Reconciling the unreconcilable

Canada is an empire built on the lands of conquered people.

That is an uncomfortable notion for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike, but it is true no matter how much we like to pretend it is not.

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At its peak in in the second century, the Roman Empire covered approximately five million square kilometres. The Canadian Empire is twice that size, at nearly 10 million square kilometres – making Canada the 10th largest empire to have existed in human history.

Only the colonial empires of Britain, Spain and France; the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan; the Russian Empire; the Chinese Yuan and Qing Dynasties; and the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates have ruled more of Earth's surface than Canada does right now.

For non-Indigenous Canadians, this idea of Canada as a sprawling empire is a fly in the poutine of Canadian identity. 

Canadians are the good guys, right? The peacekeepers. The polite, friendly, definitely-not-American champions of civility and equality.

Canada is a welcoming, inclusive country where anybody – regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. – can get ahead and have a good life, right?

While some of those things are true – although not as true as we'd like them to be – Canadians' high quality of life is only possible because a whole bunch of Indigenous groups lost their land and their sovereignty.

Indigenous Canadians, of course, are all too familiar with the consequences of Canadian imperialism – reduced to second-class citizens in their own homelands, rounded up and forced to live on impoverished reserves, sent to residential schools, the loss of their cultures and languages, the whole ugly ball of wax.

The use of terms like "unceded" and "stolen" to describe Indigenous traditional lands offers hope that Indigenous groups might regain that which was taken from them.

But the simple truth is treaty or no treaty, Indigenous land isn't unceded, it isn't stolen, it's conquered – unfair and unsquare, but conquered all the same. 

Regardless of treaty status, First Nations people are subject to Canadian law, the Canadian federal and provincial governments govern their lands, and there is nothing they can do about it but hold protests until Canadian authorities get fed up, arrest them and throw them in Canadian jails. Or they can fight their cases in Canadian courts before Canadian judges under Canadian law, but the courts only interpret the law, not make it.

So the question becomes how do Canadians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, move forward? How do you reconcile the unreconcilable?

Every single square centimetre of this country from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, and from Middle Island in Lake Erie up to Cape Columbia on Ellesmere Island is some First Nation's traditional territory (more than one, in many cases, because there are many overlapping territorial claims).

If Canada were to grant what the Wet'suwet'en heredity chiefs are asking – essentially the right to govern their traditional territory as an autonomous or semi-autonomous nation, every other First Nation in Canada would seek the same.

On the face, it's not an unreasonable demand. The right to self-determination is a key human right.

Except there are 634 legally-recognized First Nations in Canada, and if every one is granted the right to decide everything that happens in its territory, Canada will be nation only in name. Functionally Canada would be reduced to a feudal state like the medieval Holy Roman Empire, where every few kilometres there was a different lord with a different set of laws and a different hand out asking for money.

Sadly, the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs are an example of exactly why Canada can never allow Indigenous law to supersede Canadian law. Whether you agree with the Coastal GasLink pipeline project or not, it was approved through due process – reviewed by scientists, engineers and countless experts who assessed the risks of the project – and received the support of the federal government and all 20 elected First Nations governments along the route.

However, a handful of Wet'suwet'en heredity chiefs – who are unelected and accountable to no one – arbitrarily decided they didn't want to the project and feel they have the right to trump the decisions of their own elected leaders and the National Energy Board.

This model for decision making may have worked traditionally in small hunter-gatherer societies, but it doesn't work for a 21st century industrialized nation. 

While Canada has a moral obligation to continue the process of reconciliation with First Nations, for the good of all Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – there needs to be one law in Canada: Canadian law.

 

It's not fair, and that is something which needs to be acknowledged and recognized, but it is the only road forward for Canada.

 

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