An era of so-called reconciliation has disguised the continuation of Harper-era land and resource grabs
By Martin Lukacs | The Guardian, September 19, 2016
By now, we all know the greatest priority of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is its relationship with Indigenous peoples. How could we miss the weekly reminders?
Trudeau graciously wrapping himself in ceremonial blankets. Hauling jugs of drinking water door-to-door on a northern reserve lacking portable water. Paddling the Ottawa river in his dad’s buckskin jacket and moccasins with Indigenous youth, after a sunrise ritual at dawn.
Welcome to the era of reconciliation, ushered in by a Prime Minister so different in appearance from his predecessors. Free of prejudices. Moved to tears by the country’s dark history. Committed to the need for deep, fundamental change.
Except this carefully scripted story, managed even more tightly than ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s, has long been unravelling.
It began with the fraying of Trudeau’s official platform. A legal order issued to the Liberals to end racial discrimination against Indigenous children? Repeatedly ignored. Compensation for 16,000 individuals snatched from their homes and adopted by non-Indigenous families in the Sixties Scoop? Opposed in court. And that historic budget for First Nations? Turned out most of the funds would flow only in 2020—after the next election. Not exactly the “new relationship” that Trudeau announced to rapturous international applause.
And then there’s what hasn’t made the headlines. In British Columbia, Quebec, the Atlantic provinces and elsewhere through Canada, there are scores of First Nations who have never signed away their Aboriginal title through treaties. For years they’ve wracked up debt while in negotiations with the government over lands sought after by mineral, forestry, hydro and oil companies. But as a pre-condition for any compensation, they’re forced to extinguish their rights to 9 out of every 10 parcels of their territory—rivers, forests, mountains, farmland, and everything underneath.
Fair to have expected a change under Trudeau? Instead the Liberals have given negotiators marching orders from a Harper-commissioned report that advises how to force through energy infrastructure. That’s because Indigenous rights stand in the way of pipelines, mega-dams like Site C, giant fracked gas terminals—and $650bn in resource projects over the next ten years that the Liberals are trumpeting as much as the Conservatives did.
Never mind that recent Supreme Court decisions, and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples before them, call for shared sovereignty or management over these lands. Or that many more Canadians are realizing that Indigenous stewardship of large swathes of territory—instead of its mismanagement by multi-national corporations—would be to the benefit of everyone.
Trudeau may indeed want to do right by Indigenous peoples, but the government is locked into a logic of its own: quietly maintaining exclusive control over Indigenous peoples’ lands and resources. Is this what Trudeau meant when he said his government would “think seven generations out”?
Turning the language of liberation into a contraption of conquest is nothing new: it’s part of Liberal heritage. In the early 1990s, as calls for Indigenous self-determination gained steam on the heels of widespread protest and the Oka crisis, the Liberals appeared to embrace the movement’s demand. They named their policy “the Inherent Right to Self-Government.”
Except this policy—still on the books—only grants First Nations rights such as policing, education, and the licensing of marriages; the government keeps all powers of trade, diplomacy and serious economic development and decision-making to themselves. No wonder Indigenous critics have said it turns First Nations into “ethnic municipalities”: it is nothing like a genuine third-order of government.
The Liberals latest utterances appear just as soothingly promising: “reconciliation,” “nation-to-nation,” even “decolonization.” The most slippery of all has been their use of “consent.” Though the Liberals have proclaimed their support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—at whose heart lies the right of “free, prior and informed consent”—they’ve been loathe to recognize it in practice on the ground.
It’s obvious why: the right of consent sends shudders through corporate boardrooms whose goodwill the Liberals covet. As an alternative, the government has wheeled out a hazy concept of “collaborative consent.” All that’s clear is it studiously avoids recognizing the actual right to say no to destructive resource projects. Indigenous feminists have underlined how this half-measure is hollow: whether it’s territories or bodies, if you don’t have the power to say no, then “consent” is meaningless.
The extractivist worldview—bent on treating everything as a commodity—that lay behind Stephen Harper’s resource agenda just as powerfully shapes Trudeau’s. In fact, the Liberals’ attempt to wrap themselves in the UN Declaration without embracing its central right may constitute a new, more subtle form of extraction: the extraction from Indigenous territory of consent itself.
Liberal moves to extract and manufacture consent and support for outdated policies are evident elsewhere: restoring funding to the Assembly of First Nations, a government-dependent organization that has since plumped frequently for them; appointing an Indigenous Justice Minister, even though Indigenous critics argue she has sided with the government agenda throughout her political career; and agreeing to call an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, but with a mandate far short of what impacted families wanted. As the weight of reality presses against Trudeau’s rhetoric, the ability to generate consent is crumbling.
Reconciliation is a powerful hope, an uplifting prospect, a deeply desired new relationship that Trudeau has compellingly invoked. But if reconciliation does not include the restitution of land, the recognition of real self-government, the reigning in of abusive police, the remediation of rivers and forests, it will remain a vacant notion, a cynical ploy to preserve a status quo in need not of tinkering but transformation. It will be Canada’s latest in beads and trinkets, a cheap simulation of justice.
The good news is that Indigenous peoples have never been more poised to push Trudeau from mere words to deeds. Idle No More left a profound imprint: a more readily mobilized Indigenous population and a far larger non-Indigenous reservoir of support. An influential presence on social media, a growing force in art and culture, Indigenous peoples are leveraging Supreme Court precedents and trying to rebuild their economies and nations.
They have endured too much to be satisfied with Trudeau attending a pow wow, flashing a Haida tattoo on his arm, or calling for yet another consultation and study. If Canadians are willing to do their part, Indigenous peoples can test Trudeau’s lofty rhetoric the most effective way possible: in the crucible of a rising movement.