The Truth About Crown-Indigenous Relations in Canada

(William Chen, 2017)

Is money more valuable than humanity? Apparently, this is a question that the Canadian government struggles to answer. Despite the honourable reputation that Canada upholds globally, the country is not the utopia that it appears to be. From discrimination to forced assimilation, the country evidently has a long history of being cruel and unfair to Indigenous peoples. For several generations, Indigenous Canadians have had to face mistreatment, manipulation, and false commitments from the government with little to no support. Acknowledgements of the past and reparations have no meaning when the Canadian government continuously ignores the issues they had initially promised they would resolve. For example, before his election, Justin Trudeau stated that “though governments grant permits, only communities grant permission” (APTN National News, 2015). Trudeau allowed himself to appear as an advocate for Indigenous rights, but soon after his victory, he claimed that Indigenous peoples “don’t have a veto” over energy projects (Financial Post, 2016). It is clear that the Canadian government only supports Indigenous rights when convenient for them. Otherwise, they will infringe treaties and laws without consequence for their own best interest. So, the question is, when will Canada start caring for Indigenous rights instead of merely saying they do?

Recently, Canada has involved itself in several controversies regarding its construction projects throughout the country. These include the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, Trans Mountain pipeline, and Site C Dam. Though these projects would benefit the Canadian economy by supplying natural gas, crude, and electricity, they could be detrimental to Indigenous communities and the environment. Not only do the projects pose a threat to Indigenous lands and waters, but also to their rights, cultural history, and public health. Areas where construction is taking place, such as Peace River, are essential to many Indigenous communities as they rely on it for sacred medicine, food, burials, and hunting. Despite their lack of consent, construction over reserves continues, even during a pandemic where they put elderly Indigenous peoples at risk. Those who attempt to oppose the projects are often embroiled in violent actions with the RCMP who are willing to use force during peaceful protests. Indigenous communities (especially those directly affected, such as the Wet’suwet’en and Secwépemc clans) should not have to tolerate the violations made to their rights. Instead, the Canadian government should take on the responsibility of addressing and handling the situation instead of allowing the decades of mistreatment towards Indigenous peoples to prolong.

Systemic racism against Indigenous peoples has become integrated into Canada’s legal system (courts, police, law, et cetera), making life extremely difficult. The government takes advantage of unclear and unfinished treaties, allowing them to abrogate previous commitments made. The power that the government holds makes it easy for them to face little consequence and hide their suppression of Indigenous rights. By using Canadian law, Indigenous peoples who decide to challenge the government cannot receive justice. For example, when Indigenous communities tried to approach the federal court on the grounds that they had never received proper consultation, the court dismissed them. When they then attempted to challenge the pipeline construction on a higher level, the Supreme Court of Canada denied their application. Therefore, the barriers that exist in Canada limit the rights of Indigenous peoples while making it difficult for them to retaliate.

The Canadian government has engaged in performative activism as they continuously claim to support Indigenous Canadian communities but fail to do it. An example of this is the government’s history with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The United Nations is an organization that aims towards international peace and security. In 2007, they drafted a guideline for other countries to use outlining the protection of Indigenous rights (including culture, identity, land, and health). Though Canada has become a signatory, it has not ratified the law yet. The government has stated its plan for passing Bill C-15 (which affirms UNDRIP) numerous times, but no changes have been official. 

When it comes to economic issues, the government prioritizes them more than social and environmental. With respect to Crown-Indigenous issues, the government erects a barrier by funding companies and supporting expansion onto Indigenous Treaty land. In addition, under outdated colonial mandates, the RCMP is empowered to protect new developments in violation of Treaty rights. Though the government refuses to admit it, it appears that everyone has access to Indigenous land except for Indigenous peoples themselves. When the company behind the Trans Mountain pipeline backed out due to backlash, the Canadian government revealed its true intentions. Instead of ending construction and respecting their promises, the government bought the project for $4.5 billion, demonstrating their lack of care for Indigenous rights. Therefore, it is evident that most politicians only like to speak on Indigenous rights when they are using them as a political tactic.

By allowing construction, Canada contradicts sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in addition to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Section 25 of the Charter is meant to preserve Aboriginal and treaty rights but is frequently ignored and overruled by the government, leading many Indigenous peoples to turn to UNDRIP to support their disputes. For example, Article 32 states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories.” Though this clearly states that Indigenous peoples have rights over their own land, the Canadian government refuses to give permission to veto any construction that happens within it and continuously evades it. The declaration also emphasizes the importance of “free, prior, and informed consent” throughout it. The Canadian government violates this by not giving Indigenous communities affected all necessary information and manipulating them to get what they wish. Therefore, the Canadian government is guilty of disobeying UNDRIP despite their prior endorsement.

The purpose of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is to prevent violations to Indigenous rights made by governments on an international scale. UNDRIP receives endorsements from organizations, such as Amnesty International, who apply pressure on governments to implement it. The strategy is only moderately effective because though it is an aspirational document, it can only be useful when made official. The declaration is non-binding and reflects neither customary domestic or international law. Through this loophole, the Canadian government is able to sign onto UNDRIP for a better public image without having to take any action in their own government system. The implementation of UNDRIP would ensure the protection of Indigenous rights and prevent any future violations towards them. It would be a step forward to breaking the barriers against Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Though this change seems crucial, this is something that the Canadian government is trying to avoid. The government currently protects Indigenous rights under section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it does not appear that they are making efforts to take extra measures. By establishing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the government would lose control of several land projects throughout Canada. The result of this would be less profit due to fewer supplies and jobs. In hopes of avoiding this issue, the government has been stalling the implementation of UNDRIP. Though passing Bill C-15 would be extremely important to Indigenous communities, the Canadian government wields considerable power that can appear as intentional neglect. That perception has motivated many, resulting in more protests and petitions occurring than ever. U.S. President Joe Biden has already cancelled one of the pipeline projects Canada has been involved in (Keystone XL), demonstrating that change is bound to happen in the nation.

Delgamuukw v. British Columbia has been a supportive case in relation to current issues. This case has emphasized the government’s obligation to consult with Indigenous peoples and the importance of oral history. The case has been a precedent for situations, for example, for Wet’suwet’en clans who declare that they still have a title over their land. Though the case was supposed to prove Indigenous title, the government still hesitates to give these rights due to the expense and time-consuming process. The rights of Indigenous peoples are often undermined and overlooked by the Canadian government. Therefore, it is difficult for them to prove their claims in court, which promotes conflict. There is no doubt that the Canadian government urgently needs to recognize Indigenous titles and apply past precedents and agreements into the official law before matters worsen.

The construction projects that are currently ongoing do not just affect Indigenous peoples but also the environment. Not only could an oil spill or any construction incident completely destroy the natural environment it surrounds, but the use of fossil fuels will worsen air pollution. The situation seems hypocritical as Canada has recently become a part of the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is an agreement made by the United Nations to slow down climate change. Though Canada has committed to reducing carbon emissions, they seem to be doing the exact opposite by endorsing a construction project that will contribute to it. Justin Trudeau claims to be a climate leader, but he cannot possibly be one while approving of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, Trans Mountain pipeline, and Site C Dam at the same time. Saving the environment while doing things that kill it is just not a reality.

Though Canada has a reputation of being a great place to live it is not as perfect as it appears. The reality is skewed by the truth of treaty abrogation and the virtual continuation of past colonial behaviours. To prevent the erasure of Indigenous communities and the destruction of the environment, the Canadian government must change its act. Indigenous peoples living in Canada have had to deal with issues that they should have never experienced in the first place for far too long. The government of Canada should be responsible for honouring Indigenous rights and making efforts to prohibit violations. In order to truly become the flawless country that they let everyone else believe that they are, Canada needs to uphold its word.

References

Cox, Sarah. “UN Committee Rebukes Canada for Failing to Get Indigenous Peoples’ Consent for Industrial Projects.” The Narwhal. Sarah Cox, January 15, 2021. https://thenarwhal.ca/un-rebukes-canada-industrial-projects/

Cruickshank, Ainslie. “Trans Mountain, Coastal GasLink, Keystone XL: Where Things Stand with Canada’s Pipeline Projects.” The Narwhal. Ainslie Cruickshank, August 11, 2020. https://thenarwhal.ca/trans-mountain-coastal-gaslink-keystone-xl-canada-pipeline-projects/

“Site C Dam – Human Rights at Risk.” Amnesty International Canada, September 22, 2017. https://www.amnesty.ca/our-work/issues/indigenous-peoples/indigenous-peoples-canada/resource-development-canada/site-c-dam

“United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples For Indigenous Peoples.” United Nations. United Nations. Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html

“UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” indigenousfoundations. Accessed February 26, 2021. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/un_declaration_on_the_rights_of_indigenous_peoples/#:~:text=permission%20from%20UNPFII.-,The%20United%20Nations%20Declaration%20on%20the%20Rights%20of%20Indigenous%20Peoples,of%20the%20indigenous%20peoples%20of

TVO Current Affairs. “How Canada Set up Aboriginal Treaties to Keep First Nations Down.” TVO.org, April 25, 2017. https://www.tvo.org/article/how-canada-set-up-aboriginal-treaties-to-keep-first-nations-down

Patterson, Brent. “First Nations Say UNDRIP Should Mean End of Site C Dam, Energy East Pipeline.” The Council of Canadians, 2017. https://canadians.org/analysis/first-nations-say-undrip-should-mean-end-site-c-dam-energy-east-pipeline

Patterson, Brent. “Canada Fully Endorses UNDRIP, but Questions Remain.” The Council of Canadians, 2017. https://canadians.org/analysis/canada-fully-endorses-undrip-questions-remain

Bankes, Nigel. “Implementing UNDRIP: Some Reflections on Bill C-262.” ablawg.ca. University of Calgary, November 27, 2018. https://ablawg.ca/2018/11/27/implementing-undrip-some-reflections-on-bill-c-262/

“Squaring the Circle: Adopting UNDRIP in Canada.” Fraser Institute. Fraser Institute, March 10, 2020. https://www.fraserinstitute.org/studies/squaring-the-circle-adopting-undrip-in-canada#:~:text=Because%20UNDRIP%20is%20neither%20a,consistent%20with%20Canadian%20constitutional%20law

Hernandez, Jon. “How a Landmark B.C. Court Case Set the Stage for Wet’suwet’en Anti-Pipeline Protests | CBC News.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, February 13, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/delgamuukw-court-ruling-significance-1.5461763

Smith, Gavin, and Eugene King. “Canada’s ‘Prove It’ Approach to Aboriginal Title.” Policy Options, February 11, 2019. https://policyoptions.irpp.org/fr/magazines/february-2019/canadas-prove-it-approach-to-aboriginal-title/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s