Adam Pankratz is a lecturer at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He is on the board of directors at Rokmaster Resources.
Willful dismissal of logic, facts and respect has increasingly marked the resource-development field in Canada. And the latest such example could result in a swath of harm in its wake: hurting First Nations communities, the rule of law – and all Canadians.
A blaze of activist protests to “shut down Canada” has blistered across the country after the RCMP began enforcing a court injunction, granted in December, to remove blockades on Wet’suwet’en unceded territory near Smithers, B.C. Those protesters have impeded streets, ports, bridges and railways to demonstrate their solidarity with the hereditary chiefs there who say their wishes to not have the Coastal GasLink pipeline traverse their land were not heard.
This is a complicated situation involving varied issues and interests, from Indigenous rights to climate change. But the criticism should be focused on anti-pipeline advocates who have bolted their cause onto a conflict over Indigenous governance. They have conveniently and once again ignored two important facts: the rule of law is a two-way street, and many First Nations strongly support the projects that protesters are determined to stop.
Let’s begin with the rule of law, as the consequences to it being undermined will have the most grievous effects on our country. Though the most recent protests are ostensibly about the Coastal GasLink project, they must be viewed together with opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion as part of a larger discourse of anti-resource development activism and its seemingly cherry-picked regard for the courts.
In 2018, when the courts ruled that the federal government had failed to adequately consult First Nations groups on Trans Mountain, pipeline opponents celebrated. They were certainly justified in doing so: Consultation had been inadequate and the courts recognized this. The affirmation of a duty to meaningfully consult and respect the rights of Indigenous peoples was a good thing.
But that 2018 decision only had the impact it did because the rule of the law enshrined it. If the federal government ignored the ruling, it would have ignored the rule of law, which would have been detrimental to all Canadians.
Sadly, it seems that many of the current protesters are only interested in the rule of law when they win – even though respecting a court ruling is perhaps even more important in loss. The rule of law must go both ways at all times.
Recently, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the second round of consultations on Trans Mountain that ensued was “reasonable,” “meaningful” and “anything but a rubber stamp exercise,” which validated the government’s consultation process with First Nations when proposing energy infrastructure projects that affect their territory. Groups opposed to the pipeline may not like it, but this judgment must be respected in the same way the 2018 ruling was by those who wanted the pipeline to proceed.
The environmental concerns around Coastal GasLink represent a variation of the same problem. The court injunctions granting the company access to construction camp 9A through Wet’suwet’en traditional territory must be respected if the rule of law is to have any value. Refusals to accept the injunction and the resulting arrests are not, as some will say, the death of reconciliation, but an easily foreseeable consequence of ignoring a court order.
It must be said that the right to peaceful protest and for people to voice opposition is essential in any democracy. The protesters have had this opportunity. Now they are rejecting the courts in such a way that chaos has ensued – affecting those who might be sympathetic to the protesters’ message – and the rule of law risks being tarnished.
The overwhelming First Nations support for the aforementioned projects and the opportunity they provide has also been routinely dismissed out of hand.
Ellis Ross, a former chief councillor of the Haisla Nation and a current B.C. MLA, has been one of the most eloquent voices in support of the Coastal GasLink project and what it means to Indigenous communities. Chief Michael LeBourdais of the Whispering Pines First Nation is a strong advocate for First Nations ownership of the Trans Mountain expansion project. Both are clear about the prosperity these projects could bring to their regions and people, and the stake they give First Nations in the country’s economic future. They are supported in their view by 20 elected councils of First Nations along the Coastal GasLink pipeline route and all 43 of the First Nations along the Trans Mountain route.
But their messages have been routinely ignored by people opposed to resource development and even by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which called for the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines to be cancelled. Even if the facts don’t line up with the narrative that’s been constructed, some protesters’ outrage has been blunt – as expressed by the fact that the former Haisla chief, while trying to access the blocked-off B.C. Legislature last week, was told that he should stand up for Indigenous rights.
The pipeline debate has been contentious, passionate and emotional. For these reasons, clear-eyed decisions by the courts and respect for the facts are essential. Respecting the rule of law must apply to both sides and both sides must acknowledge the benefits and the downsides to First Nations communities alike. Otherwise, the protesters have clearly signalled that they’re uninterested in dealing in reality, facts or respect.
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