Solidarity banner leads thousands through downtown Toronto on Feb. 22 in a show of support for the Indigenous people protesting a B.C. gas pipeline. Michael Swa

Editorial: Fulfil the promise

  • February 27, 2020

The headlines ask if reconciliation is dead. The answer is no, but the latest crisis shows that the national aspiration of a new relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples remains in failing health and in need of acute care.

The current emergency began when several Wet’suwet’en chiefs, claiming title to the land, blocked construction of a gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. But a negotiated solution to that issue — and to kindred blockades across the country — will not solve the deeper problem. Ottawa still must overcome decades of ill will and bad faith before it can reconcile a relationship marked by decades of broken promises and procrastination.

It would be a mistake to see the current crisis solely as a dispute about pipelines and land ownership. The barricades are just today’s symptom of a perpetually unhealthy relationship.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so achingly reported, Canada’s Indigenous people have suffered for 150 years due to national policies that have denied them basic rights and dignity. And they continue to suffer as governments, to their great shame, move ponderously on promises to form a new relationship founded on justice, equality and compassion.

Removing wooden barriers to make way for a pipeline is a simple task compared to bulldozing cultural barricades to make way for Indigenous people to arrive at their rightful place in Canadian society.

These issues are difficult to resolve because Indigenous people have little faith in government assurances. This fundamental lack of trust, still pervasive five years after Justin Trudeau became prime minister with a pledge to fix the relationship, is the most critical barrier to overcome. There is no quick way to do that, but there are obvious places to start.

One of them is for Ottawa to stop merely talking favourably about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and get on with actually enshrining it into law. Canada was one of four nations that opposed UNDRIP when the UN adopted it in 2007. But that objection was dropped four years ago with promises, backed by Trudeau, to use UNDRIP as a foundation to relaunch the relationship with Canada’s Indigenous population. Yet Parliament has yet to act.

UNDRIP’s importance is both statutory and symbolic. It affirms what the courts and the constitution have said about the human rights and rights of self-determination of Indigenous peoples, particularly with respect to land claims, but perhaps equally important it symbolizes that the government is finally getting serious about reconciliation at its deepest level.

Canada’s foot-dragging regarding UNDRIP isn’t what caused the B.C. pipeline dispute. But fumbling an opportunity to show good faith by promptly honouring that pledge typifies why these types of crises are so difficult to resolve.

Without trust, finding a just conclusion to the pipeline crisis became even more arduous and it makes realizing long-term reconciliation a pipe dream.

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