Pipelines over People: Canadian First Nations Policing Comes under Scrutiny


Unist’ot’en.camp

Declarations and pledges are all well and good, but when it comes to protecting rights and safety, action is what counts. And where the rights and safety of Canada’s indigenous populations are concerned, so far, the government and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP, often known as “Mounties”) have shown a preference for protecting pipelines over people.

Earlier this month, NPQ reported that Canada’s two-year National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released a report, representing many hours of work and hundreds of pages of data and recommendations. The report confirmed for Canada’s settler government what indigenous peoples already knew: that the violence against indigenous (or First Nations) women and girls, and the failure of government and police to prevent or investigate these crimes, was tantamount to genocide.

Among the report’s 231 Calls for Justice were five demands related to the extractive and development industries, pursuant to the report’s recognition that “resource extraction projects can exacerbate the problem of violence against Indigenous women and girls.”

At the same time, the dispute over the fracked gas pipeline planned through Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia proceeds as though this context—the tradition of colonial violence against First Nations people—were not relevant. NPQ has covered this dispute since January, when RCMP invaded unceded lands to enforce an injunction against the checkpoint constructed by the Unist’ot’en clan to protect their land. The Wet’suwet’en challenged the injunction in court, and this week, judges will announce their decision.

It has not been lost on First Nations that the government seems to spend more resources on protecting the pipeline than protecting their people. Dylan Mazur, a community lawyer with the BC Civil Liberties Association, says northern BC communities often complain they are “over-policed and under-protected.”

First Nations member Jacquie Bowes and hereditary chief Na’Moks both remember investigations of MMIWG that lasted months with little visible action, while within days of a threat to the pipeline, trucks full of police streamed into their communities. A “Community-Industry Safety Office” has been established on Wet’suwet’en land and is consistently staffed by over a dozen officers, says Na’Moks, whose English name is John Ridsdale.

“They’ve put more money into watching us, labelling us and monitoring us than into searching for local murdered and missing women,” he said. “They’re out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they’re not helping our people.” Almost half of missing persons cases in northern British Columbia have not been investigated properly.

The tribe’s court case against the injunction is pending this week, and land defenders at the Unist’ot’en camp have issued calls for support. Their head lawyer Michael Lee Ross issued a nine-part argument for the BC Supreme Court to uphold indigenous law on unceded lands. His points acknowledge important contextual information about indigenous disputes, including:

  • “The existing interim injunction should be dissolved because it already has caused irreparable harm by…interfering in hereditary governance by funding and consulting with divisive groups.”
  • “Indigenous legal orders have jurisdiction on Indigenous lands, Aboriginal Rights and Title have not been ceded or surrendered on Wet’suwet’en Yintah and it is the responsibility of a just and equitable court to reconcile Wet’suwet’en law with the common law and accept some of the burden for this reconciliation. For most of Canada’s legal history Indigenous people have been forced to translate and shape their legal rights in a court system that has repeatedly dispossessed them of those same rights. The burden of reconciliation now falls upon the court, to recognize and affirm Indigenous laws that predate Canada and to reconcile these with non-Indigenous legal perspectives.” MORE

How Indigenous leadership is protecting communities from climate disasters

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A wildfire burns on a logging road in central British Columbia in August 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

“The fires were never a threat to us. It was the state that was the threat.”

In two short sentences Chief Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, conveyed to a House of Commons committee a central insight of disaster studies. The environment does not create disasters — people do.

In 2017, British Columbia experienced the first of two successive years of record-breaking wildfires. On July 7, following 130 lightning strikes, fires (amplified by climate change) tore through the B.C. interior, consumed 760,000 hectares of Tsilhqot’in territory and engulfed three of six Tsilhqot’in communities.

The provincial wildfire response that followed revealed how people — through policies, practices and laws — leave some communities more vulnerable to disasters. It was a striking example of law’s role in disaster, which I mapped in relation to the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. After the 2017 wildfires, I worked with the Tsilhqot’in Nation to document its communities’ experiences with wildfire.

Unequal vulnerability

Decades of research has documented that social factors such as race, gender, ability and poverty contribute to the harms suffered during disasters. Laws and policies that continually marginalize people and communities during ordinary times make these same people vulnerable to disaster.

Wildfire map for the Tsilhqot’in territory during the summer of 2017. Tsilhqot’in National GovernmentAuthor provided

This theory was tested the summer of 2017 when fires raged through Tsilhqot’in territory. The wildfires revealed the inadequacy of existing laws and the ongoing legacy of colonial policies as key culprits in the vulnerability of the Tsilhqot’in during the wildfire response. Confusion and conflict over legal jurisdiction were central and enduring themes of the wildfire response.

Read more: How will Canada manage its wildfires in the future?


Jurisdiction is fundamental to self-determining Indigenous peoples. It is also fundamental to understanding how multiple levels of government and agencies involved in emergency management work together to keep people safe during a crisis. Jurisdiction answers the question: Who gets to decide? MORE

Tsilhqot’in leaders get standing ovation at United Nations forum in New York City

First Nations have to go to the UN to try to implement their 2014 Supreme Court of Canada title victory, attain jurisdiction, and secure basic human rights. The Trudeau government continues to try to define and implement reconciliation in a purely colonial framework. 

The opportunity allowed the chiefs to advocate for the Tsilhqot’in people on the international stage


Chief Joe Alphonse speaks at the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York City Wednesday, May 1. Photo submitted

Representatives from the Tsilhqot’in Nation took centre stage Wednesday in a rare opportunity to speak before the United Nations — and they knocked it out of the park.

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Tsilhqot’in@tsilhqotin

The Tsilhqot’in Nation was proud to take the floor at the @UN Permanent Forum on Issues, honouring their ancestors and the sharing their spirit and culture with Indigenous Nations from around the world.

“I was taken back by the responses from all the delegates that were in attendance as I (the Tsilhqot’in) got the loudest applause and a standing ovation,” TNG Tribal Chair Chief Joe Alphonse said Thursday, thrilled by the response of the crowd.

“Our case gives hope beyond what we could have ever imagined on a world stage.”

Alphonse presented to the Permanent Forum and to hundreds of visiting Indigenous Nations, countries and UN Delegates, speaking about how the Tsilhqot’in War Chiefs of 1864 continue to guide and give strength to the Tsilhqot’in as they seek to implement their 2014 Supreme Court of Canada title victory, and to secure recognition of title and jurisdiction to their Territory.

Alphonse said the chiefs attended the UN to advocate for the Tsilhqot’in people on the international stage, forge alliances and hold the governments accountable for fully implementing their title, jurisdiction and human rights. MORE

Liberals’ Indigenous child welfare bill just about ‘politics,’ says prof who saw draft

Draft bill suggests only Indigenous groups with provincial, federal agreements could create own rules


Dennis McPherson, associate professor of Indigenous learning at Lakehead University, said the draft child welfare bill does not recognize true Indigenous jurisdiction over child welfare or guarantee any funding for communities. (Submitted)

Ottawa’s promised “turning point” Indigenous child welfare legislation seems to have been designed with politics in mind because it sounds good but doesn’t change much, according to an Ojibway academic who reviewed a draft version of the bill.

Dennis McPherson, associate professor for Indigenous Learning at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University, said the draft version of the bill does not recognize true Indigenous jurisdiction over child welfare or guarantee any funding for communities.

“It doesn’t change a whole lot as far as I can see, in that the ultimate voice is still the minister,” said McPherson. MORE

B.C. First Nations back in court over whether governments can restrict their fishing rights

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VANCOUVER—Five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations are in court this week appealing a 2018 B.C. Supreme Court decision they say unduly limits their right to a commercial fishery.

The First Nations are looking to the B.C. Court of Appeal to recognize not just the right to a commercial fishery but one that is sustainable, economically viable and allows “widespread participation of our people.” MORE

Saskatchewan, Ottawa carbon tax case ‘monumental’ for Constitution: expert

REGINA — Legal experts, government officials and industry leaders will all watch this week as Saskatchewan and Ottawa head to court over the constitutionality of a federally imposed carbon tax.

The federal government is set to impose a carbon levy on provinces that do not have one of their own starting in April.

Ottawa’s price on pollution starts at a minimum of $20 a tonne and rises $10 annually until 2022.

The Saskatchewan Party government has always been opposed to the idea. The province says the tax would hurt the economy and feels its own plan for emissions reductions is sufficient. SOURCE

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Judge asks B.C. attorney general to intercede in Unist’ot’en arrests

Judge agrees it is in ‘public interest’ for Crown to intervene as those arrested make first court appearance


Molly Wickham brought a talking stick with eagle feathers to B.C. Supreme Court in Prince George on Tuesday. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

B.C.’s attorney general has been asked to intervene after the controversial arrests of 14 people in a dispute between an LNG pipeline company and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

The intervention request came Monday from a B.C. Supreme Court judge in Prince George. Madame Justice Church agreed with a defence application, stating it is in the “public interest to invite the Crown to intercede.”

The ruling came as most of the 14 people arrested by RCMP last month made their first appearance in court.  All are facing contempt proceedings for defying a court order while blocking Coastal GasLink’s access to a potential pipeline route.

“The bigger issue has to do with our hereditary system and with government and industry asserting jurisdiction on our territories,” she said outside court. “They have to look at the evidence and see if they want to proceed with these charges. It may not be in the public interest.” MORE

The Unist’ot’en stand-off: How Canada’s “prove-it” mentality undermines reconciliation

Wet'suwet'en Solidarity rally in Vancouver, Jan. 2019 (Photo: Eugene Kung)

…It is certainly true that, where an Indigenous nation brings a title claim in court, the court will expect that nation to prove its claim. The procedural double standard in this approach has been pointed out by observers such as Professor John Borrows, who rhetorically asks: “Why should the Aboriginal group bear the burden of reconciliation by proving its occupation of land? After all, the Crown is the subsequent claimant. Why should the Crown not have to prove its land claims?” Nonetheless it is obvious that Canadian courts accept Crown title based, as Professor Borrows puts it, on “bare words,” while expecting Indigenous nations to prove their claim to pre-existing Aboriginal title.

Aboriginal rights are inherent – not granted by Canadian law

What the RCMP statement does not address, however, and what is often overlooked in the “prove-it” approach, is that Aboriginal title and governance exist and apply in Canadian law now, even if the bounds of title lands have not been delineated in a court case.

Peter Grant, a lawyer for the Wet’suwet’en, summarized this well in his recent response to the RCMP’s media statement: “it’s not that title doesn’t exist pre-declaration, it’s that the government is refusing to recognize title before a court declaration.” MORE

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