Since much of the moral indignation fueling the Canadian indigenous rights movement is rooted in opposition to an enormous historical fact — the conquest of North America by non-indigenous peoples — it’s easy for them to reach an equally enormous conclusion: The land should be given back.
There’s much to suggest this project of post-colonial dissolution is the path Canada’s currently on.
Beginning in 2010, organized opposition has incrementally arisen in response to a long-proposed plan to build a 416-mile fracked gas pipeline in British Columbia through what is asserted to be the “traditional territory” of the Wet’suwet’en nation. Though the pipeline has been approved by numerous democratically elected Wet’suwet’en councils, critics say such councils are illegitimate, since they’re creations of settler laws regulating indigenous governance. True authority rests with the Wet’suwet’en’s hereditary chiefs, who represent pre-colonial authority. It’s not clear if the Wet’suwet’en chiefs care that much about the pipeline per se — they proposed their own route for it at one point. What matters is that their power be recognized.
The Wet’suwet’en chiefs contest the authority of Canadian law. Their supporters have behaved in kind, illegally blockading train tracks and bridges across the country, causing widespread economic disruption.
In response, those opposing the protests have demanded Canadian authorities “uphold the rule of law.” But whose law? As protester Sarah Rotz, who is also a professor at York University, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., “When we use terms like the rule of law, we’re ignoring Indigenous legal systems and we’re assuming that the colonial legal system is the only legal system.”
Few Canadian politicians have contested this framing. On Friday, a clearly exhausted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that it was time for the protests to stop — indicating that his prior apprehension about using force had ended. Yet he was nevertheless careful to qualify his words with constant assurances that a negotiated solution was still possible, and that his administration was still committed to following the “path of reconciliation” — the term politicians use to signal their willingness to engage with aboriginal authority on equal footing.
Trudeau’s timidness personifies a Canadian political class increasingly unsure whether their own power is legitimate. Indian treaties were formally granted the supremacy of constitutional law in the 1980s, and since the 1990s, the Canadian judiciary has been chipping away at the idea that the Canadian state should always prevail when it collides with indigenous assertions of authority.
New legal theories positing that aboriginal bands like the Wet’suwet’en still hold “title” to their lands, and that the settler governments have a “duty to consult” with what activists call Canada’s “rightful owners,” imply the existence of a vague and open-ended indigenous legal authority that is at the very least coequal to that of Canada. Ponderous “explainers” created by Wet’suwet’en and others have circulated during the recent protests, informing readers of the legal precedents buttressing the protesters’ arguments. The intimidating prose reflects the degree to which Canada’s indigenous rights movement has become deeply lawyer-centric.
Last November, the British Columbia parliament accelerated things when it unanimously passed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms that indigenous people possess a right to exercise political authority independently from the states they inhabit. Trudeau’s government plans to entrench the declaration in federal law, too.
Revolutions rarely begin from a cold start; instead, they usually arise after piecemeal reforms fail to appease a group of critics, while still justifying their criticism. As the Vancouver Sun reported, the indigenous rights cause now unifies a broad coalition of Canadian activists, including those involved in climate change, social justice and anti-capitalism.
This only makes sense. A movement that believes it is desirable to severely weaken, or even dissolve, the state in order to achieve some larger goal, whether it’s a socialist utopia or green one, will naturally latch onto any movement with shared objectives. This is why it is unpersuasive when conservatives complain, with performative empathy, that “non-indigenous activists” have hijacked the cause of the Wet’suwet’en, or whoever. The more important question is why this cause is so easily hijacked in the first place, and whether it was wise for Canada to have accepted the existence of an independent indigenous political authority without establishing clear parameters around it.
The present crisis is another example of how the Canadian state has embarked upon a remarkable social experiment of gradually devolving its responsibility to uphold the broad national interest — particularly the approval of economically critical natural resource projects — to anyone who claims to speak for Canada’s 1.7 million indigenous residents.
This is a risky and radical political idea, and it should be treated with the sort of skepticism all risky and radical ideas deserve. Absent any threat of genuinely revolutionary violence — which a few blockaded train tracks certainly do not represent — it should never be forgotten that the Canadian state is only as powerless as it chooses to be.
Why has Canada chosen this?