Last week, I was firmly shown the door at NDP national headquarters in Ottawa for the shocking impertinence of seeking to speak with someone about the party’s refusal to condemn an ongoing act of cultural genocide downstream of the Muskrat Falls megadam in Labrador.
I had shown up at the Jack Layton building to hand-deliver a copy of an open letter to party leader Jagmeet Singh — signed by Indigenous Labrador land protectors and settler allies — that he had been ignoring since it was first sent to him in August. There was a special urgency to this because, since August 7, the waters have been rising in the Muskrat Falls reservoir, drowning a forest and, consequently, kicking off a process of decomposition that will produce the dangerous neurotoxin methylmercury. This poison will bioaccumulate in ever-growing amounts in the traditional country food web of the Inuit and Innu.
Throughout the past two months, hundreds have been writing and calling the office of the NDP leader, urging him to speak out, show support and help bring national attention to this crime. But in the end, the NDP’s commitment to honouring Indigenous rights — vague and Trudeau-like as it sounds — was not enough for party officials to grant a meeting with those whose sickening choice is to face hunger or eat a poisoned food supply that will subject them to Minamata disease, the mercury poisoning affliction killing the people of Grassy Narrows.
Muskrat Falls represents one of the largest federal investments — $9.2 billion — in any major energy project, and yet it has never achieved the high profile of other megaprojects like the tar sands Trans Mountain pipeline. Labrador land protectors had hoped that, following calls from both the United Nations and the Indigenous Nunatsiavut government, Singh would join in the growing chorus of those opposed to the environmental racism of Muskrat Falls, where Indigenous lives are treated as expendable in the name of so-called green energy.
Economic growth fairytale
But this is an election period, and even more so than during non-campaign times, it is no time to discuss the colonial violence that continues to manifest itself in what climate strike catalyst Greta Thunberg so eloquently named as an obsession that grips all mainline parties in Canada and around the world: “all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.”
It is that unending obsession with this fairytale that means we are not getting to the root of the problem. Indeed, most proposed election climate solutions are largely about avoiding system change and instead “adapting” to climate catastrophe, a climate apartheid strategy that benefits those with the resources to cocoon against the worst effects of what is to come.
And while they may retweet the powerful words of Thunberg, it often appears that most candidates running in this election continue with the fantasy that it’s all about climate change being an economic opportunity instead of a wake-up call for drastic action. Indeed, even Green Party Leader Elizabeth May thinks that sustaining the tar sands until 2050 is realistic.
In addition to Muskrat Falls, there are countless examples of megaprojects that, even after acknowledging the impact they will have on the environment and the lives of Indigenous people, are still being given the go-ahead by government panels. All of these projects are notable for their absence in federal election talk, a result of backroom party strategies and media complicity.
Teck Frontier mine
For example, while there is occasional reference to the federally owned tar sands pipeline known as Trans Mountain (for which the B.C. NDP government continues to issue construction permits), there is radio silence over a disturbing, $20-billion tar sands mine proposed for the vicinity of Wood Buffalo National Park. The Teck Resources Frontier mine — which seeks to produce 260,000 barrels a day of tarsands oil — is yet another dire attack on the future that was subject to a very disturbing federal-provincial assessment released over the summer.
“Although we find that there will be significant adverse project and cumulative effects on certain environmental components and Indigenous communities…we consider these effects to be justified and that the Frontier project is in the public interest,” the panel concluded this past July.
Like good liberal colonials, panel members put on their “you can feel bad if it makes you feel better” face, conceding “project and cumulative effects to key environmental parameters and on the asserted rights, use of lands and resources for traditional purposes, and culture of Indigenous communities have weighed heavily in the panel’s assessment…. The proposed mitigation measures have not been proven to be effective or to fully mitigate project effects on the environment or on Indigenous rights, use of lands and resources, and culture…. The project, in combination with other existing, approved, and planned projects will also contribute to existing significant adverse cumulative effects to the asserted rights, use of lands and resources, and culture of Indigenous groups in the mineable oil sands region.”
In another words, another attack on Indigenous rights to profit a corporation producing yet another carbon bomb. As Oil Change International has pointed out:
“The Frontier project lies north of the Firebag River, territory of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which they have declared off limits to tar sands development. [The project] could ultimately destroy 30,000 hectares of boreal forest and muskeg — land that First Nations have built their lives and livelihoods around for centuries.”
Singh’s silence on LNG
Similarly, we have yet to see a major party leader proclaim on the campaign trail, “We never wish to see another illegal armed invasion of sovereign Indigenous territories like we did in January when the paramilitary RCMP terrorized land defenders in Wet’suwet’en territory.” Readers may recall the horrific images of violence that came across social media feeds as Indigenous land defenders were carted off in handcuffs in the name of a $40-billion fracked gas pipeline (Coastal Link) supported by the B.C. NDP and Trudeau Liberals. At the time, only Elizabeth May issued a solidarity statement.
At the time of that illegal invasion of sovereign Indigenous territories, it was pointed out by the Unist’ot’en Solidarity Brigade that:
“governments and the corporations that largely determine public policy are doubling down on the fossil fuel economy. Short-term thinking and rapacious greed at the pinnacle of their life-destroying trajectory. Fracking in northeastern B.C. — the source of the methane gas to be shipped to and liquefied at Kitimat on the coast — is probably the most extreme and destructive example of this insanity. When one has to poison increasingly scarce fresh water with toxic chemicals and then force it under extreme pressure to blast solid shale rock to release microscopic bubbles of flammable gas, one might think it is time to re-think our hydrocarbon based industrial system. Not apparently for TransCanada Corporation which owns the Coastal Gaslink pipeline project, nor the partners in LNG Canada:Shell, PETRONAS, PetroChina, Mitsubishi and KOGAS. Nor the governments of British Columbia and Canada. That is why our best hope to prevent global catastrophe is the resolve, determination and strength of First Nations who by defending their sovereign territories are defending all of Mother Earth.”
Ever since that shameful moment, Jagmeet Singh has been even more shamefully avoiding the issue. While Singh says he believes any province should have the right to say no to an energy project, he has not extended that belief to sovereign Indigenous nations. A perfect example of this fail was the first leaders’ debate, in which Singh was directly challenged on a question he still refuses to answer. Asked whether, in a minority government, he would cast a vote in favour of the massive LNG pipeline because that’s what the B.C. NDP wants, Singh could only mumble that, “We believe that those fossil fuel subsidies need to be ended. We need to be investing into clean energy. That would be our commitment.”
Site C’s cultural genocide
A similar silence marks the campaign trail when it comes to Site C where, a week before the armed invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory, the United Nations called on Canada to suspend construction of the B.C. megadam. “The Committee [on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination] is further concerned that the realization of the Site C dam without free, prior and informed consent, would permanently affect the land rights of affected Indigenous peoples in the Province of British Columbia. Accordingly, it would infringe Indigenous peoples’ rights protected under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.”
As at Muskrat Falls, what is happening at Site C is, in the words of West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson, “cultural genocide. Our culture is being on the land. We’re people of the land and without the land we are no longer Dunne-Za people.”
Meanwhile, efforts to continue mining the tar sands sport yet another pipeline — the Trudeau-approved Enbridge Line 3 — which last week received a boost when the Minnesota Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal regarding Indigenous rights and environmental concerns. The pipeline, which originates in Hardisty, Alberta, will put at risk waters, oil, and wild rice lakes across its span. Pipeline opponents note that, “this route violates treaty rights, crossing over 1855 Treaty land where Indigenous people have the right to hunt, fish, and gather…. According to the State of MN, Line 3 has a climate change cost to society of $287 billion in damage over 30 years.”
Among the may other sites where Indigenous people remain on the front lines of climate catastrophe — sites which are unlikely to be visited by major party leaders — is Alton Gas, which plans to “create salt caverns in which to store natural gas, by dumping the equivalent of 3,000 tons of hard salt into the Shubenacadie River everyday. This massive 50-year project would seriously harm the river ecosystem and put the health, livelihoods and rights of the Mi’kmaq people at risk. It is also in contravention of the Fisheries Act, which prohibits the deposit of ‘deleterious substances’ into water frequented by fish.”
Last April, the RCMP arrested three “grassroots grandmothers” — Darlene Gilbert, Kukuwis Wowkis, and Kiju Muin — at the Alton Gas construction site north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In a classic doublespeak line, Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said, “The RCMP is absolutely impartial in this. We respect Indigenous culture and we also respect the company’s right to conduct their business.”
Jagmeet Singh visited Halifax on September 23, and while he spoke of health care, he did not address the health-care impacts of this disastrous project (nor of Muskrat Falls). Elizabeth May has spoken out against the Alton Gas project. But while the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that Sipekne’katik First Nation was not properly consulted during the environmental assessment process, that same colonial court issued the injunction that led to the arrests of the grandmothers.
Man camps and MMIWG
Intimately tied to these energy projects is the targeted risk that man camps pose to Indigenous women. When the inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls released its report last June, it pointed out that — in addition to the ongoing genocide that it documented:
“resource extraction projects can drive violence against Indigenous women in several ways, including issues related to transient workers, harassment and assault in the workplace, rotational shift work, substance abuse and addictions, and economic insecurity… resource extraction projects can lead to increased violence against Indigenous women at the hands of non-Indigenous men, as well as increased violence within Indigenous communities. Reports submitted by witnesses substantiate their claims, as does a considerable body of literature identified by the National Inquiry. They all point to the same conclusion: federal, provincial, territorial, and Indigenous governments, as well as mining and oil and gas companies, should do a more thorough job of considering the safety of Indigenous women and children when making decisions about resource extraction on or near Indigenous territories.”
The inquiry quoted from Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a woman from the Lubicon Cree First Nation:
“The industrial system of resource extraction in Canada is predicated on systems of power and domination. This system is based on the raping and pillaging of Mother Earth as well as violence against women. The two are inextricably linked. With the expansion of extractive industries, not only do we see desecration of the land, we see an increase in violence against women. Rampant sexual violence against women and a variety of social ills result from the influx of transient workers in and around workers’ camps.”
Election 2019, climate strike, Indigenous resistance
The above examples represent only a handful of the ongoing crimes being committed across the land known as Canada, crimes that should be a top priority in every campaign stop. But the traditional fear of a conservative government leads many to shy away from constructive criticism and calls for accountability from the so-called alternative parties. The either/or dichotomy and narrow frame of discussion produced by elections is particularly stark this year as the campaign takes place during the climate strikes led by young people across the globe, as well as frontline struggles being led by Indigenous people from Nunatsiavut to Pimicikamak to Secwepemc territory. With millions too young to vote in elections nonetheless taking a stand in the streets, the message is pretty clear: it is not good enough to put a smiling face on the apocalypse. Business as usual has to end, and disruption is necessary.
U.K. Extinction Rebellion theorists have been particularly adapt at reminding us that we need to remember our history. No government can operate without the consent of its people, and as the writings of Erica Chenoweth clearly show, we never need more than 3.5 per cent of the population to bring about revolutionary change. Regardless of which colonial party wins in October, it is ultimately up to us to decide whether we cooperate with it.
Critically, the way forward is meaningless without the leadership of Indigenous people. The colonial parties may issue a few nice words, but they are empty promises without specific demands both naming and rejecting the projects that are doing the damage and causing the harm.
The United Nations has repeatedly acknowledged that:
“Indigenous communities are key sources of knowledge and understanding on climate change impacts, responses and adaptation. Their traditional knowledge allows them to forecast weather patterns, improve agricultural practices and sustainably manage natural resources. But many of them have been fighting complicated climate battles — putting their lives and access to ancestral lands at risk… They only make up 5 per cent of the global population and are often under-represented and underserved. Despite their numbers, they manage 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity — from forests, tundra, mountains to oceans. They have the least carbon footprint but are very vulnerable to the impact of climate change.”
Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized Indigenous peoples as a key partner, noting that, “strengthening the capacities for climate action of national and sub-national authorities, civil society, the private sector, Indigenous peoples and local communities can support the implementation of ambitious actions implied by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
Hence, if we are looking for real leadership we can believe in and support, it has always been and continues to be shown by everyone from the Tiny House Warriors and the Unistoten Camp to Indigenous Climate Action and the Grassroots Grandmothers and Labrador Land Protectors and hundreds of Indigenous communities doing this work every day. If you are thinking about where to volunteer some hours and donate some money during this election, I highly recommend sending it their way, because the colonial parties are still stuck in Greta Thunberg’s fairytale land.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.
Image: Tori Ball/Flickr