McNeil on Wet’suwet’en Support Actions: ‘It’s Not the Mi’kmaq’

Premier Stephen McNeil has been visiting Nova Scotia Chambers of Commerce — Halifax, Yarmouth, Sydney — to discuss the State of the Province with people who have paid to listen to him.

The Sydney event — a Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce “member-exclusive” gathering (billed as a ‘fireside’ discussion although I don’t believe there’s a fireplace in the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion) — allowed the premier to by-pass the press and the general public and speak directly to the people who matter, the business community.

Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Kathleen Yurcheson and Premier Stephen McNeil

Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Kathleen Yurcheson and Premier Stephen McNeil having a “fireside chat” without a fire.

 

The rest of us could watch the livestream, but not ask questions, which was the prerogative of those who’d paid to attend.

One of those questions, put to the premier by Chamber CEO Kathleen Yurchesyn in her role as moderator, concerned the ongoing actions across the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposing the Coastal GasLink project in British Columbia.

Here’s how the first part of that exchange went:

Yurchesyn:

The pipeline protest that’s happening right now across various areas of Canada — is there a role that the province plans on taking in terms of those…protests, specifically regarding the shipment of goods that are affecting here locally businesses but across the province?

McNeil:

[W]e have a role to play. This is a national issue, it belongs to the national government. When it comes to dealing with the issues of this whole protest that’s happening –and I do want to comment on the protest itself in a minute but…specifically to your question. If, for example, somebody is being protested, they would go to court to get an injunction, whether it’s a public infrastructure that we the government would go…to court to get an injunction. And then we’d have the law enforcement agencies in our province to…uphold the law.

If it is private or commercial entity, then they would have to…go and get the injunction and then we would expect, quite frankly, if there’s an injunction ordered by the court of our province we expect law enforcement agency to enforce the injunction.

We cannot allow, in my humble opinion, a small number of Canadians who are upset to hold up the economic future of Canada. We rely on that rail line. We rely on our highway infrastructure. And goods and services should be moved across that.

Jennifer Ditchburn, editor-in-chief of Policy Options, actually made short work of this line of argument earlier this week, in an article entitled, “The breathtaking hypocrisy of the howls for “rule of law.

For more than 150 years, Indigenous governance structures and legal systems have been dismantled, local knowledge and language deliberately decimated, treaties violated, and Indigenous land settled without a legal leg to stand on. Still, even with all the bad laws, bad faith, and shrugging off the rule of law, we can’t seem to muster as a country a heartbeat of empathy or patience or self awareness.

We also ignore that the courts have acknowledged repeatedly that Indigenous laws and rights are part of the rule of law in Canada. “Indigenous legal traditions are among Canada’s legal traditions. They form part of the law of the land,” Federal Court Justice Sébastien Grammond wrote in a 2018 decision.

National newspaper columnists have called the Wet’suwet’en system of governance an “oligarchy” and based on a “feudal genealogy,” but the Courts (which help shape the rule of law) haven’t shown that disdain. The Supreme Court has acknowledged the limits of the Indian Act-prescribed structures when considering the holders of Aboriginal title – and dealt specifically with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ authority in the 1997 Delgamuukw decision.  In the Supreme Court of British Columbia Tsilhqot’in decision, Justice David Vickers put it succinctly: “While band level organization may have meaning to a Canadian federal bureaucracy, it is without any meaning in the resolution of Aboriginal title and rights for Tsilhqot’in people.”

(It also occurs to me that a country led by a prime minister who is the son of a former prime minister might want to consider the “hereditary” aspects of its own system of governance.)

Protesters block the Ceres container terminal in Halifax in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en First Nation. (Photo by: Jack Julian/CBC)

Protesters block the Ceres container terminal in Halifax in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. (Photo by: Jack Julian/CBC)

But McNeil wasn’t done. Having discussed the protests purely in terms of how he will, if necessary, shut them down, he had another point to make:

Now here, I do want to address this, this is about a First Nations pipeline, First Nations in British Columbia. I want to recognizes [Membertou] Chief [Terry] Paul who’s here and I’ve said this, I said this in Yarmouth in front of [Acadia First Nation] Chief [Deborah] Robinson, [wags finger] let’s not make the mistake that the protests you’re seeing in this province are being led by the Mi’kmaq. Let’s not fall into the old trap of being divided based on this. These are people who have a…bee in their bonnet about something, who are using this as an opportunity to protest, which they have the right to do, but it’s not the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia who are out protesting and stopping the investments that were being made in that, Terry and the chiefs have been a great partner for us…

[A]nd I..would argue that Nova Scotia has the model for Canada when it comes to relationships with the First Nations people. We have the Tripartite [that] has gone back as far as Premier Savage, back in the 1990s and worked through every political party of all political stripes to continue to build a relationship with our 13 communities here and when you’re listening to what’s happening across the country, much of the conversation is focused on hereditary chiefs or those that are elected in First Nations. In this province, the First Nations have been tremendous economic partners for us and you guys would know better than anyone when it comes to Membertou, and they are not the ones that are causing the issue when it comes to things that are happening in our province.

And I, as your premier, want to make sure that we fully understand that the relationship with our First Nations is paramount, it’s one built on respect and they are not the ones driving and slowing down any economic development here or, quite frankly, the goods and services moving across our country…But, I as the premier, if it becomes an issue for us, we will do what is required to ensure the economic future of our province continues to move forward.

This seems wrongheaded to me for two reasons (three if you include that weird “I as your premier” stuff.)

First, because Mi’kmaw activists like Pam Palmater, a lawyer and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, have been clear they welcome non-Indigenous Canadians “standing in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and all First Nations engaging in solidarity actions all over Turtle Island.” Palmater’s “Canadian allies and supporters” are McNeil’s “people with a bee in their bonnet.”

And second, McNeil seems to be saying that Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, as a bloc, don’t support the Wet’suwet’en Nation. This may be the message he’s hearing, but it doesn’t jibe with what I am seeing on social media. Literally minutes after his “State of the Province” chat ended, I noticed this in my Facebook feed:

 

 

Under “details” it says:

Join us for Ceremony and a peaceful information ‘slowdown’ at the Canso Causeway, Mi’kma’ki

Unama’ki Kiju’aq-Grandmothers STAND with our L’nupsku’k Wapanaki nations including Mohawk we hold Wampum with them, we have duty to uphold when they bring out Two-Row Wampum.

And even as McNeil spoke yesterday, the Sipekne’katik First Nation was in court, fighting his government’s decision to allow Alton Gas Storage to hollow out salt caverns and flush the resulting brine into the Shubenacadie River. Jennifer Henderson, reporting on the proceedings for the Halifax Examiner, quoted the lawyer for the Sipekne’katik First Nation, Ray Larkin:

“In Nova Scotia, the British crown asserted sovereignty in 1713. With the Treaty of Paris, they got mainland Nova Scotia. And when they asserted sovereignty, the only people apart from a few French who lived down in Port Royale, were the Mi’kmaq people who had lived here for millennia and who had control of the land, and the resources, and who had a system of governance,” explained Ray Larkin to journalists following the court session.

“So, what is required in the legal process we are involved in here is finding reconciliation between those rights that existed and haven’t been taken away and the legal system that we have in place which doesn’t actually take into account those things. It’s a process of reconciliation and respect.”

This fight, happening in his own province, is not unlike what is happening in British Columbia. It’s part of Canada coming to terms with what Ditchburn called our bad laws and bad faith in dealing with Indigenous Canadians, and as Tuma Young, an assistant professor in Indigenous Studies/Political Science at Cape Breton University (and second vice-president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society), said this week:

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Reconciliation is hard, and easy answers — like, get an injunction to stop these people with the bees in their bonnets — aren’t going to cut it.