#TimesUp on Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples
Justin Trudeau is famously fond of proclaiming himself a feminist. It is particularly galling, then, that his government persists in violating one of the most fundamental principles in feminist ethics — consent — in its dealings with Indigenous nations.
Projects like the Muskrat Falls dam, the Site C dam, and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion are being shoved through against the ongoing resistance of peoples who inhabited these lands long before European colonizers presumed to assert their sovereignty over them.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that governments must receive the “free and informed consent” of Indigenous communities “prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands and territories and other resources.” Having refused to endorse the declaration for a full decade after its promulgation, Canada now claims to be committed to complete implementation.
However, the federal government’s recently released statement of principles for implementing UNDRIP contains a subtle, but revealing, semantic sleight of hand. Instead of pledging to engage with Indigenous nations “in order to” obtain their free, prior, and informed consent” (the wording of the UN Declaration), the Canadian government principles speak of “consulting and co-operating with the aim of” securing Indigenous consent [emphases added]: while the first requires consent as an outcome of consultations before progressing with a project, the second apparently does not.
While campaigning to become prime minister, Trudeau said on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network that “no [would] mean no” when Indigenous communities reject development initiatives on their territories. But in power, the Trudeau government has repeatedly shown its willingness to proceed with its plans even in the face of vociferous Indigenous objection.
At Muskrat Falls in Labrador, for instance, construction of Nalcor Energy’s mega-dam on unceded Innu and Inuit territory has almost been completed, despite sustained Indigenous (as well as allied non-Indigenous) opposition. The dam threatens to produce mass flooding, and to poison the waters Indigenous communities depend on for food with neurotoxic methylmercury, according to a study from Harvard University. But instead of arresting the potential environmental catastrophe, Canada has arrested the Indigenous land and water protectors, including elders, who are non-violently resisting it.
In 2016, the Liberal government issued permits for the Site C hydroelectric dam in northeastern British Columbia — even though the government’s own environmental assessment found that it would result in “severe, permanent, and irreversible harm to a unique ecosystem on which the Dunne-za and Cree peoples depend to exercise their constitutionally protected Treaty rights,” in the words of Amnesty International.
The federal Liberals have also thrown themselves staunchly behind Kinder Morgan’s expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, the approval process for which was so flawed that Trudeau promised during the 2015 election campaign to completely redo it — but didn’t. Instead, as a recent investigation by the National Observer revealed, public servants were instructed in 2016 to “give cabinet a legally sound basis for saying ‘yes’ to the Trans Mountain Project” — even while consultations with Indigenous communities affected by the project were ostensibly ongoing.
The existing Trans Mountain pipeline has already leaked at least 82 times since 1961, and a report from Simon Fraser University determined that the likelihood of an oil spill from the expanded version would be 99 per cent — imperilling delicate environments for highly dubious economic benefit, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
The Secwepemc, whose territories comprise one-half of the pipeline’s route, have issued a declaration stating that they “have never provided and will never provide our collective free, prior, and informed consent to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Project,” and seven First Nations are challenging the project in court.
Trudeau blusters about building a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples, while trampling on Indigenous sovereignty.
He boasts about being a feminist, while supporting industrial developments that disproportionately harm Indigenous women and girls; a 2016 study by the Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network documented the spikes in sexual violence, murders, disappearances, reproductive illnesses, and exposure to toxins caused by corporate development projects in Indigenous communities across the continent.
It’s long past time we called #TimesUp on Canada’s abusive relationship with Indigenous peoples.
Azeezah Kanji is a legal analyst.