Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Historians and Wet'suwet'en

I went to Montreal last week, and I'm glad it wasn't this week, because our train ride was along the rail line closed this week by the Deseronto Mohawks, in support of the Wet'suwet'en opposition to the pipeline being pushed through their territory, The blockades follow a court decision that the Wet'suwet'en have a right to be consulted, but "no veto," over economic development on their territory.

Much as I feel for my fellow train travellers hoping to travel over First Nations lands, I cannot help thinking the protesters, not the courts, have it right on this one.

A lot of talk about "reconciliation" seems to be taken as little more than "let's be nice, let's get along, let's not fight." But at the root of reconciliation is meaningful indigenous self-government. No government can be self-supporting without a taxation base and revenue sources. For First Nations, meaningful self-government and control of land are virtually the same thing. Bluntly, if First Nations always have to accept "Canadian" assessments of what indigenous lands and resources are worth and who can develop them, most First Nations will always be too poor to have meaningful self-government.

The court decision effectively means Canada has a veto upon economic development for First Nations -- and we've seen how that has worked out for 150 years and more. The courts are still understanding treaties as "cede-yield-surrender" agreements, as expressed in the written treaty texts, rather than the "share the land" agreements that were made during the treaty negotiations. As long as they do, there is little prospect for indigenous prosperity, for meaningful self-government, and for "reconciliation."  

There's a role for historians here, I think. Judges have been moving toward "meaningful consultation," and "the honour of the Crown" in treaty interpretation and territorial control questions. But like most other Canadians, they still flinch from accepting land sharing as the essence of the treaty agreements. But judges are smart people, and they read, and they can be influenced and informed by sensible well-grounded historical interpretations. 

If historians, indigenous and not, continue to make that case -- that when the treaty negotiators, indigenous and not, agreed that "the land will always be yours" and that "you may hunt and fish [i.e., use the land] forever," and that the reserves would not be the full extent of indigenous territory but only places where the residents would not even have to share resources, they really were making agreements to share territory for mutual benefit -- then gradually judges may come to see that enabling Canada to proceed without agreement really is more trouble than it is worth. And bad law.

If the Wet'suwet'en heriditary chiefs believed Canada was ready to share territory for mutual benefit, I suspect they could reach an agreement on this pipeline. As long as courts assert that Canada doesn't need freely-granted agreement, there will be blockades.  Nice people like us will miss their rides to Montreal -- and much more.    

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