Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reacts to the Alberta Court of Appeal ruling on the carbon tax. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

If, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbour was a “day that will live in infamy,” in Canada, Monday February 24, 2020, was a day we’ll remember as one of overwhelming news overload. 

As morning broke, many of us first heard that Teck Resources, the company behind the proposed gargantuan Frontier tar sands mine, had decided to put the project on ice. 

Then came the news that the Ontario Provincial Police were raiding the Mohawk encampment in Tyendinaga territory — a blockade set up in support of the Wet’suwet’en resistance to the Coastal GasLink pipeline. 

Later in the day, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that the Trudeau government’s carbon tax is an unconstitutional intrusion into provincial jurisdiction. 

And, as if that were not enough, as these developments were unfolding, the Trudeau government was unveiling its revised rules for medically assisted death, while the federal NDP was launching its single most significant policy initiative: a detailed proposal for a national, comprehensive pharmacare program. 

A mining company that wants more vigorous action on climate change

Teck Resources does not blame the Trudeau government — or, more specifically, its climate change policy — for the decision to stand down on the Frontier project. 

To the contrary, in its letter to the government Teck indicates that it might be more willing to proceed if there were a greater degree of agreement between the federal and key provincial governments on the measures to combat climate change. 

“Global capital markets are changing rapidly and investors and customers are increasingly looking for jurisdictions to have a framework in place that reconciles resource development and climate change,” the Teck letter states, adding, “This does not yet exist here today.” 

The letter makes reference to the unfinished business of Indigenous reconciliation, and pointedly underscores the economic hazard not of Canada’s adherence to the Paris Accord emission targets, but of its failure to get its act together to reach those targets.

“We believe deeply in the need to address climate change,” Teck says. “We are strong supporters of Canada’s action on carbon pricing and other climate policies such as legislated caps for oil sands emissions.”

The Alberta court decision and the forceful removal of the Tyendinaga protesters were exhibits A and B for the case Teck made for shelving the Frontier project. 

The first dramatically illustrates the blind resistance of significant centres of power in Canada to any national effort to seriously tackle the causes of global heating. 

The second indicates that, to this point, efforts at reconciliation with Indigenous peoples have been more rhetorical than tangible.  

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tried to make political hay out of both the court ruling and the Teck letter on Monday. He got big cheers from his supporters, and he has a smooth way with words. But he was whistling in the graveyard.

The carbon tax case now will go to the Supreme Court for a final decision. Based on that court’s record, it is more likely to agree with courts in Ontario and Saskatchewan than with the Alberta Court of Appeal. The Ontario and Saskatchewan courts did not consider provincial jurisdiction to be so sacrosanct that it trumps the grave threat to the environment of global heating. 

And anyone who reads the Teck letter will know that the company would have been far more likely to proceed had Kenney and the other recalcitrant premiers signed on to the federal carbon tax and other related emission reduction measures — rather than digging in their heels and taking the federal government to court. 

The Alberta premier also talked about Indigenous people. 

He made reference to the fact that many First Nation bands had notionally “agreed to” the Teck project, via economic benefit agreements — just as many Indian Act band councils in northern British Columbia assented to the Coastal GasLink project.

Like many others, including former B.C. premier Christy Clark, Kenney argues that the best option for remote and often poor Indigenous communities is to hitch their stars to the locomotive of resource development.

The Alberta premier does admit that such development, historically, has almost completely bypassed Indigenous people. Thanks for that recognition of reality.

However, Kenney and others who make a similar argument, do not add the crucial point that Indigenous peoples have not only failed to benefit from development in their territory, they have borne the brunt of the pollution and habitat degradation wrought by mineral, pulp and paper, and other forms of resource exploitation. The mercury pollution that continues to afflict the people of Grassy Narrows in northwestern Ontario is only one of many similar cases throughout the country. 

Kenney would have us believe that, today, we have mended our ways.

Corporations, and their government enablers, now offer jobs, job training and some investment in local facilities in exchange for acquiescence to large-scale development on historic First Nations territory. There is no recognition in these impact benefit agreements (IBAs) between Indigenous bands and corporations of First Nations’ sovereignty, or even of their historic right to the land. 

Impact benefit agreements do not recognize Indigenous sovereignty

Contemporary IBAs are not comprehensive agreements, recognizing Indigenous rights to land and self-government as was, at least to a certain extent, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement originally signed in the 1970s, then modified and expanded in the 1980s, and further expanded, in the form of the Paix des Braves, in the 1990s. 

When, more than four decades ago, the Quebec government wanted to build a massive series of hydro dams and power generating stations in the north, it could not get away with picking off small and weak individual bands one by one, which is the pattern of current IBAs. Rather, Quebec had to negotiate with representatives of the Cree, Inuit and Innu people of the entire vast territory. 

The result was a comprehensive agreement covering land, economic development, self-government, and services such as health and education. It was not a perfect agreement; it contained an odious provision saying that the Indigenous peoples had extinguished any further claims based on Aboriginal rights. 

But the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement did include robust institutions of Indigenous governance. 

To cite only the example of education: each Cree band does not have to go cap-in-hand to the federal Indigenous affairs department seeking annually allotted funds for schools, as do other Indigenous bands throughout Canada. As a result of the agreement, there is a Cree school board for the entire territory, properly funded, on an ongoing, not annually renewable, basis. 

On the economic side, the Indigenous peoples of northern Quebec received not only a significant chunk of cash up front, they also get ongoing royalties from the sale of the hydro power. 

That affords the Cree and other Indigenous peoples a significant measure of economic self-sufficiency, and, relative to most other First Nations, prosperity. 

As David Macdonald of the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives has pointed out, the child poverty rate in Cree communities of Quebec is below the average for all of Quebec. 

We have moved backward since the 1970s, despite nation-to-nation rhetoric

It’s a sad commentary that even though we now hear so much about a nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples we have moved backward since the time of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

Many years ago, a senior federal justice department official told this writer that the government had come to the conclusion that the Northern Quebec agreement was too costly and, in other ways, overly generous to the native people. 

That remains the unspoken, but official position to this day. Inside the federal bureaucracy there is no genuine interest in pursuing a nation-to-nation relationship in any meaningful way, that is, in a way that would recognize Indigenous rights to land and resources.

Provinces have also become more militant in defending their exclusive ownership and control of natural resources on their territory, as guaranteed by the 1867 Constitution (or British North America) Act. 

The constitutional changes of 1981 did include the now famous article 35, which the Pierre Trudeau government only added at the last minute, and under duress. 

But that article is only a backhand recognition of Indigenous nations. 

It makes reference to “existing aboriginal and treaty rights,” without defining them, and nothing more. When it comes to real, economic power, the provisions of the 19th-century constitution, to which Indigenous people were not a party, still prevail.

And so, lacking any other means of asserting their sovereignty, Indigenous people choose, at times, to put their bodies on the line, as they have in Wet’suwet’en territory and Tyendinaga. It too often seems to be the only way to get the attention of the non-Indigenous society. 

The Alberta government has now decided to lead a militant and official backlash against that sort of Indigenous resistance. As the first act of its new legislative session, the Jason Kenney government has introduced a law imposing harsh sanctions on protesters who interfere with “critical economic infrastructure.” 

Kenney takes the hardest line possible, blaming current disruptions entirely on “urban green zealots.” 

He does not even utter a word about a nation-to-nation relationship.  

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

Editor’s note, February 25, 2020: The headline on this story has been edited. An earlier version used the word blockade, instead of camp. 

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...