Shell, at the time, was at the early stages of a coal bed methane exploration program in Northern British Columbia, specifically in Tahltan country, in and around Iskut. The natives, it seems, were restless. Shell had provincial permits to develop lands in a region called the Klappan, adjacent to the Spatsizi wilderness area, and had been trying to get trucks and drill rigs in place to pursue its legal authority to assay the abundant gas reserves there. It had sunk three test wells, but that’s as far as it got.
A rump of recalcitrant and disobedient natives had blockaded the one easy road in, and signs that said “Get the Shell out!” and their like were showing up on the news.
Ecotrust had a hard-earned reputation for working well with First Nations to help them map their resources — or what was left of them — and map their social, environmental and economic futures in a rapidly evolving socio-political and legal environment that was finally waking up to the importance of Indigenous rights and title.
The Shell guy claimed the company had the support of most Tahltan people, but there was a noisy minority that was skewing local opinion and endangering the community’s chances of reaping manifold economic benefits from Shell’s willingness to invest heavily in the industrialization of the region.
Would Ecotrust, he asked, be willing to undertake a land-use mapping project for the Tahltan? With good maps and good information, the reasoning apparently went, all Tahltan people would come to see Shell’s plans to use some of their territory for gas extraction as being in the community’s best interest (along with Shell’s, obviously).
Who would pay for this exercise, I asked? Well, Shell, came the reply. And under whose authority was Shell proposing to undertake this exercise? Well, Shell would sponsor the work with the agreement of the Tahltan, or at least that part of the community that was already onside. Would all Tahltan be equally represented in the land-use study? Would all viewpoints be on the table? If the mapping inquiry were to entertain all possible outcomes, would one outcome — admittedly out there in left field — contemplate that there be no industrial development at all?
In other words, if an honest examination of the Tahltan’s options were to uncover widespread opposition to Shell’s use of their land, no matter how many permits the company had on paper, would Shell honour that finding and surrender its “rights” to exploit Tahltan resources for private gain? Was Shell, at least in theory, prepared to walk away if the Tahltan withheld their permission?
I asked these questions not to be provocative, but to get clarity about whether the company really was prepared to negotiate, or if their starting assumption was that Shell would develop the gas resources to some extent, the limit of which might or might not be determined by local opinion, or, more likely, by enforcing court orders against the protesters. Oh, and just to be clear, Ecotrust would not work for Shell. Were we to do any analysis, the community would be our client, which was our only surety that the community supported the process. If they accepted Shell’s money to underwrite the analysis, that was their business — but it would not influence how we did ours.
The man from Shell was a smart and fair-minded guy, as I recall, but he was a realist, too. He told me there was no way he could sell his executive on an exercise that in any way entertained the notion that the company would abandon its leases. Shell intended to develop its tenures, which had been issued under provincial government authority. The issue at hand was whether or not a land-use mapping exercise would facilitate the community agreeing to Shell’s plan, which at best would be modified by local input, perhaps even allowing for an increase in local benefits. In Shell’s corporate mind, there was never any doubt that it would one day drill not just three test wells in Tahltan country, but two or three thousand gas gushers in one of the most pristine corners of what is left of British Columbia.
I politely demurred.
A few months later, I was invited to attend a meeting of First Nations leaders and their supporters from across northern B.C., who rallied in favour of protecting what had then come to be known as the Sacred Headwaters. One afternoon, at the site of the continuing blockade, a large map of Tahltan territory was displayed by the elders. Which part of the territory is important to the Tahltan, someone asked? An elder took a marker and drew a line around the outside edges of the map. All of it, he said, and no one disagreed. Where did the elders think Shell should operate? On none of it, they said, and no one disagreed. That was in the summer of 2006.
One week before Christmas, 2012, the B.C. government announced a permanent ban on oil and gas development in the Sacred Headwaters. “As part of a tripartite agreement, Shell Canada is immediately withdrawing plans to explore for natural gas in the Klappan by relinquishing its tenures,” the province said in a statement. “In addition, the Province of British Columbia will not issue future petroleum and natural-gas tenures in the area.”
“Today is a huge milestone,” said Annita McPhee, chair of the Tahltan Central Council, which governs the Tahltan First Nation. “I am just beyond words about how deeply moved I am about Shell giving up its tenures in the Klappan.”
Karen Tam Woo, a campaigner with ForestEthics Advocacy, one of the environmental groups that spearheaded the international campaign to protect the Sacred Headwaters, was jubilant. “Days like today are few and far between,” she said. “It's a big deal when small communities can stand up to one of the biggest corporations in the world and win.”
Shell, which reportedly spent $30 million and a decade going nowhere in the Klappan, was rewarded with $20 million in development credits in the province’s northeast and, after removing its test wells and remediating the area, will leave the Klappan for good.
Enbridge should be so lucky. It is reportedly spending $250 million promoting a project that will no doubt win National Energy Board approval in the coming months, although almost certainly to no avail. The informed consensus is that its Northern Gateway pipeline is dead because too many First Nations communities oppose it. Perhaps out of fear of setting a precedent, the company persists — as does the government — in a doomed approvals process that no one seems to know how to call time on.
First Nations and community groups who are opposed to the pipeline are forced to spend their own countless hours and millions of dollars locked in successive rounds of futile hearings, while drawing the ire of Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who characterizes anyone opposed to industrial development as a “radical.” In early February, a key coastal First Nations intervenor finally gave up, its paltry funds simply no match for Enbridge’s quarter billion, and the inexhaustible resources of government.
When Enbridge, like Shell before it, abandons its project, it will no doubt seek to be compensated for its failed efforts. First Nations and environmentalists won’t be compensated, but will otherwise feel rewarded with another “victory” against industry. But there will be plenty of new battles to lose, as Canada continues to encourage investments in an old industrial paradigm that has long-since run its course. Maybe we’ll ship tarsands products east, not west! Maybe Keystone will take them south! — and if we can’t find investors here at home, we can always sell off nationally crucial energy assets to countries like China, who will be happy to extract resources in a foreign country when it can exploit that country’s weak environmental laws.
That irony alone should give serious pause to Canadians. Certainly, it adds more fuel to Idle No More, given that First Nations are at the front lines of just about every attempt — large or small — to develop Canada’s natural resources in this, our climate change century.
Coming back to Canada after almost three years abroad, it is hard not to conclude that this is a lousy way to run a country. The reflexive response from many people is to demonize the Conservatives, and blame Stephen Harper for everything. Mere hours after arriving back in Vancouver last fall, I found myself in the middle of what has become a constant, unofficial (and admittedly unscientific) disapprovals hearing. At the grocery store: a mother and teenage daughter buttonholing me to tell me they will lie down naked in front of bulldozers if construction of Northern Gateway is ever attempted (well, I actually think the teenager was humouring her mother, as I doubt she’d really lie down in the buff in front of a bunch of pipeline workers).
Over dinner, people who have never evinced even the slightest interest in aboriginal issues now siding with First Nations’ opposition to Bills C38 and C45. In the news: the Premier of B.C. and the Opposition leader in rare, pre-election agreement that Northern Gateway ill-serves British Columbia. On a trip to Toronto: decidedly unradical, un-environmental Canadians telling me that they are ashamed of the country’s addiction to oil and its treatment of aboriginal people and, unprompted, making a causal link between the two.
I’m asked about Australia, where I lived and worked most recently, and the news from there isn’t really any better. Canada is not alone in suffering from a split personality when it comes to managing the demands of a growing and greedy society in an era of fiscal austerity and rapidly accelerating environmental stress — let alone dealing fairly with its Indigenous people. Australia, precariously ruled by a government that is the antithesis of the Harper Conservatives, is in precisely the same bind. Sure, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has brought in a carbon tax and, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate, has been forced to accommodate a plethora of demands that not even the wettest Chrétien or Martin Liberals would have tolerated in their most progressive years.
But Australia, like Canada, remains in a kind of dead man’s dance between government and industry and Indigenous people, largely because both national governments are unable or unwilling to honestly confront the depth of the deceit upon which both countries have based their economies. Both nations have begun to reach the limits of government authority based on a lie — the continued denial of the rights and title of aboriginal peoples. They are beginning to experience the stirring of what might come to be — almost as a mirror to the ecological disruptions that threaten our physical existence — a succession of century-defining social and political disruptions that could put our national governments on an endangered species list all of their own making.
What we are beginning to witness, and it goes well beyond Idle No More, is a withdrawal of permission.
Idle No More hints at a profound rupture that goes well beyond the established set of grievances that we seem content to stamp on First Nations like a birthmark. Canada’s entire national narrative has begun to fracture, and if Stephen Harper is deaf to the change in tone, he is not alone. Harper, no different from Liberal prime ministers who preceded him, interprets his party’s majority in the House of Commons as his authority to govern the whole country, and fair enough. In our system, that authority is granted every few years in an election. Permission, by contrast, needs to be won every day — and increasingly, governments and their industry partners don’t have it, or are finding it a lot harder to get it.
As an aboriginal woman told me in Australia, “You can’t buy a social licence.”
Or, put another way, people are getting tired of the unequal terms of trade — especially when, for Indigenous people, the promised benefits of industrialization of their territories almost never materialize in ways that improve their well-being. In fabulously wealthy economies like ours, basic services like clean water, access to decent health care, good schools, habitable housing — these should be a birthright of every citizen, not something offered up as a signing bonus for joining Team Tar Sands, or its equivalent.
Under our current economic and political regimes — no matter which party is nominally in power, with however large or small a majority — Australians and Canadians share one thing, which is that we are everywhere conflicted. We say we want to create viable and diverse economies and societies for the benefit of our children and theirs. We say we want to protect the environment, to “care for our country” as one Australian government program trumpets, yet we hand most of it over to miners and drillers and tell our farmers they should all go and get fracked.
How does it come to pass that one of the great life-giving waterways of a dry country, Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, is compartmentalized to the point that the river system itself is now assigned “environmental flows,” as if Nature is just another stakeholder in the division of assets of, well, Nature? How is it that in Canada, whose water assets are vastly more valuable in the long run than its oils and gases, almost all our waterways are now open for development and potential ruin by modern day hunters — of hydrocarbons?
In both countries, we say we want Indigenous people to prosper, yet a mantra of “closing the gap” between the life experiences of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people has become a one-way street to extinguishment of Indigenous rights, with policy-makers unable to offer anything more in return than trickle-down benefits or outright interventions in the lives of Indigenous people who are asked (or forced) to surrender their lands to the greater good. This, when all that many Indigenous people have is their land, and what remains of their culture.
All the while, our political leaders and the public at large remain in thrall to gaudy casino economies, like prisoners suffering from a sort of economic Stockholm syndrome. Everyone knows it can’t last, but while it does, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and aboriginal people mostly get jail terms.
So, might this not be the time to dramatically rethink the very nature of this large, uncontrolled experiment that we call the modern industrial economy? “If this is economic success, why does it hurt so badly?” wrote a columnist in The Sydney Morning Herald, bemoaning how utterly unaffordable and unsustainable the Australian way of life is becoming. Put another way: if it hurts so much, why do we keep doing what we do, and call it economic success? Or, as the American humorist Will Rogers once famously said: “If you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Or, as John Maynard Keynes once wrote, “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.”
So what’s a government to do well? Perhaps it should start by not doing ill, like forcing developments on people and places that don’t want them. Native and environmental objections to oilsands and fracking and pipelines and coal exports and LNG plants might be dismissed as rampant or radical NIMBY-ism, but government and industry are misreading the mood.
Yes, people are objecting to specific developments as they always have and will, but I believe there is a deeper strain of disquiet in Canada at the lack of a national narrative that people feel either attached to, or at least willing to tolerate for the greater good. At the moment, the default fora for discussions about the nation’s future are environmental assessment panels, the courts, campfires at blockades, or rallies like those stirred up by Idle No More. Yes, there are occasional political meetings like those between the Assembly of First Nations and Stephen Harper, but they are too narrowly framed, and are surely doomed anyway given that the Prime Minister says he is unwilling to revisit Bills C38 and C45, which gave rise to Idle No More in the first place.
Outside the confines of Ottawa and Canberra, the daily discourse gets angrier. In both Canada and Australia, the confusion between authority and permission is perhaps best exemplified by the fracking industry’s having riled some of the most conservative (ie least radical) constituents in either country — their farmers. Rural people are now waking up to the sight of drilling rigs invading, often without prior warning and without their permission, a landscape that they’ve nurtured for generations. Some of them, seeing their territory defiled, are beginning to identify with the plight of aboriginal people for the first time. Some of them have pledged to defend their land, at gunpoint if need be, from what they consider to be tantamount to trespass.
Writ large, and uncorrected, what is to stop the trajectories of two of the world’s most prosperous, egalitarian, diverse, generous and lucky countries from descending into the kind of anger, dissonance and unrest that, elsewhere in the world, is only kept at bay by the military? Who says the arc of history, to cite a phrase beloved of politicians, is actually a rainbow? What if the arc bends not to more pots of gold, but to calamity, discontent, and insurrection? What is to stop Idle No More becoming not just viral, but violently so. Imagine Canada or Australia as dangerous, militarized petro-states. Too far-fetched? Really? That day might be closer than you think.
In the far northwest of Australia is a region called the Kimberley. Like Canadians’ love affair with a north that few have ever seen, many more Australians have heard about the Kimberley than have been there, but almost everyone agrees its natural and cultural heritage is beyond compare. What is less well known is just how perilous the Kimberley’s future is. Woodside Petroleum Ltd.’s massive gas plant planned for a remote place on the coast called James Price Point is the thin edge of a very thick wedge that, within a generation, could utterly transform the Kimberley into something akin to Alberta’s tarsands. Whether or not the Woodside proposal gets up — and commercially that looks questionable — it has unwittingly served to galvanize people into demanding a new approach to development in Northern Australia. Woodside is Australia’s Enbridge, and James Price Point is its Northern Gateway.
In the Kimberley, the Western Australian government invited local aboriginal people to vote on whether or not James Price Point should proceed. It did so after the Premier, Colin Barnett, warned that if the tiny, divided, and impoverished Indigenous community didn’t vote for the project, he would expropriate their land anyway. They voted, barely, in favour of the project. Under clear duress, they gave the most tentative of permissions, in return for the promise of $1.5 billion in “benefits” that, if history is any guide, will be a mirage, hovering unrealized in the distance in a tantalizing sort of socio-economic heat haze.
Such was the state government’s anxiety about its tenuous permission to proceed that last year, when Woodside sent a convoy of heavy equipment to the site to begin clearing the way for the development, the government sent more than 140 armed police up from Perth to escort the machinery down one of the remotest dirt roads in the country, past a couple of dozen peaceful protesters. Many Australians were shocked at the overkill. Is that, now, how the west gets won? With deceitful acquisitions, a denial of rights, an ultimatum, and guns and jackboots to back up the deal? Why not throw in a little booze and smallpox for good measure?
During extensive travels in the Kimberley, I discovered a palpable sense there that, having been happily out of sight and out of mind for a couple of centuries, people worry that the region is poised to be rapidly beset by a chain reaction of developments that would utterly change its culture and character — not to mention its ecology — for the worse. There is little confidence that industrial development will confer any lasting wealth on the region’s 40,000 residents, half of whom are aboriginal people who, in Australia as globally, have lost the most and gained the least from the pervasive spread of consumerism. Why would the next development surge be any different there? And why would Northern Gateway really be any different here?
In Canada and Australia, our resource booms have allowed us to avoid the hard conversation we need to have. Politicians of all ideological stripes offer little but a Hobson’s choice to add more pavement to a path we’ve already been down. They apparently have little appetite for an honest re-evaluation of the kind of societies we are trying to build and want to live in. We shouldn’t need earthquakes, floods, fires, droughts, disease and the growing spectre of climate change to remind us that our tenure on Earth is wholly at Nature’s discretion, but still we are dragged into a development model that portends more and more catastrophes for all of us, and especially for our nations’ most vulnerable citizens.
So in Canada, what if, instead, we decide not to ransack every last corner of our vast country in search of commodities that we can sell abroad or to ourselves, but we experiment in developing an economy that honours local culture and history, celebrates place, protects the environment, increases the resilience of local people, and provides them with the means to invest in a future of their own design? Why not attempt, while we still have the option, to pursue a natural model of development, to pursue what the late Jane Jacobs once so aptly called “reliable prosperity?”
In that regard, Indigenous people arguably offer not more despair, but hope. If we are to prepare ourselves for the inevitable shocks that the 21st Century still has in store, it might behoove us to seek lessons in resilience from people who have survived every imaginable assault, and are just now coming back into a position of prominence and eminence in a country that might yet come to see aboriginal people as powerful and visionary citizens with a capacity for forgiveness and an appetite for regeneration and renewal, whose unwillingness to assimilate may turn out to be their best defence against the boom that the rest of us seem powerless or unwilling to resist.
Inasmuch as the underlying theme of the Idle No More movement in Canada is the protection of lands and waters and natural resources that Indigenous people see as essential to their well-being, and given that many non-native people are rallying alongside First Nations for the same reasons, why not call upon aboriginal people to lead the development of a new narrative for Canada? Why not — a couple of centuries too late but, you know, better late than never — why not charge those whose land this originally was with articulating a vision for Canada as the truly fair country it could be? Who better to create the narrative for a better, fairer and less destructive economy than our country’s natural storytellers and storykeepers, the original and best stewards of our land?
Why not give to aboriginal people the task of creating a framework that enables them to negotiate an enduring political settlement that promises them, and non-aboriginal Canadians, more than today’s endless, dishonest incrementalism? What might that look like, and what might the consequences be? What might transformative change actually look like? How ambitious might we dare to be? How provocative?
Certainly, an authentic new narrative is not going to materialize if we wait for government to give it to us. A study by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in the UK looked at the impediments against transformative innovation in the public sector, noting that many public organizations are trapped “in an eternal present” that is inimical to the kind of pattern-altering innovation in the public realm demanded by today’s challenges. “Public organizations with short time-horizons — governments with very small majorities, ministers and officials with short job tenures, and organizational cultures focused on tomorrow’s news coverage — are highly resistant to innovation . . . It’s no wonder that the world’s public sectors are failing to innovate fast enough to cope with enormous challenges like an aging population or climate change.”
My colleague Ric Young notes that “in an era of austerity the public discourse is focused on painful trade-offs and difficult belt-tightening. We think of austerity in economic terms. But our economic constraints are also coupled with an austerity of imagination, an austerity of hope for the future.” Young, founder of Canada’s Social Projects Studio and arguably the country’s leading architect of social change strategies, recalls that at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year a central topic of conversation was the widespread failure of leadership to rise to the critical challenges of our time.
“Throughout the world, trust in leadership has been in steep decline for many years,” Young says. “One of the delegates who had conducted extensive public opinion research globally characterized the general attitude as ‘disgust for corporations and disdain for governments.’ A belief in the possibility of authentic, transformative societal value creation is undermined by a sense of overarching self-interest in the private sector and a sense of under-reaching paralysis in the public sector.”
Yet if we are to get out of our current financial and cultural austerity traps, nothing less than transformative social value creation will do. “Social innovation is — or should be — about nothing less than big change,” says Young, who visited the Kimberley with me in 2010 and saw for himself what Indigenous people there are confronting, just as he logged countless hours with me in BC’s coastal First Nations communities in the decade before I went to Australia. Young says the dynamics of transformation “are weird. They are not reducible to simple cause and effect explanations. They do not unfold in a linear, predictable or manageable fashion . . . Transformations — big flips — can happen in social systems, just as they do in natural systems. Ignoring that fact is like ignoring that at a certain point — a non-linear point — water can become vapour.”
There are numerous examples of where seemingly intractable social problems have “flipped” into a transformed state that would have been unimaginable in all but the mind of a dreamer. A generation ago, who ever thought that smokers would be unable to puff away in a bank queue or at the doctor’s office or in the smoking section of an aircraft, but instead, would be forced to huddle outside office buildings and be barred from smoking in a pub? What has happened to smoking is what Young describes as a “proof of possibility.” Someone imagined the possibility of smoking being transformed from a socially acceptable and ubiquitous practice to such pariah status that cigarette companies now are being forced to advertise that the main consequence of using their product is that it poisons you. That’s big change.
So what, in wealthy countries like Australia and Canada, what might tip the scales towards transformative, positive outcomes for Indigenous peoples, and thereby us all? What possibility could we imagine, what intervention might succeed where current ones have failed? It is a fundamental question, because as Young has observed over the years, clients so often come to him framing their social issues as problems, and in Australia and Canada, for decades now, Indigenous issues have been framed as nothing but problems. “No one ever talks about possibility,” Young says. “It is time to shock people with a sense of the possible.”
Surely it is possible to imagine a natural model of development in which we no longer chase a commodity “fix” — think of a heroin addict, with accompanying highs and desperate lows — but where we actually design an economy based on distinctive opportunities that arise gradually from the intimate interaction of people and place. An economy that produces an infinite diversity of products and services that grow out of both social and natural capital, in a kind of “get rich slow” approach to economic prosperity that is more reliable, more diverse and resilient, and is more equitably shared. It is possible to imagine that such an economy might be co-created with Indigenous people and that, in fact, an Indigenous approach to economic development might become not just a niche play, but eventually mainstream.
Why not? Fifty, maybe 100 years from now, certainly 200 years from now, the world will be casting around for new (old) ideas about how to live through the growing shocks to our increasingly fragile and futile economy, and our ever more unstable political system. The solutions that future generations will seek will be cultural, not political; they will be natural, not technological (although technology will sometimes help). They will seek lessons in long-term resilience, not quarterly performance. They will look, as the author Paul Hawken has written, to “people who have a fundamental relationship to the land.” But why wait?
What would it look like to take a very big leap, right now, that puts Indigenous people in the driver’s seat in developing a new cultural, environmental and economic vision for Canada, and actually delivering on that vision? This is what the father of resilience theory, C.S. “Buzz” Holling, would call a “safe-fail” experiment. We could fail at this and no-one would be catastrophically worse off because they already are; but if we succeed, we will have taken an important first step toward reliable prosperity — and we will have a distinctive market advantage over regions in the world still fighting the same old battles over who gets to issue a social licence, and at what cost.
Make no mistake: the jurisdictions that figure out a natural model of development that supports and is supported by its Indigenous peoples will be the clear and only winners in the 21st century; the industries that embrace the kind of transformative changes this will demand will succeed, and those that don’t will die. The hardest hurdle to overcome will be creating a pathway for industry and government to feel comfortable with uncertainty, which they abhor, because a critical test will be that this not be an industry-driven or government-led command and control solution, although their constructive participation will be key. For Indigenous people, a critical indicator of success will be the extent to which they can — to put it bluntly — get the government out of their lives, and only let industry in on their own terms.
As a country, we need firstly to map our vulnerabilities and opportunities through the eyes of Indigenous people themselves — not some dreamy, sepia-toned depiction of the past, but a marriage of Indigenous knowledge with the sort of modern economic planning and scenario building that is second nature in mainstream development. People have a right to know what the future holds for their energy, food, water, land and marine systems under various development scenarios, and today’s planning tools offer a path to information democracy that was unthinkable even a generation ago.
Perhaps it is time to establish a kind of Indigenous sovereign wealth fund into which industry and government contribute capital that is then reinvested in Indigenous impact partnerships based on their success, not government’s failure. Not only might this “flip” the system by creating a reliably prosperous economy for Indigenous people — this approach has the added potential of drastically reducing our collective dependency on industrial booms as this country’s principal source of wealth.
Who could lead this work? Well, who better than A-in-chut, Shawn Atleo? Currently the National Chief of the AFN, Atleo is a gifted orator, a natural storyteller and a widely admired and uncorrupted consensus builder, someone who is perhaps uniquely able to honour the past and imagine a future that all Canadians could relate to. He has shown an ability to negotiate and hold his own at the highest levels nationally and abroad, without ever losing sight of his Nuu-chah-nulth west coast roots. At some point, especially given the corrosive and divisive nature of AFN politicking, Atleo will need a broader canvas upon which to work. Why not the whole country?
It is his kind of integrative leadership — his ability to both set the conditions and forge a vision of the future — that is both absent today, and essential if we are to fulfill some of the conditions that for big change to occur: a certain defiance of the inevitable, an attempt at pattern-shifting problem solving, room for bottom-up as well as top-down leadership, and room for engagement of all sectors of society — all underpinned with a moral vision that it is no longer acceptable for a rich society to become and remain so at the expense of so many fellow human beings.
Sure Canada has apologized to its aboriginal people, in effect admitting to our serial abuses of authority since before Confederation, and ever since, not least through our flagrant dishonour of treaties that were signed in apparent good faith and then ignored. We’ve even struck a Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged to examine parts of this sorry past. Interestingly, Australia has likewise had a reconciliation process and an apology, but travelling through the Kimberley with Patrick Dodson, one of Australia’s most eminent and revered aboriginal leaders, Ric Young and I listened to a sustained refrain from Dodson that the hard work still is still before us — figuring out how to forge a future together.
To a degree, Idle No More is calling the dominant society’s bluff, because while we are willing to apologize for what our economic and social systems have done to aboriginal people in the past, we haven’t yet demonstrated a willingness to build a future based on their beliefs, not ours — or at the very least, shared beliefs, not just ours. Instead, we apologize for a system’s ill effects, and then invite aboriginal people to take cheap equity in the same system that caused them such harm in the first place.
In many ways, the most urgent issue confronting our country is to develop a critical competency that we sorely lack — this business of future-making. Clearly, it cannot be led by politicians and CEOs because they are no longer trusted. If we want to live in a fair country, then we need to be intentional about what that’s going to take, and who is going to get us there. Our aboriginal people will only escape the past, and we with them, if they rediscover what it means to make a future. If it is a matter of trust, then I trust them a lot more than I trust myself. What lies before us all, if we are serious, is a lot of what Young predicts will be “sheer stubborn muddling through” at first, because we need to approach this task in exactly the opposite way that Shell wanted to reach its foregone conclusion in the Klappan those many years ago. We need to start without a sheaf of predetermined outcomes or a list of performance indicators, but to embark on the true dialogue this country desperately needs to have.
There will be strong resistance from many quarters, which may or may not be surmountable, but there are visionary and courageous people in this country, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, and innovative ones too. A fair Canada will probably be a lot less environmental and a lot less industrial than the current one, so maybe no one will be happy. But with dire warnings that hundreds of billions of dollars worth of resource developments are in the offing, and with no real vision for how to accommodate Indigenous interests and genuine environmental concerns, what are the prospects that this can end well without a thorough transformation of Canada’s national narrative?
More than 100 years ago, Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness that, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” It wasn’t pretty then, and it isn’t pretty now — and it won’t be in another hundred years, either. Apocalypse then, apocalypse still. We’ve had a century of military-industrial development, and we know exactly where it’s gotten us. Only big change, only strange change, can bring about the kind of transformation that our society, indeed all societies, so desperately need.
CODA: I began this piece with a personal story, about navigating power imbalances and competing agendas between industry, aided and abetted by governments, and local people who wished to be left in peace. While formulating this analysis, I was daily tuned to all sorts of coverage of Keystone, Northern Gateway and the many other proposals that oscillate between the business pages and page 1. Throughout, I have been trying to understand not just the motivations of people and organizations, but their mood. Let me end on another, highly personal note.
One day, I received a document attached to an email from my wife, who is still in Australia completing a contract. The document was labelled “Presentation,” and the cover email asked, “Did you see this?” It turns out the document was a typed account of an oral presentation to the NEB’s contentious hearings about Northern Gateway that had just wrapped up in Victoria. I read the account and was highly moved by it
An unidentified woman had addressed the panel and in her own way, had gone right to the heart of the difference between authority and permission. “When I was 18, I was raped,” she said. She was a young babysitter raped by an older man, an authority figure in her neighbourhood who had begged off ill from a couples’ night out to prey on her right there in his house. In her presentation, she equated this with industry and government’s failure to understand what First Nations people mean when they say no.
We’ve all heard the environmental rhetoric about “raping” old-growth forests or the oceans, and I must say it has always struck me as unhelpfully inflammatory. Now, here was a woman telling the NEB panel that she saw no difference between what happened to her more than half a century earlier, what has been happening to aboriginal people for generations, and what is happening right now to the planet.
Nothing in the statement identified the woman, but then some news reports picked up her testimony. “Speakers compare Northern Gateway project to rape, drug addiction,” said one headline. One story quoted from the statement, and that story named the woman who had made it: Jean Jordan, my wife’s mother, my children’s grandmother, breaking a silence of her entire adult life because of her passionate belief that we have a moral obligation to change the course of this country before it’s too late. She is exactly the kind of quiet, courageous Canadian — a retired teacher, a law-abiding, taxpaying citizen who does the cryptic crossword and cooks the turkey that I carve each holiday season, a woman just like millions of others — who is starting to exert her own authority. Who is idle, and silent, no more.
Ian Gill, who served as president of Ecotrust in Canada, the U.S. and most recently in Australia, is a former newspaper and CBC Television journalist, and the author ofAll That We Say Is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation. He is an Australian and Canadian citizen. He lives in Vancouver. firstname.lastname@example.org . Twitter: @gillwave