Our democratic institutions are in crisis. Their very legitimacy is in question, and Canada’s national leaders appear ill-equipped to respond.
The Indigenous re-occupation of Wet’suwet’en land and nationwide actions in support have sparked debate and deliberation about the causes, consequences, complications and solutions. The debate has been emotional and traumatic and, I fear, is defining — and threatening — Canada’s future.
People across the country had the chance to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s address to the House of Commons and Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer’s response.
Neither one presented a path forward that would ease tensions and address the root causes of Indigenous peoples concerns. Neither made an authentic effort to bridge the deep divide rocking Canadian society. Rather Trudeau asked for patience, co-operation and deliberation, while Scheer demanded the immediate enforcement of the rule of law and the prioritization of our national economy.
Canada’s colonial history and democratic institutions are founded on this constructed divide between Indigenous peoples and the rest.
A legislated, judicially enforced hierarchical divide allowed the relocation of entire Indigenous communities and the narrow determination of which Indigenous rights are to be ignored, minimized or recognized. It allowed the imposition of colonial band governance systems and the delegitimization of Indigenous governance and laws. The divide underpinned the efforts to push us from territories and allow destructive industrial projects, to erase our Indigenous languages and culture and forcibly remove Indigenous children from families.
And it’s behind the mediocre effort to include Indigenous voices within the political, educational and democratic institutions of Canadian society.
This divide still exists today. It shows up most visibly when issues, projects or the interest of the status-quo come into conflict with the interests of Indigenous peoples. This story has played out time and time again, whether with the oil and gas industry (Kinder Morgan TMX, Enbridge, Coastal GasLink, Mackenzie Valley, Energy East, SWN Resources); mines (Teck Frontier, Mount Polley); dams (Site C, Muskrat Falls); forestry (Meares Island/Clayoquot Sound, Stein Valley, Gwaii Haanas, Great Bear Rainforest, boreal forest); or in conflicts around hunting, aquaculture or fisheries.
And it’s revealed in the justice system, whether the issue is Indigenous deaths in custody, murdered and missing Indigenous women, Gladue reports, mandatory minimum sentencing or the Ipperwash inquiry and the killing of Colten Boushie.
This divide is not absolute. Demonstrations in support of the Wet’suwet’en have seen non-Indigenous allies in great numbers supporting the voices of Indigenous leaders, youth and land defenders.
Yet in contrast to this support, we are also witnessing increasingly volatile levels of online vitriol, threats of violence, individuals expressing hatred and now incidents of vigilantism. These acts are aimed at Indigenous and non-Indigenous land defenders, Indigenous community members in their daily lives and even Indigenous children in their schools.
As a result of this societal divide, Indigenous peoples have been denied the right to determine what’s best for them and their communities. They have been denied their inherent and treaty rights.
Across the divide, many non-Indigenous people remain unaware of the extent and consequences of Canada’s colonial past and present, and the degree to which it continues to impact the lives of Indigenous peoples while supporting the Canadian status-quo. This lack of understanding leaves many unsympathetic to Indigenous calls for change.
Our democratic institutions were not designed to address these social schisms, nor were they ever intended to. Indigenous peoples have been denied the ability to participate in these institutions in a way that would allow their voices, rights and calls for justice and restitution to be fairly considered.
When good-faith negotiations stall or fail and the alternative is expensive litigation in an over-burdened justice system, we can see how confrontations with Indigenous peoples become inevitable.
The actions and protests we have seen both in recent years and throughout Canadian history are a direct result of this failure to address the foundational causes of these schisms. Because some voices are favoured over others, Indigenous peoples (land defenders) and their supporters no longer perceive our representative institutions as legitimate. They no longer have faith in these institutions’ ability to address the root causes of settler-colonialism or to represent the voices of Indigenous peoples when interests collide across this divide.
When our governments are viewed as illegitimate, so are their processes, decisions and proposed projects. Cracking down on so-called “dissidents or radical activists” with injunctions and police enforcement orders will not provide the legitimacy our institutions require.