Cyr column: Canada’s instructive approach to native peoples
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
As people in the United States become ever more fixated on public health matters, our continental neighbors to the north - those other North Americans - are providing instructive lessons on how best to address another kind of disorder.
The government of Canada has been struggling with renewed protests from one indigenous group regarding alleged violation of their rights and encroachments on their lands. As in the U.S., relations with indigenous populations is a challenging concern. Also as in the U.S., the Canadians have tried hard in our time to right past wrongs, compensate today for unfair treatment yesterday.
Indigenous people, in Canada referred to as First Nations, have been interrupting both freight and passenger railroad travel in various parts of the country. Disruptions include passenger travel between French Canadian Quebec and Ontario, location of the nation’s capital city. In Western Canada, shipments of a range of commodities were delayed, including agricultural goods, construction material and fuel.
The target of this First Nation-ire is a proposed natural gas pipeline to transit just over 400 miles from Northeastern British Columbia to the Pacific Coast. The crisis was sparked by the success of Coastal GasLink, the company principally involved in construction of the pipeline, in securing a court injunction permitting continued construction. Early in March, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear appeals designed to halt construction.
Canada media covered these developments, but there is little U.S. interest. Police have arrested some protestors, but generally federal and provincial officials have shown restraint and patience. Negotiation is emphasized and this contains important lessons reaching well beyond Canada.
For the moment, the protests have halted thanks to an agreement between the federal government of Canada, representatives of Canada’s provincial governments, and the Wet’suwet’en, a principal opponent of the energy initiative. The pipeline will, in part, traverse a significant portion of the land claimed by this tribe.
Complicating negotiations is the fact that the Wet’suwet’en are essentially outside the governing structure established and agreed to by Canadian government entities and the other indigenous populations. The First Nations by general agreement are governed by elected councils.
However, the Wet’suwet’en rely on authority through heredity, and never before entered an agreement with the government of Canada. The $6.6 billion (in Canadian dollars) pipeline project has received the support of the 20 elected First Nation councils whose lands will be impacted by the pipeline.
The lessons present in this story are especially applicable to the U.S., past and present. In 1876, combined Plains Indian nations decisively defeated the U.S. Army at the battles of the Little Bighorn and the Rosebud. The Seventh U.S. Cavalry was decimated, and approximately a third of the regiment, under the direct command of Colonel George A. Custer, was annihilated.
Chief Sitting Bull was important to these victories. Afterward, he and a large band fled to Canada. They feared U.S. military retribution. An estimated 4,000 Sioux in total by then were in that country.
The Canada government did not attack. Instead, Major James Walsh of the North West Mounted Police calmly rode into a large Sioux encampment, accompanied by several enlisted men.
The Sioux respected physical courage above all, as Walsh well knew. The small patrol received polite deference. Both sides talked at length. War was averted. Eventually the Sioux returned to the U.S.
Canada exercises global influence through international organizations, humanitarian relief and peacekeeping. Reality argues for reemphasizing those dimensions in our U.S. foreign policy.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact email@example.com.