate emergency in 2019 – and yet still fails miserably to meet any of its targets.
The Wet’suwet’en encounter with the fossil-fuel industry began a decade ago, with proposals to export liquefied methane gas and oil-sands bitumen through pipelines across their territories in the Wedzinkwa or Morice River area of northwestern British Columbia – the spawning and rearing area for the salmon stocks from which people fish. In time, people became aware that the proposals’ effects went beyond risking water quality with pipeline river-crossings; it extended to the heating effects of the high greenhouse gas-emitting export schemes.
Since 2001, the Wet’suwet’en have voluntarily stopped fishing Wedzinkwa sockeye salmon for food as part of the effort to restore those stocks to their former abundance after years of warming-related decline. In addition to the adverse effects on our territories and salmon fisheries, global warming is anticipated to cause our House members illness and premature death. This burden will fall disproportionately on the Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous peoples, as well as future generations.
The Houses’ Federal Court claim cites Canada’s 30-year record of failing to meet its international commitments to reduce its fair share of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions and its likely inability to reduce the country’s emissions enough to meet its 2015 Paris Agreement pledge to keep global warming below catastrophic levels. We allege that our Charter rights to “life, liberty and security of person” and the equality right of future generations, as well as the limit placed on Parliament to pass laws only “for the peace, order and good government of Canada,” have been violated.
When the British empire colonized North America, it acted as if no one lived here. This was based on the legal doctrine of terra nullius, or “nobody’s land.” In the 1997 Delgamuukw case, the Wet’suwet’en and our neighbours, the Gitxsan, had to spend hundreds of trial days proving their Houses’ ownership and jurisdiction; the Crowns, however, did not have to prove their sovereignty; the courts just assumed it existed.
Likewise, philosopher Roman Krznaric characterizes global heating as the rich countries’ colonization of the future – tempus nullius, or “nobody’s time,” as if it is also a territory devoid of inhabitants. Wet’suwet’en Indigenous law does not countenance such disdain for the future. The two Houses bringing the current case forward are responsible not only for lineage members alive today, but for all the generations to come.
For decades, Canada has claimed that it is balancing immediate political benefits. But that has led to grossly insufficient reductions in emissions, threats to Indigenous lives and livelihoods, and risks to future generations. If that doesn’t change, the planet and its inhabitants will be balanced to death.
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