A highway blockade on Provincial Road 280 led by members of Tataskweyak Cree Nation this week drew the RCMP, armed with a court injunction ordering participants to leave or face arrest.
Tataskweyak is one of four First Nation partners (alongside War Lake, York Factory, and Fox Lake) in the multi-million-dollar Keeyask hydroelectric generating project. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a reduced group of 600 had continued work at the construction site some 960 road kilometres north of Winnipeg.
On May 1, Manitoba Hydro announced plans to rotate in new workers. The First Nations partners believed this would follow current pandemic restrictions and non-travel protections for area communities.
Shortly after, First Nation leaders say they found out Hydro convinced health authorities to exempt the project and send roughly 1,000 workers (including 200 from outside Manitoba) to the North.
On May 15, Tataskweyak Chief Doreen Spence announced a blockade on the north access road to the site because "bringing in a significant number of new workers to the Keeyask camp is an unacceptable and dangerous risk to our community... We have no other choice in order to protect our community, and all others in northern Manitoba."
Filing a court injunction, Manitoba Hydro argued the blockade endangers onsite workers and, if not removed, costs the Crown corporation $1.7 million per day in wages, costs, and future lost revenue.
Spence was clear in her reaction when RCMP arrived to deliver the injunction papers: she tore them up.
Meanwhile, Fox Lake issued a state of emergency and instituted a blockade on the site's south access road. (Leadership at War Lake and York Factory support the blockades, too.)
RCMP have announced no plans to enforce the court order.
Hydro countered Friday by halting the shift change, and reducing on-site staff to only about 100 people for security and maintenance.
Asked about the blockades this week, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said: "We need to follow the rule of law and we need to make sure that we respect it."
The Manitoba government also announced a plan — but no start date — for an end to the ban on northern travel, with a recommendation that citizens, "avoid visiting local communities, including First Nations communities, as much as possible."
This, despite the pretty-much-unified response by First Nations governments saying: no.
This isn’t the "rule of law." This is the rule of one law, the law First Nations partnerships, treaties and rights surrounding consultation, land claims, and self-government are only useful insofar as they benefit Canada.
If they get in the way of Canada’s economy, laws, or goals, they are ignored, denied, or "illegal."
In the coming months, a battle is looming.
There have been glimpses of it in the continuation of construction projects such as the Site C dam in B.C. — resource extraction projects fought by First Nations but have been deemed "essential services" by Canada’s leaders.
First Nations leaders and communities have demanded their land claims and rights — and Canada’s constitutional responsibility for "prior and informed consent" — be respected. But, despite having no basis beyond their own interpretation of the law, Canada has continued unabated.
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a blessing to provincial governments and the feds, as it has forced First Nations communities to retreat from the blockades and focus on protecting their families.
These fights, however, are not going away.
To use Spence’s words, First Nations are being left with "no choice" to protect themselves in Canada’s rush to "return to normality."
Canadian normality has been defined by building economies off taking First Nations lands and resources and — until the past few decades anyways — ignoring First Nations rights.
Up to now, First Nations have mostly believed in the "rule of law," working in courts and at negotiation tables for solutions.
If burning is the only choice left though, where do we go from here?
Where does it stop?
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
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