Standing in Calgary’s downtown on Wednesday, I felt the unfamiliar and nostalgic presence of spring as the wind whipped around me and the rays of sunshine crept through concrete crevasses. I held my protesting sign tight and gazed at the tall, grey buildings in the skyline, while also detecting the politically charged atmosphere of the morning. After a quick, but steady scan, I observed an eccentric – yet effective – fusion of people. Supporting the Yinka Dene Alliance (consisting of five Dakelh and Sekani communities – Nadleh Whut’en, Nak’azdli Whut’en, Saik’uz First Nation, Takla Lake First Nation, and Wet’suwet’en) in their fight to stop an unauthorized Enbridge pipeline from invading their traditional territories, an assortment of First Nation activists (including Yinka Dene Aliiance, Cree, Tsay Keh Dene, and Gwich’in – to name a few), along with feminists, environmentalists, anti-tar sands activists, business people, and the passive curious gathered to stand up against oil companies, against big business, against government, and against earth-damaging practices.
The Yinka Dene Alliance is the next group of Aboriginal peoples to be entangled in the complex and disturbing saga of Canadian oil development and extraction. They oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal that, if approved, will run through the interiors of Alberta and British Columbia, affecting the land and livelihoods of communities, as well the Fraser River and other important waterways. These challenges are familiar to First Nation communities. Battles over land rights and resources, indeed, have been and are at the crux of colonialism in Canada. Today’s events were a poignant expression of how historical forces come into play and materialize in very tangible, unambiguous ways.
The ownership of land was essential to all that Canada desired – immigration and settlement, the development of railways, and a prosperous economy. Treaties were signed beginning in 1871 between some First Nation groups and the Dominion Government of Canada – only if and when necessary. The federal government has in many ways failed to live up to the true spirit of the treaties and scholars generally agree that agreements were made based on misconceptions and deceit, with First Nation groups receiving the brunt end of the deal.
The Indian Act of 1876, and its many amendments, further impaired the ability of First Nations to equally engage in the economy and undermined key cultural traditions. The Indian Act was largely based on nineteenth-century racist assumptions about the role of so-called ‘Indians’ and their relationship to the British (who were thought to be morally and culturally superior). The Indian Act lives on today, ensuring the legacy of oppression. Other factors, as a result of newcomer relations, led to the deterioration of First Nation communities, such as disappearance of the buffalo, widespread disease and epidemic, and the creation of reserves, which hindered First Nation mobility and traditional ways. Residential schools and heightened levels of cultural genocide brought other devastating challenges.
If we fast-forward several decades into the mid-twentieth century, things began to turn around for Canada’s First Peoples, but only after years of hardship and despair. Cultural expressions are no longer outlawed – communities can freely practice the potlatch and sundance without the fear of incarceration. Aboriginal peoples are now able to hire legal counsel – a right they had not previously enjoyed, and thus were unable to file suits against the government about a variety of issues, such as land conflicts and the position and treatment of their children in residential schools. They are now allowed to vote. These small successes were followed by other positive changes – historic legal cases that recognized Aboriginal land title and the reinstatement of Indian Status to those who had lost their rights based upon unconstitutional terms. But with the rise of consumerism and a new emphasis on oil and resource extraction, First Nation communities found themselves embroiled in new struggles.
These struggles are familiar to many of Canada’s First Peoples – just ask the Dene and the Inuvialuit of the Northwest Territories, as the memories of the Berger Inquiry and the recently approved Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Project linger. Or how about the Lubicon Cree and their recent struggles for fair treatment and justice on their traditional lands? And in light of pipeline that spilled 4.5 million litres of oil in northern Alberta – a pipeline owned by Plains Midstream Canada – one must ask how this tragic event further complicates and supports the First Nation stand against aggressive and irresponsible oil development? Similar challenges are evident throughout the vast country of Canada.
I was honoured to be a part of today’s protest. On my way home to Morinville this afternoon, mesmerized by the beauty of the prairies and blazing sun, I reflected on my trip to Calgary and my participation in today’s events. I pondered the ways in which I am connected to oil, to resource extraction, and to our capitalist economy – a personal exercise that all Canadians ought to undergo. While it is widely recognized that our dependence on oil products is embedded in modern Canadian society, there must be a better way of doing things, a better way to interact with Canadians, Aboriginal or not. Powerful historical forces and post-colonial attitudes based on capitalist ideals are clearly at play. But change is possible. And while changes have been made, environmental policies remain wanting. On May 2, Canada’s political leaders asked Canadians to consider what kind of Canada they desired, what kinds of ideals our country should be based on. I end my discussion asking the same question: what kind of Canada do you want? What are you willing to live with or without? Are you willing to be an active participant in seeking fair and just treatment for your fellow Canadians? Or will you settle for the passive role of silence, for silence is the voice of complicity.