The politics of the Wet'suwet'en crisis are thorny and dangerous

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the House about the rail blockades. Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

For some federal politicians, the crisis engendered by the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs' refusal to allow a natural gas pipeline through their territory is also an opportunity.

For Andrew Scheer, it is a chance to flex his law-and-order muscles. He fulminates not only against the Trudeau government's lax and slow response, but against the "small group of radicals" who, he says, are endangering the country's economy.

"Will our country be one of the rule of the law or will our country be one of the rule of the mob?" Scheer says to the House of Commons. "Will we let our entire economy be held hostage by a small group trampling over the legal system which has governed our country for more than 150 years?"

Scheer makes no effort to show even token concern for the centuries-old grievances of Canada's Indigenous people. He does not recognize in any way that there might be offsetting rights at play in the current standoff. And he does not in any way indicate he understands that there might be some legitimacy to the Wet'suwet'en claim to sovereignty over their unceded traditional territory or to the Tyendinaga Mohawks' belief that colonial/settler society only inhabits and runs trains through their territory by consent -- a consent they have the right to withdraw. 

Scheer's target audience has never been too comfortable with the idea of Indigenous rights, notwithstanding former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's apology for the residential school system. It is an audience that includes most of the provincial premiers, and not just the Conservative ones. 

For Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, the crisis is a chance to take the high road. 

His party has no stake in exporting British Columbia natural gas from Kitimat to Asia. The crisis gives him the opportunity to erase memories of Quebec's handling of the Oka crisis of 1990. That was when the government of Quebec met the Kanesatake Mohawk's defence of their sacred "pines" with force, resulting in the death of a police officer and a tense 78-day standoff. In the end, the Canadian military got involved in that conflict. 

Speaking to the House, Blanchet makes it clear that the Bloc might sit next to Scheer's party, but does not share its point of view. He denounces the Conservatives' effort to categorize some Indigenous people -- those who favour this (or any other) pipeline -- as good, and others -- those opposed to the pipeline -- as bad. 

"Who are we to judge?" Blanchet asks, pointing out that "we are basing the legitimacy of our actions on an 1876 law that imposed on First Nations a white and supposedly superior governance model."  

While recognizing that resolving the conflict in on the West Coast falls mainly within the jurisdiction of the British Columbia government, Blanchet offers some concrete proposals for action. 

He supports the Wet'suwet'en demand that the RCMP move their armed presence away from the chiefs' encampment, and proposes that there be a suspension of work on the pipeline. Those two moves might help get the blockades down and open the door to a serious negotiation, Blanchet says. 

Clear support for the hereditary chiefs from the Greens

Elizabeth May, who still speaks for the Green party even if she is in the process of vacating the leadership, seizes the occasion to express unqualified support for the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and their allies and supporters.

"We must not ever set out the notion that there is a rule of law on one side and Indigenous people on the other," May tells the House. "Indigenous people have the law on their side. When the leader of the official opposition referred to a small group of radical activists, he meant the nine judges of the Supreme Court of Canada. They are the ones who said that title is title is title and that Indigenous title is collective and intergenerational."

May is referring here to the historic, unanimous Supreme Court decision of 1997 known as Delgamuukw, which established the legal principle of Aboriginal title to land based on traditional use and occupancy and oral history and not merely on written documents. That decision also recognized the legitimacy of traditional Aboriginal forms of government, not merely those mandated by the Indian Act of 1876.

"The Wet'suwet'en have had every reason to believe that based on [that] Supreme Court decision, the federal government would come and talk about the title for the Wet'suwet'en that could be 22,000 square kilometres," May exclaims. That talk has not yet happened.

That will explain, May says, "why we stand in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en hereditary leadership."

For the governing Liberals, the crisis has been agonizingly awkward. At first, and especially before the Tyendinaga Mohawks got involved, Prime Minister Trudeau carried on as though little untoward was happening. He focused on his efforts to get Canada seat on the UN Security Council, assuming that John Horgan's B.C. NDP government would deal with the matter. 

We should not forget that the RCMP officers who have parked themselves too close for comfort next to the protesting Wet'suwet'en are, in fact, acting as B.C. provincial police. All provinces, save Ontario and Quebec, rent their provincial police services from the federal RCMP. Those police do not take orders from Ottawa, but rather from the provincial capitals -- in this case Victoria.

Trudeau falls back on platitudes; Singh tacitly supports Trudeau

As he belatedly tries to take control of the crisis, and head off any sort of violence on either side, Trudeau has been reduced to uttering bland platitudes. 

"On all sides," the PM tells Parliament, "People are upset and frustrated. I get it. It is understandable, because this is about things that matter: rights, livelihoods, the rule of law, and our democracy."

He goes on to recognize the historic and contemporary injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples, including the still-unresolved matter of drinkable water for all Indigenous communities, the gaps in housing and education, and the continued incidence of violence visited on Indigenous women and girls. He then pledges to do better, and asks for patience -- all the while underscoring the fact that the country will not tolerate a rail blockage that endangers key economic sectors for much longer.

His conclusion: "We are in this together: the worker, the senior, the Indigenous leader, the protester and the police officer. Let us have the courage to take this opportunity and take action together, and so to build a better path for all Canadians." 

The prime minister is being maddeningly non-specific about what his government plans to do, tangibly, but there is an argument to be made against negotiating in public. Trudeau has senior cabinet ministers working on some sort of solution. He has even, in effect, recruited all opposition leaders, save Scheer, in that effort. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is, on the surface, vigorously critical of the Trudeau government's record on Indigenous reconciliation, which he characterizes as more talk than action. And he -- concretely -- proposes that the prime minister endeavour to meet personally with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. 

If such a meeting were to happen, it is almost certain the chiefs would, as a pre-condition, insist the RCMP officers now occupying a threatening position in their community stand down. And if Singh would like the RCMP to do what the chiefs want, he might consider calling his fellow NDPer, Premier Horgan. 

On the whole, the NDP is having a hard time distinguishing itself from the governing Liberals on this conflict, given that the B.C. New Democrats and the federal Liberals are moving in lockstep on this issue.  

The federal NDP was on the money when it urged the Trudeau government to get involved much earlier than it did. Now that the Trudeau government is engaged, however, there is not much daylight between them and the opposition NDP. 

NDPers do not, for instance, suggest scrapping the natural gas pipeline project, as do the Greens. The NDP does not even suggest moving the pipeline to the route the hereditary chiefs have proposed, a route the company building the line says would be both impractical and too expensive. 

For the NDP -- as for all other parties in the House, save the Conservatives -- what is of paramount importance, right now, is to avoid violence at all costs. 

As Jagmeet Singh puts it:

"It is encouraging to see that the prime minister is not calling for police to be sent in. We have seen the consequences of that type of response and we do not want to go there."

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

Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

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