By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on February 19, 2020.
On Thursday, two hereditary chiefs at the heart of the dispute over a natural gas pipeline in British Columbia went to court once again to try and stop the project.
They launched a constitutional challenge in Federal Court, arguing that Canada has a duty to meet international targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
If they win, they say, it could lead to cancellation of the Coastal GasLink pipeline across traditional lands of the Wet’suwet’en people, who have been supported over the past week by nationwide protests that, among other things, shut down the country’s main east-west rail link.
But if the chiefs aren’t successful in court? Given the long legal battles over the gas pipeline and similar energy projects, does anyone seriously think they will shrug, accept the decision, and let Coastal GasLink go ahead after all?
Not a chance. If the Federal Court rules in their favour, they are sure to hail it as a victory and demand that the company and the B.C. government scrap the project. But if they lose, odds are they will fight on, and their supporters will dismiss the court’s decision as irrelevant to their battle against pipelines and resource projects in general.
In other words, they seem to be operating under the rule of “heads I win, tails you lose.” I get to use the legal system when convenient, and ignore it when it doesn’t give the results I like.
In the case of the B.C. pipeline, the company went through an exhaustive process to obtain regulatory approvals and consulted with Indigenous communities along the 670-kilometre route. It concluded “benefits agreements” amounting to some $1 billion with all 20 elected band councils directly affected.
But, as we know, that turned out not to be enough. Leadership of the Wet’suwet’en Nation is divided, and hereditary chiefs who claim authority over a larger traditional territory orchestrated protests and blockades to derail the project.
Protesters, including those who blocked the CN rail line where it runs through Mohawk territory near Kingston, align themselves with the hereditary chiefs.
But that does an injustice to the elected band councils, which represent some 13,000 Indigenous people in remote and mostly impoverished parts of the B.C. Interior. And it sweeps aside the interests of Indigenous people who support the project and stand to benefit by working on it directly or through contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars awarded to local First Nations businesses.
Troy Young, a Wet’suwet’en contractor, put it like this to the Vancouver Sun: “The elected chiefs want to break the bondage of poverty that exists within our communities.”
So Indigenous people are far from united against the pipeline, despite what those blocking rail lines and roads in “solidarity” with them may claim.
Nor can some groups be allowed to ignore the courts indefinitely. The B.C. Supreme Court ordered an end to the pipeline blockade in December, and RCMP eventually moved in to enforce that order.
Courts have issued injunctions against other protests, including the one that has shut down east-west rail traffic for a week now. Police have wisely chosen the path of patience and negotiation so far, but the blockade can’t go on indefinitely. No one has the right to hold the country’s vital transportation links hostage to make a political point.
The courts are crystal clear on the principles involved here. Just last week, the Federal Court of Canada issued a strong decision asserting that while First Nations have a right to be consulted on resource projects, indeed a right to “deep consultation,” the law does not give them a veto.
Nor, said the court, do Indigenous groups have a right to manipulate the consultation process in such a way that it becomes simply a tool to kill a project.
In the end, after the consulting and the protesting are done, the rule of law must prevail. And those who turn to the courts for support must accept, and respect, both their victories and their setbacks along the way.
An editorial from the Toronto Star