Canada isn’t one of the first nations that comes to mind when thinking hotspots of racism and mistreatment of social groups across the globe. Above and beyond Canadians’ legendary reputation for being “nice,” the country is widely seen as an open and liberal place. Indeed, it scores highly in most international classifications in terms of freedom and quality of life, ranking an impressive 4th on the 2019 Human Freedom Index.
Calling People Names: An Expression of Colonial Power
However, this rosy picture masks a history of tensions between Canadian authorities, large corporations and the 5% of the Canadian population that is made up of indigenous peoples. The extent to which indigenous Canadians’ interests diverge from that of the country’s government and industrial lobbies has been brought into light in recent weeks by the furor surrounding a gas pipeline project in the western province of British Columbia that has been dubbed “a defining moment … in the evolution of Indigenous rights.”
Plans by Coastal GasLink to construct a pipeline running from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Kitimat on the western Pacific coast will run across ancestral lands — including important archaeological and cultural sites — belonging to First Nation communities. The project has divided the community, with elected councils in the area giving approval, but hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs opposing the construction and claiming no informed consent has been given.
In an argument that could have far broader implications for indigenous law in Canada, the hereditary chiefs are insisting that elected chiefs only have jurisdiction over official reserves — and that they themselves maintain control over any land not ceded under the Indian Act.
Things came to a head at the end of December when a group of First Nation environmental activists were given 72 hours by the British Columbia Supreme Court to clear the way for construction workers to access the site. This latest injunction comes after last month’s troubling revelations that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had been authorized to use lethal force and separate children from families during previous protests.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan, whose reputation has taken a hit over his handling of the crisis, has vowed that the pipeline will go ahead despite native leaders’ protests. Activists continue to occupy the site, but the RCMP remains present, and the Wet’suwet’en have spoken of their fears that the violent raids of last year will be repeated. Coastal GasLink and the Canadian authorities maintain that they are looking for a peaceful resolution.
In terms of conflicts between authorities and indigenous groups, the Coastal GasLink pipeline episode is far from an isolated case. In fact, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has flagged up three projects — Coastal GasLink, plus the TransMountain Corp pipeline and the Site C hydroelectric dam — where necessary prior and informed consent has not been given by indigenous First Nation groups.
Another particularly egregious case of environmental racism is being played out in Nova Scotia, where a paper mill has come under fire for polluting local waterways and affecting First Nation communities settled in the area. The Northern Pulp mill — run by Paper Excellence, a global company linked to environmental degradation and human rights abuses in Southeast Asia — was established in the 1960s and has been polluting waterways in Pictou Landing with its waste for decades.
Activists from the Pictou Landing First Nation had argued for a long time that any financial benefit they gleaned from the mill was not worth watching their once-pristine harbor be replaced by toxic brown sludge. The dispute escalated, however, when Paper Excellence was fined a mere $225,000 by the Pictou provincial court in 2014 for leaking 47 million liters of toxic effluent that spilled into Boat Harbour and surrounding wetlands in the Northumberland Strait.
The serious leak led to the provincial government passing the 2015 Boat Harbour Act, ordering the mill to cease dumping waste into Boat Harbour by January 31, 2020, and find alternative waste disposal solutions. Northern Pulp’s proposed “solution” was to erect a pipeline to transfer around 85 million liters of effluent into further reaches of the Northumberland Strait on a daily basis. Although the company claimed that this wouldn’t affect marine life or the sustainability of local communities, there was, unsurprisingly, considerable opposition from local First Nation residents, fishermen and environmental campaigners.
In December, the provincial government in Nova Scotia rejected Northern Pulp’s plans and refused to extend its license to use Boat Harbour as a dumping location. Although this has come as good news to the locals and activists, problems aren’t over. The controversial mill is looking to stay operative post-January, and claims that no more chemically-treated waste will be spilled into the Strait. To make matters worse, the mill’s impending closure — and the 350 lost jobs it will entail — has caused tensions among locals, with reports of death threats to First Nation chiefs in the wake of the December decision.
Both the Coastal GasLink and the Northern Pulp Boat Harbour cases cast a light on the ongoing issues Canada faces when it comes to respecting the rights, wishes and wellbeing of its indigenous groups. The Boat Harbour situation in particular — although it seems to have reached a more satisfactory conclusion — is the culmination of 50 years of deception and broken promises.
Since its founding as a nation in 1867, Canada has had a long and troubled history of reconciling its ideas of liberal democracy and economic development with the fair treatment of its indigenous population. From the original 1876 Indian Act, which placed restrictive controls on indigenous ways of life, to the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act, which criminalizes indigenous environmental activism, the authorities have often sought to sideline local interests in favor of those of big business.
If Canada truly wants to live up to its global reputation in terms of rights and freedoms afforded to all, its policymakers and corporations need to ensure that the environmental wishes of its First Nation communities are properly respected and upheld.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.