That word has been used by the Canadian government to describe their supposed desire to make things right with the indigenous people after centuries of ongoing genocide. But “reconciliation” is not an official policy but rather a political buzzword repurposed to signal moral progress on indigenous issues.
However, right now it is very hard to argue that Canada’s treatment of indigenous people actually has progressed.
Canada has a long history of disregarding indigenous rights to push forward corporate economic interests. In fact, one could say that’s a condensed version of the entire history of Canada. The founding and expansion of Canada is deeply indebted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, a fur-trading business that ultimately helped colonize much of western Canada. This connection runs so deep that Sir James Douglas, the “Father of British Columbia,” was both head of the Hudson’s Bay Company and governor of Vancouver Island for several years, before stepping down from his HBC post to become governor of British Columbia. King Charles II even “granted” the Hudson’s Bay Company roughly a third of Canada’s land mass, all without consulting or making treaties with any of the indigenous people who had cared for that land for centuries. Such is the arrogance of colonialism.
That same arrogance is what led to this moment.
Almost the entire province of British Columbia is unceded territory, which means that there was never any legal extinguishment of indigenous title on those lands. This position was reinforced with the landmark 1997 Supreme Court ruling Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, which found section 35 of the Canadian Constitution protected indigenous title claims. The Delgamuukw decision also determined that provinces could not extinguish indigenous title. At the time, British Columbia was trying to argue that the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan nations’ titles to their respective lands had extinguished the moment British Columbia became a province.
The Canadian government has had more than 20 years since this decision to try to find a way to legally justify controlling Wet’suwet’en land, which they still have no title for. Since the Indian Act prevented indigenous people from hiring lawyers without government permission from 1927 to 1951, the Canadian government had an additional 24 years to make their land theft legitimate within their own legal framework. They could have done this any time within the past 153 years Canada has existed.
But they didn’t.
Then there’s the tricky issue of what “consent” actually means. For nearly 10 years, the conservative government of Stephen Harper refused to sign on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) because it took issue with the requirement that indigenous nations have “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) when it comes to any laws or land developments that impact them.
That changed when Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015. He campaigned on the promise that when indigenous nations said no to development, it would “absolutely” mean no. By May 2016, it seemed like Trudeau would make good on this promise, as Canada officially removed its objector status to UNDRIP.
But when Trudeau approved the Trans Mountain pipeline that same year, he changed course, saying indigenous nations “don’t have a veto” over proposed projects in their territories. Come the 2019 election cycle, after his government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline project without consulting either Canadians or indigenous nations, Trudeau returned to his previous promise, saying he would fully implement UNDRIP into Canadian law if reelected.
Since then, the Trudeau government has not elaborated on what “free, prior and informed consent” might mean in a Canadian legal context, nor have officials clarified how Canada can claim to have consent at all when there is no way for indigenous nations to legally say no.
Further, though Coastal GasLink has received consent from Wet’suwet’en band councils to build the pipeline, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs from all five clans have insisted title lies with them, not the band councils, and they are the only ones who can give consent. This indigenous governance issue, too, is a legacy of the Canadian government’s policies. Canada’s Indian Act forced band councils onto indigenous territories, displacing traditional governance and creating political turmoil within communities.
But though many nations no longer have traditional leadership as a result of this political interference, the Wet’suwet’en do. So which is the real Wet’suwet’en government: the traditional one people have held onto despite colonial interference or the one that’s paid by — and accountable to — the Canadian government?
Canada’s perpetual prioritizing of corporate interests above all else — even its own laws — got us into this mess. To get out of it will require actually working with indigenous nations as equals, which means allowing our nations the right to say no.
If reconciliation isn’t just an empty word; if the Canadian government really does value its relationship with indigenous people; if the rule of law does apply to everyone, including Canadian politicians, multinational corporations and police, perhaps it’s time for Canada to prove it.