There it was this morning, as large as life, on the front page of the business section of a major Canadian daily newspaper: an indigenous group has agreed to take part, to become a participant, in an impending new mine, the northernmost of the Alberta Tar Sands.
No doubt great news for the business people who have been chafing under the court decision that the federal government had not consulted seriously enough with the indigenous in relation to the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline that has been designed to double the output of the present pipeline, and therefore, ipso facto, increase production from the Alberta Tar Sands, recognized as one of the world’s most damaging oil deposits from the point of view of its emissions into the atmosphere, those very emissions that are agreed by most scientists to be causing the current and projected onsurge of damaging variations in weather, climate warming, and various other drastic events.
Unfortunately, the story is not quite what the front page suggests. Turn over to the following page to read the explanation by Chief Alan Adam, of the Athabasca Chipewyan nation as to why he has agreed to become a participant in what the newspaper describes as “a massive mine on its doorstep” that will produce 260,000 barrels of oil per day, and operate for 40 years, using water from the Athabasca river, and creating huge tailings of mine waste.
“We have no choice,” Chief Adam says. “We have spent more than a million dollars on court fees (opposing these developments) , and we have nothing tangible to show for it.
“I don’t want to do it. I had no choice. I had to make sure my nation was protected, and that our people will get the benefit in future.”
This sounds like a total surrender to the power of money, and it surely lies at the very heart of the debate that has been caused by the verdict of the Federal court justices about “meaningful consultation” with the indigenous peoples about any development that is likely to impact their lands.
Chief Adam said that Teck, the company with which he has entered into agreement, will still have to undergo a full assessment of its industrial project, including its effects on the Wood Buffalo National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But then he adds a kicker that everyone should take notice of.
He came to his decision, he said “because the provincial government has failed to enforce conditions that had ben placed on previous developments.”
So here we have an excellent description of what our governments have meant by “meaningful consultation.” It amounts, as the Federal justices suggested, to sitting and discussing with indigenous representatives, making some notes, and going away to carry on as if nothing had been said. And then, even when some action has been agreed to, simply not carrying out what they had agreed to.
In 1969 as I began to circulate among aboriginal communities, I was woefully ignorant of the Canadian law and the way it had been used to control every aspect of the lives of those troublesome folk called Indians, who just somehow seemed never to go away. I remember how amazed I was, during a visit to the Mistissini reserve in northern Quebec, when I was told that they had, under Canadian law, recognized rights in the land, written down as long ago as 1763 by the King of England in the so-called Royal Proclamation, in which he undertook that Indian land should not be settled or developed without the agreement of the
“several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom we are connected, and who live under our Protection,” and that such agreement could be arranged only “at some Publick meeting or Assembly” of the Indians with the colonial authorities, and that no private persons should be permitted to buy Indian lands. This was a measure designed, says the Proclamation, to avoid repetition of “the great frauds and abuses” that had already occurred in the purchasing of Indian lands.
Could anything be clearer than that? And yet, vast areas of Canada, including all of Quebec and most of British Columbia, had been occupied and developed for various purposes by invading Europeans in violation of that very undertaking.
My discovery of this law in that particular place, northern Quebec, had a very interesting denouement. For a couple of years later the very Crees who told me about it, read to their astonishment that their hunting territories --- a huge area of more than 100,000 square miles --- were to be invaded by a vast industrial machine set up by the Quebec government with the object of taming the magnificent wild rivers that run across the Quebec landscape into James Bay, to produce electricity.
From the first, the government’s idea of consultation was nil. Only later, when the Crees and Inuit decided to take the matter to court, did they begin to take it half seriously, although the Quebec government lawyers did not think they had any case to answer when the hearing began. Six months later, after Mr Justice Malouf shocked the entire legal world by ordering Quebec “to stop trespassing” on the indigenous lands, did they begin to realize they would have to make a serious effort to negotiate with the inhabitants, who had occupied these lands for millennia. But even now, although they did enter a rigorous and detailed negotiation for a settlement, even this was conducted under the gun. Because within a week or so of Malouf’s judgment, the Quebec Court of Appeal had overturned it, and allowed work on the James Bay Hydro project to proceed as if nothing had ever happened.
Eventually the Cree and Inuit signed an agreement, but if this wasn’t a perfect illustration of the concept of a “shotgun marriage” I don’t know what could ever be so described. They were forced to sign something, and the result was the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), that has governed their lives ever since.
One can carry this argument a stage further. Because in practice, both the Quebec and Canadian governments undertook to implement provisions which they later showed no interest in fulfilling. So the indigenous inhabitants were repeatedly forced to go to court to insist on their rights as established in law under the JBNQA, a situation that lasted until such time as Quebec wanted even more powers than were granted under the Agreement.
Then Quebec came up with another dodge. They proposed and had accepted the so-called Paix des Braves, under which Quebec agreed to pay a big sum --- I think it was something like $70 million a year, for 50 years, amounting to some billions in total --- provided the Cree would undertake three things: one, they would cancel all ongoing court challenges, and undertake to make no more; two, they would carry out the neglected provisions of the Agreement themselves, and thirdly, and even more importantly, they would agree to Quebec Hydro including the Cree heartland river, the Rupert, into its plans for expanded power production.
Thus, under this last masterstroke of what might be considered to be a form of government “consultation”, the Crees agreed to sell their river to the electricity company, certainly a decisive step towards their assimilation into the Canadian ethos.
I can name other examples --- they are rife across the country --- in which indigenous people have been bought off, one by one, to fall in with government plans for industrial development.
The sad surrender of the Athabasca Chipewyan recorded this week is only the latest. And I am perfectly sure it will not be the last.
The objective of the European invaders from the first has been to get rid of the Indians, and it seems they have new policies of assimilation they are ready to use to their full extent.