Chief predicts Oka Crisis if feds impose Enbridge pipeline
Leader says conflict will continue to escalate until the government decides to negotiate in good faith and honour First Nations rights
If Canada fails to respond to live up to its obligations to consult First Nations, British Columbia’s Grand Chief Stewart Phillip believes it will almost certainly see another Oka Crisis, referencing a 78-day standoff in 1990 between the Mohawk people, the Quebec police and the Canadian military that broke out when the province tried to build a golf course on a traditional burial site.
He said the “drive-by” consultation the Harper government has completed so far isn’t enough. Even in light of continued opportunities to engage with First Nations—the Haisla Nation recently informed the federal government once again that allowing Enbridge to build its pipeline without adequate consultation would be illegal—Phillip thinks it’s too late for Northern Gateway and other late-stage projects.
“It’s pretty much a perfect storm that’s developing if the government just overrides the JRP panel process and approves these projects,” he told the Vancouver Observer.
Despite decades of court decisions affirming Aboriginal rights and title and several major militarized conflicts between Indigenous people and the Canadian government, the courts are still full of nations looking to enforce their constitutionally protected rights. And the land is filling up with nations who see no option but to put their feet on the ground.
He said the time for meaningful consultation has long passed and, if the government intends to honour its constitutional obligations to Indigenous people, it has no other choice but to reject to Northern Gateway.
As it has been in the past, the conflict can be traced back to the Crown’s unwillingness to honour Indigenous sovereignty.
“The courts have said very clearly that consultation needs to happen at the earliest instance when it become clearly evident that a project proposal will in fact infringe on the rights and interests of First Nations people or communities.”
History repeating itself: negotiation or confrontation
When court decisions aren’t enough to settle First Nations rights and title issues, conflict spills out onto the land itself. It’s a phenomenon Phillip said he is starting to see again.
In 2006, retired senators Gerry St Germain and Nick G. Sibbeston co-authored a report titled Negotiation or Confrontation: It’s Canada’s Choice, framing that choice as one between prompt and fair land claim settlement or violent conflict such as that seen in Oka, Ipperwash and Caledonia.
St Germain writes in the conclusion, “The Committee feels that eliminating the delay in settling Specific Claims is an outright necessity not only for the claimants but for Canadians in general. Failing to find the political will to act appropriately on Specific Claims could invite more confrontations. The choice is Canada’s.”
The report recommended more money allocated to settle land claims, new guiding principles and that an independent body be set up to handle claims. In 2010, the 20th anniversary of the Oka Crisis, there were still approximately 3,000 outstanding land claims, including those filed by the Mohawk nation.
Little has changed, and Phillip said he sees the by-now familiar pattern unfolding again.
“I think one just simply has to reflect on what took place in Elsipogtog broke out several months ago,” he said. “We can expect that in BC if the Harper government and Clark government attempt to ram these projects through without meeting the legal standard of consultation and without addressing the concerns that have been raised by so many different groups throughout the province.” The conflict at Elsipogtog was itself a new iteration of the Burnt Church Crisis 15 years ago, centered on the same court decision that grants the Mi’kmaq people the right to make a living from their land.
Phillip also brought up finance minister Jim Flaherty’s budget, including a $3 billion contingency fund. Conflict, he said, doesn’t come cheap.
“That contingency fund would quickly evaporate if the Government of Canada, through it’s arrogance and clumsiness, fumbles the ball with the need to respect their own laws in terms of consultation and upholding the rights and interests of the First Nations people in this country.”
While official figures as to the cost of the violence in New Brunswick late last year, the estimated price tag for the Oka crisis in 1990 was just under $200 million, plus another $1 million per day for police and military presence.
“That’s why we need to get it right. Once we start down that other path of conflict, as history has taught us … conflicts develops a life of their own and become very protracted and very ugly and very expensive.”
A pattern of standoffs over land
Glen Coulthard, professor in both the political science department and First Nations studies at UBC, said the sequence of events that leads to violent conflict such as the Oka Crisis have been happening again and again since the 1970s.
In response to Indigenous assertions of sovereignty in the courts and on the land, he said, the state had to come up with a conciliatory measure, implementing the 1973 Comprehensive Land Claims policy. When that policy turned out only to serve the Government of Canada’s desire to access Indigenous lands, the false promise was reflected in a rise in court and direct action going into the 1980s.
Then came the repatriation of the constitution, including section 35, which affirmed aboriginal treaty rights and recognized “Indian, Inuit and Metis people of Canada” and their land claims. The state’s failure once again to honour its obligations gave rise to Oka and other violent conflicts in the 1990s.
“What we’re seeing now is a pretty intense cycle that has come in the wake of roughly the 2008 apology,” Coulthard said. After several more years of inaction came Idle No More, this time spurring both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to action.
Echoing Senator St Germain’s sentiments, Coulthard said action only becomes violence when the government decides to make it so.
“The direct actions involved are typically not violent and usually are done with peaceful aims. It’s always the position of the state that escalate these things.”
The only way to break the cycle, he said, is for Canada to truly recognize the sovereignty of Indigenous nations and honour existing treaties.
“Any other attempt which tries to ‘fix’ things will fail because it’s still premised on the racist logic of terra nullius.”
Posted on February 26, 2014, in Oil & Gas and tagged Enbridge, Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, Enbridge pipeline, Indigenous resistance, native resistance, oil and gas pipelines+Indigenous resistance, Oka 1990, Oka Crisis. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.