As I write this article, all the headlines on Canada’s news websites are dominated by COVID-19, rapidly dropping oil prices and the possibility of the economy opening up again. You could be forgiven for assuming that everything to do with the dispute a few kilometres down the Morice West Forest Service Road in northern B.C. must be done and settled. After all, if media coverage has moved on, everything must be okay now, right?
Not so fast. A wise observer will recognize that the Unist’ot’en crisis was not created in a vacuum. Rather, it is simply the latest flashpoint in Canada’s complicated and painful relationship with Indigenous people that pre-dates Confederation itself.
As I discuss the present dispute with non-Indigenous people in this area, there are two common misconceptions that need constant correction.
First, the land title issue in nearly all of B.C. – and on the Wet’suwet’en’s 22,000 km2 in particular – is unsettled legal business. Treaties (based on the presumption of title by the Crown) were supposed to be signed between the British Crown at the time of colonial rule in the 1850s but were not. It needs to be stated that Indigenous people never gave up, surrendered, sold or lost through warfare their title to what we call B.C. It was simply a slow, intentional take-over by settler society, government and industry. This is the legal reality we live with today in B.C. To deny this because it is awkward, complicated or economically inconvenient is simply not an option for justice-seeking followers of Jesus Christ. We know from Scripture what God thinks of broken promises!
Second, the difference between the elected band councils and the hereditary system of governance is only slowly becoming understood by those of us who are non-Indigenous. Band councils are a creation of the federal Indian Act originally meant to assimilate Indigenous people into the dominant culture. The hereditary system refers to the pre-existing and continuous system of governance that has developed and stewarded this part of the province for thousands and thousands of years. The two bodies do not always see eye to eye, but the sympathetic reader will recognize that there have certainly been times when their own family and/or church leadership have disagreed on important issues. It is important to note that both forms of Indigenous governance are committed to the well-being of their people. They simply differ over what this looks like and how to move forward.
How do we move forward?
What does the future hold for the Wet’suwet’en, the province of B.C., for Canada, for all of us? The truth is, no one knows, of course. One thing that is for sure – the “good old days” of government and industry being able to do as they please on unceded, traditional territories are over.
The Coastal Gas Link vs. Unis’tot’en issue has highlighted the wisdom of government and industry now including traditional forms of leadership in future economic development discussions. This will likely become the “new normal” of living and doing business in B.C. In fact, in mid-May, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was reached between the federal, the provincial, and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs that is designed to provide guidance on legally recognizing and implementing Wet’suwet’en rights and title over their unceded, traditional territories.
Will this new normal slow economic development down? Certainly. Will everyone be happy with this new arrangement? Certainly not. Already some of the elected Wet’suwet’en band chiefs and councils are voicing their frustrations with the process and the MOU itself. Some are going so far as to call for the resignation of federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett over their frustrations. It is quite likely that non-Indigenous people will also oppose the MOU for yet other reasons. Interestingly, although the CGL vs. Unistoten debate was the background cause behind these most recent negotiations, the MOU does not address, nor resolve, this particular thorny issue. Is this new way the best way forward for the Wet’suwet’en, for industry, for justice? Time will tell. One thing is for sure, the former way of doing business through marginalization and exploitation created this present crisis and has laid the seeds for future crises yet to unfold. Perhaps this present MOU – to be ratified over the next few months, can provide a more just way forward for everyone, and especially for those who have been historically oppressed and marginalized.
The trouble with treaties
Treaties – such as the one the Nisga’a achieved 20 years ago and spent 115 years fighting for– are not necessarily the best solution on the issue of unresolved land title in B.C. Treaties generally require extinguishment of title by the cooperating Indigenous group, which is not always in their best interest. Many Indigenous groups, including the Wet’suwet’en, are more interested in retaining title and negotiating shared-land-use policies with government and industry. It may be more complicated, but the present reality also carries a deep cost that goes far beyond economics. As Westernized Christians, we need to remind ourselves that economic growth is not the standard by which we should measure success. Justice, mercy and humility matter far more in the Kingdom of God than GDP.
We have to get used to a new normal. The previous way of living, being, doing business and industry is no more. How we respond to this may become the defining issue of faith for the next generation of the Christian church. Rather than reacting in fear or pining for a romanticized bygone era, Christ’s followers should look at the present reality as an opportunity to show love, mercy and humility to all. As we do, may his Kingdom be established here on earth. To God be the glory.
Ways for us to respond to Indigenous land rights conflicts that require no special expertise:
- Be respectful. Imagine if your family fight was being played out publicly. Would you want others watching? Judging? Advising? Filming? Pray instead for justice, peaceful resolution and healing.
- Be considerate. These issues are very complex and rooted in more than 150 years of marginalization and disenfranchisement by very powerful forces. They will not be solved quickly, nor are they ours to solve. Be an advocate for a way forward that involves restoration, healing and reconciliation. It is a much harder road to walk, but it is our calling as Christ’s disciples.
- Refrain. Refrain from the apparently endless need to post, re-post and comment and re-comment on social media or around the coffee table. Be especially careful with the material and views on social media that deny history, overlook the depth of trauma in Indigenous communities, provide simple answers and generally favour an economic outlook on life that does not seem to question economic progress and development.
- Be humble. The present rift within the Wet’suwet’en community is ultimately a creation of our own government’s historic actions through its policies. We have voted for, supported and benefited from these governments and their policies for generations. That it is now apparently costing us and making us impatient needs to be put in historical context. Why were we as a church so complicit and indifferent through generations of Indigenous impatience?
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