Bitter conflicts between Indigenous communities and governments and businesses have been part of Canada’s political landscape for decades. Since the turn of this century, many companies have first lost and then retreated in battles over mining and other resource projects. Leaders of Indigenous communities have become seasoned political warriors adept at changing Canadian public opinion. The scales seem to be tilting.
Today we see even more complex conflicts: struggles between and within Indigenous communities. The one making the headlines this week is the battle between environmentalists and the Pacheedaht First Nation. Along with those fighting ancient logging on Vancouver Island is a coalition of First Nations and Indigenous organizations in British Columbia, as well as some of their own younger citizens. In the middle is Prime Minister John Horgan, in whose riding this battle is being fought.
British Columbia is at the forefront of many of these sensitive disputes. A British Columbia Supreme Court ruling in 2017 approved moving Treaty 8 boundaries far to the west. Some First Nations in this disputed area were not satisfied. The court ordered BC to find a solution. All parties appear prepared to leave the matter open for the time being.
British Columbia has also shown leadership in legislating on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the first Canadian government to do so. Partnerships between certain indigenous communities and the oil and gas sector, sometimes vigorously opposed by neighboring communities and often members of their own community, will henceforth be governed by this framework.
As former Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson noted in his eloquent Manion Conference 2020, Canada is the only one in the world to launch this experiment with the creation of up to 600 autonomous units within a sovereign federal state.
For many Aboriginal Canadians, the dream of self-government has been their lifelong struggle. The prospect of self-control over their health, education and economic development is an obviously powerful political vision. It is, after all, a universal ambition to be truly in control of the destiny of one’s family and community.
Self-government is still somewhat ill-defined, but at a minimum it must mean, as Simpson puts it, “full political responsibility for many public functions, responsibility for those chosen to lead and autonomous revenue to run.” these functions ”. But, in addition to the fun of raising health and policing standards through their own governments, the new rulers will face border disputes and the need to forge new relationships with neighboring towns from the outset. first day.
If this experience is to gain traction and deliver successful services to Indigenous Canadians, these leaders will need to find processes and agree on methods of dispute resolution. Indigenous traditions are based on long discussions of consensus building and have often resolved deep and difficult divisions. It is not certain that many non-Aboriginal partners will be so patient.
It is not a distant prospect. Fourteen First Nations in British Columbia are in the final stages of negotiating to create the largest number of self-government agreements with that province. None of these challenges should be used to slow down or thwart this process. But its imminence is perhaps an argument for more urgent discussions involving a wide range of Canadian and Indigenous leaders.
As Canada’s Indigenous leaders demanded a seat in the Bill of Rights negotiations and came out with the rights set out in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, this radical change in the way Canada is governed was set. Our courts have made it clear how these hard-won rights should be defined and enforced. But “self-government” has often been dismissed as a political vision for the distant future, if possible at all. It is now a reality and it will test the courage and creativity of Canadian politicians and Indigenous leaders around the world.
The Pacheedaht have a land management agreement with the province. They are understandably unhappy with the accusation that they are poor stewards of their forests. But this battle over the majestic centuries-old Douglas firs in a remote corner of Vancouver Island are the first tremors of an upcoming political earthquake that started nearly 40 years ago.