Three Solitudes

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If Mr Montpetit may be allowed to paraphrase novelist Hugh MacLennan, the railroad blockades have shown that Canada is a land of «Three Solitudes». Thirty years after Oka, Quebec still has not signed the constitution imposed during the evening of November 5, 1981, and the Indigenous problem remains intact.

Three Solitudes

In order to put an end to the railroad blockades, Prime Minister Trudeau proposes a dialogue.

This implies that all involved, the government, the oil companies and the Indigenous peoples, should be in good faith. Thirty years after the Oka crisis, some commentators see similarities between the two situations. Let’s not forget that 1990 was the year that the three faces of Canada were exposed by two major political crises. In June, the ROC (Rest of Canada) had rejected the Meech Lake Accord. This minimalist accord would have permitted Quebec to reintegrate the constitutional framework of Canada with ”honor and enthusiasm” according to the words of Prime Minister Mulroney.(1) By refusing to let Quebec freely join the constitutional family, Canada was split into ‘’two solitudes’’!(2)

A few days later, the Oka crisis broke out in the media. That gave English Canada the opportunity to bad-mouth Quebec while avoiding taking action since Quebec still had a nebulous status within confederation. Thirty years later, Quebec still has not signed the constitution imposed during the ‘La nuit des longs couteaux’’ (the perceived doublecross of November 5, 1981), and the Indigenous problem remains intact.

Procrastinating for 30 years, is this acting in good faith? Did the “ English solitude” represented by the federal government, block dialogue and reconciliation? (3) For example, the Council of Canadians brought out a patent case of governmental bad faith in Nova Scotia. Alta Gas wants to dig some caverns in which to stockpile natural gas in salt deposits.(4) The salt would be dissolved and emptied into the Shubenacadie River, threatening the habitat of the fresh water fish on which the Mi’kmaq depend. Rather than require that Alta Gas conform to the laws and respect the rights of the Mi’kmaq, the government proposes modifying the laws to favor the fossil fuel company even if it infringes Indigenous rights. (5) A classic example of ‘’dialogue with someone of bad faith and you will be screwed”.

In order to transport shale gas to the Pacific, Coastal GasLink wishes to build a pipeline over the unceded land of the Wet’suwet’en. Should we be scandalized if the band councils, created by The Indian Act and the traditional chiefs have divergent opinions on the subject of the suitability of this project? It is as in Quebec, where some were in favor of the Energy East pipeline and others against it! From my “Quebec Solitude” , I applaud those who are against projects which will exacerbate climate change. I do not know a lot about the experience of the First Nations. What I do know, is that Indigenous people have a rapport with nature which is different from our own. But in fact, the shared aspirations of the First Nations and environmentalists who fight climate change make us natural allies.

Wet’suwet’en for good faith, isn’t the building of infrastructures on Indigenous lands a form of aggressive re-colonization? This is what Michel Seymour maintains when he criticizes the request made by Prime Minister Trudeau to the Indigenous activists to respect the rule of law.‘’But as Pam Palmater who is Mi’Kmaq citizen, a member of the Band of Eel River Bar, in northern New Brunswick; lawyer, associate professor, chair of Indigenous governance at Ryerson University : ‘’It is about the law of those who make the rules and not the rule of law.’’(6)

Thirty years after Oka, nothing is settled in the files of the “Quebec solitude” and the “Indigenous solitude”. To our allies for the environment, the First Nations, I wish the wisdom to effectively negotiate while minimizing the inconvenience to those they want to convince of the righteousness of their cause. With the rail blockade, they have put their finger on the Achilles heel which will force the government to turn its back on fossil fuels and to respect the Paris Accord. The blockade is painful on the economic level : it is also painful to many citizens who have nothing to do with all this. To win the battle for public opinion, it is necessary to avoid antagonizing the population by turning them into collateral damage.

This is why I suggest a conditional moratorium on the blockades, but with a precise timetable. As conditions, it should be required that the RCMP leave Wet’suwet’en territory AND the immediate stop to all pipeline projects : Coastal Gaslink, TransMountain, LNG Quebec as well as a hypothetical energy corridor aiming at reviving Energy East. All these pipelines put the rights of the various Indigenous Nations in jeopardy and threaten Mother Nature. If these negotiations go on forever, demonstrate the firm intention of resuming the blockade after a predetermined delay.(7)

To conclude with the essential, I would like to quote the wisdom of Tatanka Yotanka (Sitting Bull) chief of the Lakotas (Sioux) «  When they have cut the last tree, polluted the last stream, fished the last fish, they will see that you cannot eat money »

Gérard Montpetit

Member of comité des citoyens et citoyennes pour la protection de l’environnement maskoutain.

March 3, 2020


2] a reference to the novel of Hugh MacLennan, “Two Solitudes” published in 1945.