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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde during the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in 2015.
If Justin Trudeau had actually done what he said he was going to do – by putting forward a legislative solution that placed Indigenous people in control of their own destinies – we might not be in this mess.
Justin Trudeau’s statement to the House of Commons on the rail blockade choking the country was condemned as “the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history” by Opposition leader Andrew Scheer.
Even many Liberals considered it thin soup – lacking in fortitude and resolve.
Trudeau has been prone to being prone on the blockades. Anyone hoping he’d condemn protests by a tiny minority that threaten real hardship for the vast majority were sorely disappointed.
The prime minister called for more dialogue and rejected the enforcement of the injunctions that Canadian National Railways obtained nearly two weeks ago.
“Patience may be in short supply and that’s what makes it more valuable than ever,” he said.
It all made for an uproarious question period, in which Scheer portrayed the prime minister as someone trying to conciliate a tiger by allowing himself to be eaten.
“On what day will these illegal blockades be taken down?” Scheer asked.
Trudeau responded that the path forward should be one of reconciliation and dialogue. “The Conservative Party’s heavy-handed approach will plunge the country into long-term chaos,” he said.
In this he is undoubtedly correct but it is risible to blame the opposition when he is the leader of the party of reconciliation. He made repairing the relationship with Indigenous Canadians central to his election platform in 2015. He stood up in the House of Commons two years ago and unveiled plans for a rights recognition framework that was scheduled to be in place before the last election.
If he’d actually done what he said he was going to do – by putting forward a legislative solution that placed Indigenous people in control of their own destinies – we might not be in this mess. The Wet’suwet’en First Nation would be resolving its own governance issues between hereditary and elected chiefs, rather than the former fomenting discontent across the country.
Following through on this promise on rights and land is likely to be part of the long-term solution, although there has been no suggestion from Trudeau or his Crown-Indigenous minister, Carolyn Bennett, that they have a game-plan after their initial efforts were dismissed by Indigenous leaders as paternalistic.
The good news is that most First Nations see no future in confrontation
On Trudeau’s contention that the use of force would plunge the country into a state of lawlessness, the prime minister is on much firmer ground.
Academics at Oxford University undertook an empirical analysis of what makes countries prone to civil war and anarchy. They concluded there was little evidence that motivation was the decisive factor but lots of evidence to support their “feasibility” hypothesis, that where a rebellion is financially and militarily feasible, it will occur.
Seven years ago, writer Douglas Bland penned an essay for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute think-tank that applied the feasibility hypothesis to Canada.
His conclusion was that Indigenous unrest is very feasible. Nearly half of all Indigenous Canadians are under 30, many of whom are poorly educated, unemployed and angry.
The Canadian economy is dependent on moving resources over long, hard-to-defend transportation routes.
Security forces are limited by capacity and the will of their leaders to confront Indigenous protesters.
It’s a near perfect storm of feasibility. As Bland concluded, in a number of provinces, security is whatever First Nations allow it to be.
The logic of the feasibility hypothesis is that governments must pursue a dual track of improving security – taking more stringent steps to safeguard critical infrastructure – while creating conditions for more happy outcomes – recognition of Indigenous land title and rights.
The good news is that most First Nations see no future in confrontation and are committed to peaceful co-existence, as long as it is accompanied by mutual respect.
An Environics poll last year indicated three quarters of Indigenous youth are optimistic about reconciliation.
The court system has given Indigenous people much greater influence in resource development. But many clearly do not feel that the Trudeau government has lived up to its side of that bargain. Hundreds of land claims are still outstanding and the court process is costly and cumbersome. Government has the ability to settle many grievances by transferring money, land or power to First Nations. The trade off would be certainty and reconciliation.
If there is a silver lining in the current impasse, it is that more Canadians are coming around to the idea that a new deal with this country’s Indigenous population is needed if true mutual accommodation is to be reached.
Author Ed Whitcomb noted in his new book, Understanding First Nations, that every attempt to assimilate Indigenous Canadians and take away their rights has failed.
The logical response is that Canadian governments of all stripes will have to address land claims and other rights issues if they want to build healthy, self-governing First Nations that pay their own way.
The gloomy alternative is to test whether the feasibility hypothesis applies in this country.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020