Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, February 23, 2020

Hereditary chiefs launch a landslide

For a writer, it’s quite freeing to know that almost anything I say about the Wet’suwet’en affair will be denounced by someone as wrong, misguided, misleading, and/or prejudiced. 

            After all, this single issue combines aboriginal rights, colonial injustice, social stereotyping, racial discrimination, capitalism, fossil fuels, the law, the economy, global warming, global trade, and the rights of nature. How could it help being divisive?

            And yet at the heart of it stand just nine men -- the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en people in northern B.C.

            The Wet’suwet’en homeland includes most of the Bulkley River watershed – roughly 22,000 square km from Fraser Lake to Hazelton -- and parts of the Skeena River’s headwaters. A natural gas pipeline running from Dawson Creek to Kitimat on the B.C. coast would have to pass through Wet’suwet’en territory. 

            I have an emotional stake in that territory. I worked up there for four years. The best summer of my life, I covered some 55 miles of the Kitimat River valley on foot, camping and backpacking. 

            Like the Wet’suwet’en chiefs, I would love to see it remain pristine wilderness. 

            But I also know it can’t, and won’t, stay as I once knew it.


Two kinds of authority

            The Wet’suwet’en have five clans, divided into 13 houses. Each house has, or could have, its own hereditary chief. But four of those chieftainships remain currently unfilled. 

            “Hereditary” does not mean that the title is automatically passed to an eldest child, like the British monarchy. The title is bequeathed to a chosen person, more like the picking of a new Dalai Lama. 

            Hereditary chiefs are the “keepers of the vision” – my phrase, not theirs – for the land and the people. They maintain what’s important. 

            On the other hand, the elected chiefs (and councils) make rules and enter into legal agreements. In this case, 20 elected Band councils signed agreements with Coastal Gaslink. 

            But elected chiefs and councils are a product of the Indian Act of 1876, a European style of governance imposed on an aboriginal culture. They are therefore as foreign as floral wallpaper pasted onto log walls. 


Misplaced negotiations

            Legally, elected chiefs and councils have jurisdiction only over the reserves assigned to them by the colonial government; hereditary chiefs see their role covering the whole territory once occupied by their nation. 

            But B.C never had any treaties creating reserves (with a few recent exceptions). So for what territory do elected chiefs and councils sign contracts?

            As a corporation, Coastal GasLink is also a product of western legal systems. Naturally, it deals with other legal entities, the elected Band councils. 

            However, in the Delgamuukw decision of 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that indigenous common law and ancestral customs, transmitted orally, were never extinguished, and remain as valid as the written traditions of European immigrants.

            At the root of the current contretemps, then, seems to be the hereditary chiefs’ conviction that any pipeline should have been negotiated with them, not with elected councils. 

            And they’re opposed to it. Although they do not, apparently, oppose the highways, rail lines, and towns which have already altered their territory above ground. 


Leaping onto a bandwagon

            But then the other factions have seized upon the pipeline dispute to advance their own agendas. Protests have shut down Canada’s rail system. Blocked ports. Closed highways. Thrown thousands out of work. Even barricaded the B.C. Legislature. 

            Their motives vary. 

            Some scorn the whole capitalist system.

            Some believe that indigenous peoples have been badly treated by “white” governments, and want to redress the balance.

            Some oppose all fossil fuels, and fracking in particular.

            Some see the RCMP as a pawn of people in power. 

            And some may even be protesters who join anything that pokes the establishment in the eye. 

            All of which effectively holds to ransom millions of people who had no personal stake in the Wet’suwet’en dispute itself. 

            What started as a local confrontation between Wet’suwet’en chiefs and the RCMP, enforcing an injunction obtained by Coastal GasLink over work camps built in preparation for the pipeline, has proved more contagious than the corona-virus.

            As a direct result, I sense a growing impatience with Wet’suwet’en demands. Even hostility. And frustration with apparently ineffective governments. 

            I worry that as the ripples of inconvenience spread, the Wet’suwet’en impasse may  backfire. 

            As Ken Coates, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the author of #IdleNoMore and TheRemaking of Canada, commented, “What a bitter and destructive irony if the willingness of the environmental movement to engage in the politics of Indigenous rights ends up weakening the people they claim to be supporting.”


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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“Your column this morning really got me thinking,” Chris Hansen wrote in the very first letter I received about last weekend’s column. “In the American system, big money really counts. Bloomberg has more money than Trump but what if he wins? Have voters really changed anything? I know he is very committed to getting Trump out but what else is he for? 

            “A couple of weeks ago the Canadian Taxpayers federation column raised concerns about our Canadian system where taxpayers fund political parties. Personally I like what is happening in Canada, limiting the size of personal and corporate donations. Getting people involved is what democracy is all about.

            “Political parties need money to operate: ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune.’ I guess the media really like a system where unlimited amounts of cash can be dumped into advertising!”


Frank Martens sent me a cartoon. The caption said: “You elected a billionaire who is appointing other billionaires to fix the system that made them billionaires? You’re a special kind of stupid, aren’t you?”


Tom Watson was terse: “Follow the money, Jim. It buys access. It buys elections. It buys power.”


“You're a good deal more sanguine about Bloomberg than I am,” Rob Brown wrote. “Bloomberg is an oligarch, a powerful man well acquainted with ‘the rule of the (rich) few.’ He is also the proponent of the "stop and frisk" mode of policing which racially profiled young men of colour and effectively ruined their lives by criminalizing them. (Is that so different from Donald Trump's racism?)

            “I'm concerned that Bloomberg's motto may be ‘Government of the people by the rich for the rich.’”


Ted Spencer had similar thoughts: “A slightly-off-the-wall reporter/ranter (possibly Greg Palast) had a standard conclusion of ‘America: the best government money can buy’, or something like that.”


John Shaffer wrote from Washington State, “Trump is so bad that anything looks better.  So, yes, I will be voting for billionaire Bloomberg in the hope that he, alone, among all other options, has the best chance of defeating Trump. But the Trump train will be slow to stop. His judicial appointments will be difficult to live with for at least another generation.”


Bob Rollwagen wrote four times about the Bloomberg column. “Interesting box the Democrats are in. Bernie on the far left with a Trump-like base that may not [vote Democrat] if the final winner is not Bernie. Bloomberg so worried about Trump that he’s willing to spend his 2020 earnings to stop Trump but everyone is afraid of his past and his wealth. The Dem’s are very divided on what it takes to win and Trump is very busy creating as much fake news as possible to keep them confused. It sort of looks like they will need someone that has the ability to act no matter what Trump pulls out of his trick bag. The ability to debate is not important.”






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think some of these links are spam.)

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures. Her Thanksgiving presentation on the old hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, Is, well, beautiful -- https://www.traditionaliconoclast.com/2019/10/13/for/

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.





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