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Editorial

Mr. Trudeau muddies First Nations rights

Justin Trudeau with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley Wednesday.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Justin Trudeau with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley Wednesday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/2/2016 (1653 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Do First Nations have a veto over development on Crown land in their traditional territory? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said as much, while vying for aboriginal support on the campaign trail last year. Now, he is hedging. It is time our prime minister explains his plan to set new rules for how resource extraction, and the laying of pipelines, will happen in Canada.

Uncertainty is bad for a country in need of investment. Low commodity prices already are making resource companies skittish.

But the uncertainty is also toxic to the hope of repairing relations with First Nations people. Aboriginal people have good, historical reasons to distrust governments of all stripes.

Mr. Trudeau made a lot of noise last fall that a Liberal government would be different and would treat First Nations people as partners in economic development. Treaties would be respected, self-government in areas such as governance and education would be confirmed with bands writing their own rules.

And in October, appearing on APTN, the wannabe prime minister overstepped constitutional law in pledging under a Liberal government, oil or natural gas pipelines would need permission of First Nations to cross traditional territory. Some don’t want pipelines regardless of how safe they might be, the TV host noted, adding: "Would no mean no under your government?’ "Absolutely,’ he responded.

But Wednesday, APTN reported, Mr. Trudeau was asked at a news conference in Alberta to recommit to his no-means-no policy on pipelines. He balked. Instead, he said simply aboriginal people are "partners in all that we do in this land,’ and his government respects the inherent and treaty rights of First Nations.

Hmmm. Veto or no?

This is about more than a pipeline, getting oil to markets. The right to determine use of Crown land is about more than exploiting natural resources (although clear rules over how development occurs are central to investment decisions).

This is about the broad framework for how Canada, in a larger sense, conducts business — how it manages its national lands and resources, as a public trust and in the public interest. It touches, for example, upon the use of waterways, the founding of new or management of current national or provincial parks and reserves.

Mr. Trudeau has said he fully ascribes to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, implying he would reframe the Harper government’s support for it in 2010, which called it an "aspirational’ document that did not change Canadian law. The UNDRIP goes on at length about the right of indigenous people to give "free, prior and informed consent’ to use of their lands and territories.

In 2014, the Supreme Court declared the Tsilhqot’in band had aboriginal title over vast tracts of land in British Columbia, affirming the rights of First Nations without treaty over traditional territory. But, it stressed, they did not hold a veto over development. All parties had to negotiate willingly and meaningfully on any development proposal, the court said.

Many argue that is a de facto veto for such bands, given protracted battles can derail development. (Bands with treaty must be meaningfully consulted prior to development within their traditional lands.)

Mr. Trudeau last October seemed to agree bands have a veto. Now that is in doubt.

Muddying these waters is not good for building trust with indigenous people. It’s bad for business. The prime minister should explain himself: does Canada operate on constitutional interpretation of rights, laid down in successive decisions of the country’s highest court, or does the Liberal government intend to rewrite those, too? Time for clarity, Mr. Trudeau.

 

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Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

History

Updated on Friday, February 5, 2016 at 6:49 AM CST: Adds image

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