Sunday, November 22, 2015

Mohawk Chief: “All I Can Do is Pray Things Change for My People”

(An edited version of this story appears in this week's NOW Magazine)

The Trudeau government has said it will consult with First Nations, but will it respect the duty to receive "free, prior, and informed consent" from indigenous communities?

Mohawk Chief Clinton Phillips in front of the St. Lawrence Seaway (credit: Mohawk Council of Kahnawake)

By Matthew Behrens
As the city of Montreal prepared to open the floodgates on 8-billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River, Kahnawake Mohawk Chief Clinton Phillips received a phone call from the person who ultimately approved the massive dump.
            It was newly minted Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, about to board a plane for the Paris climate conference pre-talk sessions. She spent 30 minutes discussing a scientific report that recommended a controlled sewage release as the least damaging of numerous lose-lose options.
            “She has invited me to participate in what is dubbed a post-mortem committee — their language, not mine – to ensure this doesn't happen again,” Phillips says, noting he appreciated that McKenna’s rock-and-a-hard-place decision was the predetermined product of years of municipal, provincial, and federal failure to fix what was identified two decades ago as a serious infrastructure challenge, one facing many other urban centres (including Toronto).
Phillips, who has served in office for over six years, was nonetheless taken aback to hear her voice. “I don't recall ever hearing at our table that a [federal] minister had called any one of us,” he says. “Even the former Minister of Indian Affairs never called us.”

Nation to Nation Relationship
Although not widely publicized, McKenna’s call could be a small but important symbol of how the Trudeau government will live up to one of its biggest commitments as it strains to be all things to all people. That challenge – the duty to meaningfully consult with Indigenous peoples – was outlined last week in the ministerial mandate letter received by Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, the new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.
            “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples,” wrote Trudeau. “It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.”
            If Bennett requires a template of how not to begin such a relationship, she need look no further than the mishandling of the St. Lawrence sewage crisis. 

 Zero Consultation
Indeed, the Mohawk community of Kahnawake lies just across the river from Montreal. “From my reserve to downtown Montreal, without traffic, will take me seven minutes to drive,” Phillips says, yet civic officials aware of such proximity did not think to involve his people in any discussions about the impending flush of sewage into a waterway that “is like blood that flows through our veins. Quebec is fully aware that there is a duty to consult First Nations. To learn about this at the 11th hour,” he says, and through the media no less, was insulting. “Temporary measures were put in place in 1997. So, we're in 2015. How bloody long do they think temporary means? So much time had gone by that different viable options that would have been achievable were not being discussed.”
             While members of the community protested, from launching a flotilla to blocking the Mercier Bridge, Kahnawake leaders who hadn’t been consulted all those years were finally able to attend two Montreal meetings held mere days before the dump. “As a First Nations leader, it’s unacceptable that the government is saying a couple of two-hour meetings constitutes meaningful consultation,” says a frustrated Phillips. “Meantime, I was being inundated with calls and emails from citizens of Montreal begging with me, pleading, ‘don't let this happen, block a bridge, do this, do that.’ But I’m thinking, ‘it’s your government, why don't you do something? You don't need us to always put our people on the line and then be hit by C-51 charges.’”
            For members of the Kahnawake community, the dump, which began November 11, was just the latest in a lengthy series of blows the Mohawk people have been subjected to for centuries. “My people have still not recovered since the Seaway system was put right through the heart of our reserve, denying us access from what we call our river,” Phillips says.  “This hurts like you wouldn't believe. Kahnawake means by the rapids, and we're not by the rapids anymore because there’s a sewer system that goes right through the heart of our reserve called the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

Threats to Indigenous People and Lands
            In addition to dealing with the post-dump environmental impacts, the community is also facing challenges in the form of Enbridge and TransCanada pipeline projects. In this respect, the Mohawks are not unlike many indigenous communities across the country dealing with threats to their lands and water posed by lax pollution standards that may be exacerbated with passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, mining, deforestation, fracking, and ongoing tarsands development.

           It is here that Carolyn Bennett will face her biggest challenge, for while her mandate includes ensuring enhanced “consultation, engagement and participatory capacity of Indigenous groups in reviewing and monitoring major resource development projects,” how much power will that ultimately leave First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities whose livelihood and beliefs may prove incompatible with the bottom lines of multinational corporations? Notably, Bennett’s mandate carefully avoids one of the most critical phrases in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the “free, prior and informed consent” that is required of state parties “before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.” While Trudeau seeks to implement the Declaration, the Harper government refused to support it, fearing this phrase could be used to justify the veto of major energy projects.

            McKenna’s phone call may be viewed as a small but hopeful first step in the right direction. But will a government that is friendly to the resource extraction and oil industries go beyond symbolic lip service to fully respect a consultative process that mandates “free, prior and informed consent”?

 “First Nations across this country and the US have been promised every single thing under the sun, and unfortunately, it has never happened,” Phillips sighs. “You look at any infrastructure in this country, it always goes right through the heart of indigenous territory. Is that just another way to annoy us or assimilate us or just get rid of us — genocide? It certainly doesn't make life easier for us.
 “Whether it be Mulcair, Harper or Trudeau in power, at the end of the day it's still the Government of Canada and they still follow the Indian Act. For us, it's the same monster, just different people, and based on history, all I can do is pray that things change for our people.”

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