Shiri Pasternak

Trans Mountain pipeline another colonial project asserting jurisdiction over Indigenous lands

Op-Ed with Deborah Cowen

Originally published in the Toronto Star, April 24, 2018

Link: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2018/04/24/trans-mountain-pipeline-another-colonial-project-asserting-jurisdiction-over-indigenous-lands.html

In the face of extraordinary Indigenous resistance to the Trans Mountain project, and without a trace of the tears that fell for reconciliation, Prime Minister Trudeau asserts that this infrastructure is “in the national interest and it will get built.”

Kinder Morgan is nothing less than reconciliation on trial. The company’s recent claims to the “untenable” economics of the Trans Mountain pipeline may derail the project for now, but there will be other pipelines, and the problem of jurisdiction will not go away.

Today, Justin Trudeau fights tirelessly to assert national jurisdiction to see the planned pipeline to completion. In the face of extraordinary Indigenous resistance to the Trans Mountain project, and without a trace of the tears that fell for reconciliation, Trudeau asserts that this infrastructure is “in the national interest and it will get built.”

Infrastructure development has always driven Indian policy in Canada, laying the blueprint for national economic ambition. Train and telegraph lines gave shape to the numbered treaties. Trade routes forged the navigation maps for roads and highways. Forts became settlements and cities. Infrastructure transformed homelands into frontiers of extraction leaving a meagre land base of 0.2 per cent of the country to Indigenous peoples.

When Canada was born in 1867, it barely existed as a physical space. To make it into a country, it needed land, and to access the land and bring it under settler control, it needed infrastructure.

Confederation was contingent on the building of national infrastructure — the Intercolonial Rail and the Canadian Pacific Rail (CPR) were conditions for provinces in signing the Constitution. The Constitution in turn authorizes national authority over the same infrastructure. The CPR, which John A. Macdonald deemed “the spine of the nation” was at once the materialization of Canadian claims to legal jurisdiction and the writ of dispossession for Indigenous land.

Colonial interpretations of treaty signing ceremonies were parsimonious at best. So-called land “surrenders” paved the way for the CPR, built not only through land thefts, but through exploited Chinese and Black lives and labour, and financed by Barings — a bank that reaped its wealth through the transatlantic slave trade. Revelstoke, a town built on unceded Secwepemc land, was named for the man who secured the funding through his family’s bank.

Secwepemc territory is now at the centre of another infrastructure project that is shaping the balance of power in Canada. Secwepemceluw in the south central interior of British Columbia is the largest contiguous length the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline will traverse.

Historically and in the present, it is through the claim to jurisdiction — and the materialization of these claims through infrastructure — that Canada attempts to “replace” established Indigenous legal systems with their own.

Struggles over energy and extractive infrastructures have been fierce in recent years, demonstrating the deepening problem of Indigenous jurisdiction to business-as-usual in Canada. From the Site C Dam to the Ring of Fire to Muskrat Falls. As water and land protectors are hauled off from protest sites, we cannot forget how infrastructures have been the literal backbone of this country, and are always entangled with the legal problem of Canada.

Those who work in the construction sector rely on this “colonial infrastructure” to survive. But these jobs are short-lived and pit the vulnerability of resource sector workers against Indigenous peoples in a tradition of Canadian economic policy that fails to reconcile profit with ecological integrity and respect for Indigenous governance over their lands, territories, and resources.

One of the more creative efforts to stop the pipeline unfolds in the Secwepemc’s Tiny House Warriors: Our Land is Home project. Building on long histories of resistance, land and water defenders are constructing tiny houses and placing them along the pipeline route on their territory, “to assert Secwepemc Law and jurisdiction and block access to this pipeline.”

Here we see precisely the refusal of settler colonial infrastructures, but also the realization of Indigenous sovereign acts of jurisdiction.

Will Canada cling to this 150-plus-year-old strategy of asserting jurisdiction over Indigenous lands through the making of infrastructure, or will we honour the promises of reconciliation and shared decision-making? The time for real reparations is at hand.

Deborah Cowen is a 2016 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellow and associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto. Shiri Pasternak is an assistant professor of criminology at Ryerson University and the research director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance.