Strange fruit

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This is our annual Heritage Week issue, marking Heritage Week in Ontario, and Heritage Month in North Grenville. Clearly, heritage is a big deal for most of us, and we generally enjoy celebrating our past and Canada’s history and achievements. I certainly hope you enjoy this week’s coverage and get a larger idea of the roots of our community and the often colourful history we have inherited.

Unfortunately, Canada’s heritage is not always worthy of celebration, and the current conflict concerning the protests against a natural gas pipeline through the Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia is a timely reminder of that. I understand that people will have differing views on the matter, particularly when it comes to the disruption to train travel in Ontario. Personally, I believe that, at a certain point, that kind of protest becomes counterproductive. It is vital to bring public attention to a grievance, but then other steps need to be taken before a continuing protest alienates potential support. But that is really not the point here. The really important fact is that this conflict at Wet’suwet’en did not spring suddenly and fully formed out of nowhere.

This is not the start of a grievance; it is merely the latest outbreak of an historic set of grievances, grievances that many of those angry with these protests do not fully understand. Canada’s treatment of indigenous people is a dark stain on our history, our heritage, and our current political system. There is a myth that “Indians get everything for nothing and don’t pay taxes like the rest of us have to”. Neither of those things are true. Where indigenous people have certain benefits, these are a (to use a currently popular phrase) quid pro quo, some recompense for what they have given up to the Crown under treaties.

The irony of the rail blockades in Ontario is that most of the goods being blocked from using the rail lines – wheat, potash, wood, etc. – are all things we have taken from the land surrendered at one time or another by First Nations. The value of these minerals, crops, and other products from the time of, for example, the 1850 Robinson Treaties, is enormous. Gold, silver, uranium, trees, fish, copper, and so many other valuable assets, came from land ceded north of Huron and Superior in that year. What did the indigenous people get in return? $4 a year for every man, woman and child. That is not an old number: that is what they get paid today. Who do you think gets the benefits of treaty now?

There’s no room to even list the other areas where our heritage has been betrayed. Residential schools, economically-bankrupt reserves, drinking water and land polluted by radioactivity, hopelessness, a system of apartheid of which most Canadians have no idea. In our part of the country, we live on land once occupied by Mississauga, Algonquin and Mohawk. The poverty-stricken refugees who fled the American Revolution, the Loyalists, were invited to settle on this land, to share it with the indigenous people. Instead, they were gradually excluded from the land, which is why there are so few native settlements in Eastern Ontario.

But forget about treaties when it comes to the Wet’suwet’en people. There are no treaties covering most of B.C., and the Wet’suwet’en territory is unceded. The Supreme Court of Canada stated in 1997, in the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia case, that Aboriginal title still exists in British Columbia and that when dealing with Crown land, the government must consult with and may have to compensate First Nations whose rights are affected.

Consultation with the Wet’suwet’en people consisted of the usual farce: TransCanada (Coastal GasLink) met with them, listened to their suggestions, and then off and did what they were going to do anyway.

How would you like it if TransCanada decided to run a pipeline through your back garden? Remember the fuss here about the Energy East line? But they are planning to ignore the Wet’suwet’en suggestion for an alternative route. It would cost more and take longer. Money matters more than peoples’ rights, as usual. But, as I say, this is just the latest outbreak in a long story. People like Andrew Scheer seem to forget Ipperwash and Oka, seem to think that sending in armed police to force a way through for TransCanada would do the job, no trouble. But, instead, it would simply be yet one more episode in Canada’s tragic history and another sad piece of heritage to pass on to future generations.

The rail lines should be cleared. But the reason for those barricades should not then be forgotten. The idea that corporations and commerce matter more than “a few Indians” needs to be looked at again: racism has already cast a very dark cloud over this country and its history.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t disagree with anything you said in your editorial. However I think you trivialized the horrid treatment of First Nation Peoples by the white European settlers and their various governments. Tribes were starved intentionally, diseases such as tuberculosis were left untreated, and they were forced to sign treaties under threat of harm. This was genocide. Merely making the trains late is of no comparison to the suffering of natives.

  2. David, I flew in from Vancouver on 7 Feb and was then to take the train to Kingston. Because of the protest at Tyendinaga, I was stranded in Toronto overnight. Needless to say I was a bit miffed. I thought the police should go in and shut down these protests. Your article was insightful and has helped change my perspective on the issue.

    Thanks.

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