Like it or Not, the Law is the Law February 17, 2020
You have a family home that has been in your family for years and years. You have decided to rent out a portion of it and, being the benevolent person you are, you agree that the tenant can make alterations to the part of the home that is “theirs”. You awake one morning to the sound of machinery and banging noises. Some large equipment is starting across your front lawn and someone is starting to remove your front door. Whoa there! You speak to the person in charge and he shows you a contract with your tenant for work to be done. But, you explain to the contractor, that contract doesn’t cover your property. You offer the contractor an option of going beside the house to the back yard and entering the tenant’s premises through another door. The contractor refuses. Doing that would take more time and cost too much. Oh, what to do?
Remind you of anything? This little vignette is a simplified example of a complex issue facing us at this moment: the situation of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, the elected Chiefs, Coastal GasLink and the associated lands and pipeline. I am not an authority on the inner workings or subtleties of federal legislation or the rights of Indigenous people; however, I do know one thing. The law must be respected and if not found to be appropriate or just, it must be changed, not simply dismissed or trampled under.
Canada is governed by laws. The Wet’suwet’en, like many other Indigenous groups are governed by both a traditional governance system and a system of elected Chiefs and Councils. The elected Chiefs and Councils format was introduced under federal legislation called the Indian Act. But the authority and power of the elected Chiefs and Councils applies only to the Bands and extends only as far as the boundaries of First Nation’s reserves. The Hereditary Chiefs are responsible for their ancestral lands which extend far beyond the boundaries of reserves, a far more reaching and overarching authority. This authority over title and rights is protected by the highest law in Canada’s legal system – the Constitution Act, 1982.
Canadian courts continue to recognize that Indigenous laws form part of Canada’s legal system. Therefore, the principle of law in Canada includes both Canadian and Indigenous law. At the time of colonization, international and British law stated that unless Indigenous people were conquered or treatied, their interest in their land was to be respected. Neither occurred with the Wet’suwet’en people., nor has that principle of law changed. And here we are! The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs are exercising their right in law to prevent the Coastal GasLink pipeline from proceeding along the planned route.
It should be noted that the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs did offer Coastal GasLink alternate routes. Routes that traversed already disrupted land. These were rejected by Coastal GasLink as too costly and time consuming.
Without diving into the issue of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, one must raise the question of why the pipeline(s) are needed in the first place. We want to transport raw product from the oil fields, mainly from Alberta, to the West Coast to ship to another country so we can buy back the refined product while we buy raw product from other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to refine in our Maritime refineries.
Oil and Gas conglomerates will not build prairie refineries claiming they are too expensive and the return on investment is too long a period, and we can’t use our existing Maritime Refineries because Quebec won’t allow a pipeline to cross that province! Hold on a minute. No to a pipeline is okay for the Province of Quebec, but not for Indigenous people’s land?
I recognize there are major economic implications connected with the current situation, along with individual, personal inconveniences. I also recognize that the situation must be resolved for all parties. Whatever your inclination, be it support for the blockade, support for police intervention, support for the corporate entities, support for protestors, support for pipelines or not, one constant remains, the law is the law. Although certain politicians are demanding the police forces move in and remove the blockades by force and arrest the protestors, as of this writing, the police deserve full credit for recognizing they work on the side justice and the law, not the politicians. And unless we want to mirror our neighbours to the South, where the law seems to be at the mercy of the daily whim or fancy of certain people, we should, we must, obey and respect the law. Whether or not we like that law has no bearing.
This piece is an expression of my personal views, not everyone will agree, and other views are welcome.