Human rights should trump corporate convenience

The government’s role in this is to defend all our rights, not allow companies to circumvent them

The disagreement between Coastal GasLink and the Wet’suwet’en through whose lands the Coastal GasLink pipeline is planned to pass is not simply a contest between a huge development project and a few irksome, obstinate protestors.

It is rather a perfect example of how we continue to fail to address one of our foundational questions as a country, our relationship with the Indigenous peoples who owned this land before we arrived and who still have title to it.

Canadians recognize the importance of industrial development, although many would disagree with this particular form of it.

But is it more important than our international obligations and our national responsibilities toward the Indigenous peoples with whom we share this country?

Government actions to date would indicate that it is – many of us disagree.

In focussing on the flashpoint of the Wet’suwet’en blockade we are in danger of forgetting history and the context it provides.

In settling this country we pushed its Indigenous peoples aside, corralled them into reservations, denied their culture, did not allow their participation in ours (except as servants), took away their children to ‘educate’ them and proceeded to hugely benefit from the immense riches of this land that we had expropriated for our use.

Neil Sterritt, in his account of Gitxsan history titled Mapping My Way Home, quotes a 1909 article in the Omineca Herald that described the chiefs’ position in front of the Stewart-Vowell Commission: “…the title of these lands could only have passed from the Indians to the provincial government by treaty, purchase or conquest.

Having never been paid for, treated with or conquered, the land must still belong to them.” Apparently not.

But what has happened since is that our governments have signed on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), central to which is the concept of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

Prior consent has not been given by the traditional leadership and much time has been wasted by both industry and government in pretending that it was appropriate for village councils to speak to consent. It was not.

This has caused considerable social harm by splitting the community while keeping the necessary consultation from being complete.

FPIC requires that four conditions be met:

* the Wet’suwet’en must have access to all relevant information

* this may require an independent assessment of potential consequences

* they must be given the time and opportunity to reach their own conclusions based on their own forms of decision-making

* and the process must be free of intimidation, threat of retaliation or other forms of duress.

Without these, the consultation process is neither informed nor free and therefore invalid.

Like the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD), we should be concerned that this large-scale development on traditional territories has taken place without FPIC and especially disturbed by what CERD terms “forced removal, disproportionate use of force, harassment and intimidation by law enforcement officials against … peoples who peacefully oppose” such development.

The United Nations CERD recommends that Canada and B.C. should:

* suspend project approvals until they have discharged their duty to consult and the Wet’suwet’en people have given their free, prior and informed consent

* establish a framework to establish such consent

* and guarantee that no force will be used against Wet’suwet’en people and withdraw police and security forces from their territory.

It is past time that both governments re-commit to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action – numbers 43 and 44 on their list – which require full implementation of UNDRIP and that Coastal GasLink commit to TRC call 92 which asks for a similar commitment from industry.

Resource extraction should never trump hard-won human rights. The government’s role in this is to defend all our rights, not allow companies to circumvent them and certainly not to allow the national police force to act as an enforcer for corporate convenience.

– Robert Hart chaired the Kalum Land and Resource Management Plan in northern B.C. for over a decade.

Coastal GasLink

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