Canadian government’s deafening silence amidst aboriginals’ cry for environmental justice

Renu MehtaRenu Mehta | Updated: 29-02-2020 00:51 IST | Created: 29-02-2020 00:48 IST
Canadian government’s deafening silence amidst aboriginals’ cry for environmental justice
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Just after dawn on February 24th, police descended on the blockade erected by activists from the Tyendinaga Mohawk nation to protest the construction of British Columbia’s Coastal GasLink pipeline, forcing the protestors to the ground and cuffing them with zip-ties. The police action followed prime minister Justin Trudeau’s remarks Friday that “Canadians have been patient. Our government has been patient. But […] the barricades need to come down now.” 

The arrested activists are unlikely to think that Trudeau’s Liberal government exhibited much patience. Instead, they perceive the Coastal GasLink dispute as to the latest example of Ottawa’s reluctance to upset industrial champions and protect indigenous communities from social and environmental damages.

More than 25% of the proposed pipeline will run through the Wet’suwet’en people’s traditional lands, including important archaeological sites. But—even as protests have spread across Canada and disrupted rail traffic, the activists’ blockades have failed to derail the pipeline’s construction – once more putting to shame the Trudeau government’s promises to protect indigenous rights.

History of oppression

Trudeau’s woke rhetoric may have earned him international praise, but the charismatic Canadian premier’s record on environmental justice has always been spotty. The Liberal leader was re-elected last year on a promise to make Canada carbon-free by 2050—but his government has consistently given tax breaks to Big Oil, poured billions into the gas sector, and failed to meet emissions targets. To make matters worse, entrenched environmental racism means that the free pass Ottawa has handed polluting industries has disproportionately affected indigenous communities whose ancestral lands happened to be in the way of mineral riches.

While indigenous activists have fought to make heavy industry clean up their act and pay adequate reparations for the environmental damage they have wrought, voices against these toxic industries in Canada are silenced using a slippery-slope argument that regulating them will lead to job losses and will ultimately harm the economy.

For example, Ottawa has characterised Alberta’s oil sands—the world’s most destructive oil operation, which has razed the boreal forest and left the landscape dotted with noxious tailings ponds—as an economic success story. There’s a grain of truth in this, of course—the industry is one of Canada’s largest employers, providing jobs to 400,000 people. But at what cost?

Industries built on the backs of First Nations communities

The cost is disproportionately borne by the First Nations communities in whose backyards these massive industrial projects take place. In Alberta, aboriginal groups from the Chipewyan to the Cree are paying the price of the so-called ‘golden economic boom’ brought by the province’s oil sands.

As indigenous climate activist Eriel Deranger highlighted: “[The oil industry] has had a huge impact on caribou, bison, moose, birds, fish, the water, the forest. It’s affected our ability to travel, to gather food from the land”. This degradation of the environment is predicted to get worse—according to one study, the exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands may cause acid rain to fall over an area the size of Germany. 

Alberta’s indigenous peoples have repeatedly voiced their concerns over the enormous open-pit mines marring the once-pristine landscape. The Fort McKay First Nation, for example, is taking on the provincial government in court, demanding that it respect their treaty rights when extracting oil. The industry, however, continues to enjoy support from Canadian politicians. After Teck Resources recently announced it was withdrawing plans to build a huge new mine, Albertan premier Jason Kenney dubbed the move “devastating news for the Canadian economy, especially for Albertans and indigenous people”.

A half-century of unfulfilled promises in Nova Scotia

Another quintessential example of how criminally slow the Canadian government has been in tackling environmental racism is the decades of false promises made to the Pictou Landing First Nation, who live around Boat Harbour in Nova Scotia. For centuries, the estuary was an essential part of the indigenous community’s livelihood: a place for fishing, boating and swimming.

That all changed when the powerful paper industry set its sights on the picturesque lagoon. Since the Northern Pulp mill was built in 1965, Pictou Landing has protested the rampant pollution of Boat Harbour—now filled with nearly a trillion litres of dark brown wastewater—but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Despite pledging a clean-up in 1993, 1995, 2002 and again in 2006, the Nova Scotia government continued to grant funds and incentives to the mill owner, Paper Excellence.

Only in 2015 did the government pass the Boat Harbour Act— prohibiting the dumping of treated effluents and demanding that the mill shut down its effluent treatment facility by January 31st, 2020. Nova Scotia’s environment minister was recently forced to acknowledge that Paper Excellence is still dumping some effluent into Boat Harbour even after the long-awaited shutdown date.

Northern Pulp may be finally winding down operations, but it has yet to pay back the $85 million it owes Halifax, Nova Scotia. Given Paper Excellence’s track record—it’s owned by the Sino-Indonesian Widjaja family, who rule over an empire of paper and palm oil businesses (including controversial conglomerate Sinar Mas) known for their environmental violations, human rights abuses, tax evasion and failure to follow through on promises to authorities—the company is unlikely to pay back its debt.

Fortunately, an ongoing arbitration dispute in Brazil could give Nova Scotia an opportunity to recoup the money it’s owed. In the arbitration case, Paper Excellence has claimed to have some $2.5 billion on hand to finalise the purchase of a Brazilian pulp manufacturer, funds which could also go towards cleaning up the Pictou Landing First Nation’s estuary, if Nova Scotian policymakers put a claim to the monies available in Brazil.

No middle ground

Such a step would send a clear message to Canada’s indigenous peoples that the government is on their side, rather than in the camp of polluting industries. Trudeau has tried to walk a tightrope balancing job creation with environmental goals and First Nations groups’ interests.  The intensifying protests against Coastal GasLink—even as the police cleared one blockade, demonstrators occupied British Columbia’s legislature and rallies sprung up as far away as Halifax—suggest that it’s impossible for Trudeau’s government to straddle the gap between industries’ interests and those of the Canadian people.

Ottawa fancies itself a global environmental champion—but this push for justice must start at home, by finally stamping out the environmental racism which has destroyed Albertan forests, polluted Boat Harbour and filled the streets with indigenous activists.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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