When Justin Trudeau became prime minister of Canada in 2015, he promised a new relationship with Indigenous people, “built on respect, rights and a commitment to end the status quo”. He promised funding for Indigenous cultural activities and education. He called for recognition of aboriginal land rights. But he has also continued to support the expansion of Canada’s fossil fuel industry onto new lands, an expansion that has always depended largely upon ignoring, if not flagrantly violating, the desires and rights of Native people.
The year Mr. Trudeau was elected, I went on a reporting trip to the oil sands of Alberta. I visited an Indigenous water protector, Nancy Scanie, in her cedar house on the Cold Lake First Nations reservation, which lies adjacent to the sands. Ms. Scanie, a citizen of the nation, who sees her role as a sacred duty, sat with me in her front room that smelled of roasting lavender and listed the decades of government abuse that her people have had to face just in her lifetime.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police took her and some of her siblings from their parents in the 1940s to live in an abusive Christian school where she was dispossessed of her culture. The government allowed such schools to operate until 1997.
By the time Ms. Scanie finished school and returned home in the late 1950s, a vast portion of her people’s land had been transformed into an air force base. Soon it was a bombing range. And since then, whistle-blowers have shown how the energy companies that moved into the area have been leaking harmful chemicals into the earth on the reservation.
Stories like Ms. Scanie’s have been building up for years, and they have left many First Nations peoples and their allies fed up — and prepared to fight back in new ways.
In late January, with the quiet support of Mr. Trudeau, the Canadian federal police force — the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — raided an encampment. It was created by the citizens of the Wet’suwe’ten First Nation, who were obstructing the construction of a more than 400 mile long natural gas project, the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which cuts right through their sacred indigenous lands in Western Canada. Twenty-eight Wet’suwe’ten citizens were arrested as the police enforced an injunction to allow the pipeline company, TC Energy, to enter the area.
But the police crackdown set off a populist uprising similar to the Standing Rock protests of 2016 in the United States against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Across Canada, from the Port of Vancouver in British Columbia to Quebec, multiethnic groups of demonstrators blockaded the railways (and some roads) for almost four weeks in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s hereditary chiefs, who oppose the pipeline.
The energy project has the backing of the Wet’suwet’en elected tribal leadership, which was established through the federal government. But that body is predated by the traditional government headed by the hereditary chiefs, who are rightfully claiming title to the land based on longstanding Canadian law that they say is being ignored.
Because the rail blockades began to disrupt the Canadian economy, the government of British Columbia ordered TC Energy on February 20 to “make efforts to engage with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en”. But it also pushed for pipeline construction to proceed, a move that also had the full backing of Prime Minister Trudeau.
This dissonance of words and actions is the Canadian government’s signature Trudeau-era balancing act of performative even-handness, in which the prime minister repeats nice things about “reconciliation”, then uses government force to override Aboriginal will: In 2018, Mr. Trudeau ensured the expansion of a major tar sands oil pipeline, the Trans Mountain, by ordering a $3.5 billion nationalization of the line. The government acquired its assets from the Kinder Morgan company after Native-led protests threatened to make construction untenable.
“It is in Canada’s national interest to protect our environment and invest in tomorrow, while making sure people can feed their families today”, he explained. The Obama era in the United States was similarly marked by this rhetorical balancing act: At the height of the Standing Rock uprising, that administration too promised “reconciliation and empowerment for Indian Country”, but President Barack Obama ultimately helped the fossil fuel industrialists win the fight and continued to defend his “all-of-the-above energy strategy.”
The betrayal on both sides of North America’s 49th parallel has meant that despite the heightened symbolic respect paid by the center left to Native nations, Indigenous people are losing land in a year-by-year battle of attrition with energy interests. There is, however, solid legal standing to support the restoration of Native land rights, explicitly embedded in Canadian law.
Though the government of British Columbia originally declared the enormous territory it overtook in the mid-19th century to be “Crown” lands, most were never affirmatively ceded by First Nations through treaties. So in the 1980s and ’90s, the Wet’suwe’ten hereditary chiefs along with another First Nation tribe sued British Columbia and the Canadian government for Aboriginal title to tens of thousands of square kilometers of land in Canada’s northwest.
In 1997, Wet’suwet’en claimants brought an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which found that the government had no right to extinguish the Indigenous people’s rights to their ancestral territories. There was, however, a bit of a catch: The ruling clarified Aboriginal title rights but only created guidelines for negotiations over disputes, leaving the fate of any contention among the federal government, elected tribal leadership and hereditary chiefs — the exact quandary surrounding the current Coastal GasLink standoff — legally murky.
Encouragingly, there are some signs that the government may be willing to stand down. On March 1, the hereditary chiefs and senior government ministers announced a tentative outline for a negotiated agreement that Carolyn Bennett, the federal crown-Indigenous relations minister, said will “honor the protocols of the Wet’suwet’en people and clans”. Ms. Bennett said the talks we’re about ensuring “that this never happens again, that rights holders will always be at the table”. But no details about the government’s stance “on rights and titles for the future” were disclosed, and both sides acknowledged they haven’t reached an agreement on the pipeline’s construction, which after pausing for the talks resumed last week.
So among activists there appears to be just as much skepticism as hope. The proposed arrangement will continue to be reviewed by the clans in the coming days. “It’s not over yet”, said Chief Woos, a hereditary leader.
The content of a possible final agreement is up in the air. But if there is one, it is likely to answer continuing questions about whether Native political authority over their old territories in Canada will finally be realized or remain a thin formality, a veneer of legitimacy for ongoing colonialism.
Audrea Lim is a journalist.