If ever there was a case that epitomized the teeth-grinding frustration that surrounds resource development in this country, it is the one now playing out in a remote area of northern B.C.
On Monday, RCMP arrested 14 people protesting against a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through the traditional territory of B.C.’s Wet’suwet’en First Nation. The police action took place at a blockade set up to restrict entrance to a road that Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd. needs to use so it can complete a natural gas pipeline from the northeast corner of the province to Kitimat on the West Coast. It is a vital link in the $40-billion LNG Canada project announced with great fanfare last fall by the province’s NDP government and the federal Liberals.
By all accounts, Coastal GasLink did everything a company could to conduct meaningful consultations and build consensus among the First Nations whose land the pipeline would cross. Elected officials from the bands signed economic development agreements with Coastal that would provide their communities with well-paying jobs, totalling more than $600-million in contract work for northern B.C. Indigenous businesses.
But politics infuses all groups and cultures. For the First Nations in particular, there are elected officials and then there are hereditary chiefs, and those associated with the Wet’suwet’en – which is comprised of five separate clans – insist the pacts band councils signed are not valid, as they would apply to unceded, traditional territories. The chiefs assert elected councils have authority over reserve lands only.
The Wet’suwet’en territory was part of the historic 1997 Delgamuukw case, in which the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the land rights and title of Indigenous First Nations had never been extinguished. Of course, a subsequent decision by the same court also suggested First Nations did not have veto power over resource development projects, but the onus is on governments to hold meaningful consultations before projects can commence.
A couple of aspects of the Wet’suwet’en protest are particularly galling.
First is the fact that many First Nations leaders in B.C. have complained, rightly, about the economic despair their people face. It is a hard slog, in particular, for bands in more distant, isolated areas.
So along comes a project that would help many of these poorer First Nations out – and it is opposed by some of those who are supposed to have the best interests of their community in mind. How are disadvantaged Indigenous groups ever going to get ahead if a few of their leaders undermine efforts that would improve their standard of living?
And there is also the not-inconsequential question of who, exactly, is allowed to speak for Indigenous people. Is it hereditary chiefs, or is it the elected band officers and councils, who are often younger and more progressive in their thinking?
The other group that has not looked good in this affair is the B.C. government.
Doug Donaldson, the province’s Minister of Forest, Lands and Natural Resources, visited the protest camp on the weekend, before the arrests were made. This was a blockade, remember, that was being conducted in defiance of a court order. And yet here was a minister of the Crown bringing food to the hereditary chiefs and offering his public support for their stand.
When word of his visit sparked anger on social media, not to mention questions from reporters, Mr. Donaldson offered a weak defence, saying he was there to acknowledge the concerns of constituents. At the same time, he said, he was aware the laws of Canada must be upheld.
Meanwhile, Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth put his hands in his pockets, saying that clearing the protesters so the company could get on with its work was between Coastal and the RCMP. The last thing the NDP wanted to do was be seen taking sides. Heaven forbid.
When LNG Canada decided to invest $40-billion in Kitimat, the self-applause from the NDP camp was deafening. But as soon as there’s trouble that involves First Nations, it’s time to run for the hills and let others sort the mess out.
Well, the NDP can’t have it both ways.
A lot of people are counting on this project going ahead. It means jobs and a boost to battered local economies. I’m sure more than a few people in B.C. today now have a better understanding of how Alberta feels when it comes to its resources, and not being able to get them to market.
In this case, even when a company appeared to do everything right – everything it was supposed to do – its efforts are still undermined. I’m not sure how you operate a country in these circumstances.