As a relatively new federation, the colonization of Canada was deeply rooted in resource extraction. European explorers initially capitalized on the abundance of life in the vast landscape, trading with long-established First Nations communities for furs before establishing their own settlements and beginning their rapid expansion and domination. Through extensive conflict, oppression, and subjection Canada eventually became an established British colony. Many settlers soon migrated to the resource-rich land where they laboured intensively in logging, mining, farming, and fishing to earn a meagre living.
Though the colony signed treaties with the majority of the First Nations across what is now Canada, only two treaties were historically signed in British Columbia. As such, no formal agreements between the provincial, federal, and majority of the First Nations governments within the provincial boundaries exist. The First Nations who have traditionally occupied these regions consider the lands to be unceded, meaning that the lands were never yielded through formal treaties and therefore they can continue to exercise their traditional rights within their territories. In practice though most of the province has been appropriated by the Crown and now falls under the management of resource extraction companies.
As stewards of their traditional territories, many First Nations have engaged with companies wishing to operate on their lands and have formed alliances allowing both parties to benefit. Many First Nations have also begun to develop their own local industries, providing valuable jobs and training opportunities for community members. However, where companies have attempted to assert themselves or impose industrial projects that threaten the health and well being of the population and natural environment, communities have risen defiantly in opposition.
The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs of Northwestern B.C. have declared their contention with the multi-billion dollar Coastal GasLink LNG project designed to carve through their traditional territory. Although the elected band council has signed a formal agreement with the pipeline company, the hereditary chiefs whose authority is defined under traditional practices have erected blockades along the access route required for the project development. Under an injunction order from the B.C. Supreme Court, RCMP have moved to dismantle the blockades and have arrested individuals involved in the protest. The actions of the RCMP have since sparked nation-wide protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en, blockading rail lines, highways, and bridges to raise awareness of the Wet’suwet’en’s rights and pressure the provincial and federal governments to reconsider their positions.
Indigenous populations around the world have long been the last defence against industrial development and resource extraction whose practices have severely damaged the environment and adversely impacted local populations. Under the unscrupulous governance of some countries whose interests are aligned with the industrial companies, many of those indigenous opponents have been murdered or imprisoned to remove any possible obstructions. Canada, a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), has an obligation to ensure free, prior, and informed consent from First Nations concerning any development within their territories. The removal of the protesters from their territory may in fact violate the UNDRIP, placing Canada in contravention of its responsibilities.
All people share the same essential requirements to provide the means to support themselves. However, as our survival also depends on the health of the environment we share a duty to ensure that our activities do not damage the fragile ecosystems on which we rely. As a Canadian I am indebted to those First Nations who have acted with courage and foresight to protect the integrity of environment where they saw the potential for harm. Regardless of how we may perceive their judgment on the associated risks of industrial development, we should respect the rights of indigenous populations to act as stewards of their lands from which we all benefit.