Square peg, round pipeline

As per usual, the lack of understanding of First Nations governance by far too many in the resource development industry, politicians, bureaucrats, news media and the public has been the biggest contributing factor leading up to the protests over the Coastal GasLink pipeline project.

As the CBC's Angela Sterritt, a Gitxsan Nation journalist, pointed out in her excellent explanatory piece, there is no one-size fits-all approach to First Nations governance. As frustrating as that may be for other levels of government and the resource development sector, there is no simple, standardized approval process.

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From first contact in North America to this day, White Europeans are still looking for the chief, the one person in charge to do business with. From first contact to this day, non-Indigenous Canadians struggle with understanding how consensus culture and governance works. Historians and anthropologists mocked it as backwards and unsophisticated, a cultural view that remains far too prevalent in the 21st century.

While different First Nations impart different degrees of power and responsibility on hereditary chiefs, the common theme is consensus decision-making. To put it in a modern non-Indigenous context, the historical role of chiefs has been similar to that of the chair of a meeting. The chief brings people together and allows all who wish to share their views to speak on the matters at hand that affect the entire group. Often these are done at potlaches and other community celebrations because making the right choice on any given issue is never as important as the primary goal of peace, cooperation and group cohesion.

For non-Indigenous people used to hierarchal leadership, whether it's a king or an elected leader, transactional relationships and concentrated wealth and power in the hands of certain individuals and families, consensus governance seems foreign and strange.

For those who think it can't be done in the fast-paced modern world, they would be mistaken. The territorial governments in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have no political parties. The premier, chosen by the elected members of the legislative assembly, names a cabinet and governs as the first among equals, knowing that his or her power rests on the continued support of the whole assembly.

Elected officials come and go, whether they are territorial MLAs or band chiefs and councils. As Norman Dale correctly points out in his letter to the editor below, elected chiefs and councils were imposed on First Nations by the federal government in the 19th century as a matter of convenience to impose the Indian Act.

Hereditary chiefs work at a completely different level within Aboriginal communities and there is plenty of variety across the country. As Sterritt points out in her reporting, hereditary Wet'suwet'en leaders inherit their positions from their mother's family but their role can be stripped from them if they are not fulfilling their required duties and a different hereditary chief of a certain clan within the community can be named with the consensus of the group.

So whether it's for approval to build a pipeline on traditional territory or to address historical wrongs through reconciliation, meeting with a chief or group of important people within an Indigenous community to gain their approval is the beginning, not the end, of the process in most cases. Everyone is entitled to ask questions, seek time to consider the matter and then voice their views freely.

A perfect example of this is the treaty between the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation and the provincial and federal governments. Last summer, members rejected a proposed treaty through a community referendum, the second time they have done so. While Chief Dominic Frederick and band council worked hard to reach a deal and actively promoted the merits of the treaty, his people said no.

"The people have spoken and we must honour their wishes," Frederick said after the result of the vote was released.

Increasingly, Canada's courts are recognizing both the diversity of First Nations and the different models of consensus governance in Indigenous communities across the country when deciding whether governments and resource development companies have made an adequate effort to consult the people.

Some have made good steps forward. The RCMP, for example, brought in officers from around the region to enforce the court injunction and remove the protesters blocking the logging road because the members of the Houston RCMP, along with their colleagues in nearby communities, have worked too hard building relationships and resolving problems through consensus, rather than a blind adherence to the law, to irreparably damage those connections over a protest camp.

Building consensus takes time and plenty of hard work but it makes for stronger, more unified communities. Sounds like an approach that could help bridge political divides, both at home and abroad.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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