After 150 years of relentless colonization, Canada finds itself at a crossroads. Staring down social injustice, economic insecurity and environmental instability, it has the opportunity to forge a more just and sustainable future, if it follows the leadership of Indigenous peoples.
Canada, the world's second-largest nation by landmass, has abundant natural resources. In his influential "staples thesis" conceived in the 1920s, political economist Harold Innis demonstrated that the export of commodities to the British Empire—at the time fur, cod, lumber and wheat—in exchange for manufactured goods and technologies was central to Canada's development.
Sixty-five years after his passing in 1952, Innis' work remains incisive. Replace fur and wheat with oil and minerals, the British Empire with the American, and you have a reasonable sketch of Canada's economic present. Today, Canada is the fifth ranked oil producer and fourth ranked oil exporter by volume in the world. Among G7 countries, it is the top ranked oil exporter by far.
Canada's dependence on the extraction of natural resources is a social, economic and environmental curse.
After a century-and-a-half of colonial dispossession, First Nations reserves now account for just 0.2 percent of the country's land base. Consequently, Indigenous peoples experience endemic poverty, while oil oligarchs, mining barons and hereditary elites revel in extraordinary wealth.
But this wealth, fuelled by easy access to vast resource reserves taken from Indigenous peoples, has also cultivated economic complacency. Although the current federal government has talked a big game about investing in innovation, the Canadian private sector still spends far less on research and development of new technologies than its international competitors, like the United States and United Kingdom—and the gap is widening.
Indigenous peoples are taking center stage in battles over the future of energy and natural resources, governance, and values
It has also sent the country hurtling towards environmental catastrophe. Pipelines, mines, shipping terminals and other types of extractive infrastructure present constant ecological and public health risks that turn into disastrous realities all too often. Last year, for example, a petroleum tug-barge ran ashore near Bella Bella in British Columbia, leaking diesel into one of the richest marine habitats and cultural treasures in Canada and the world. At the same time, fossil fuels are superheating the planet and transforming Canada forever.
Just as Indigenous peoples played a central role in the fur trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they are taking center stage in battles over the future of energy and natural resources, governance, and values in the twenty-first century.
New extractive projects present First Nations with a choice: either bend values and culture to accommodate colonial capitalism, or take a stand to protect lands, waters and rights.
Indigenous peoples are choosing to stand and fight for their rights and the planet's collective future. From Standing Rock to Unist'ot'en, they are uniting against the forces of colonial capitalism, using their bodies and rights to protect Indigenous communities, the public and the planet from environmental degradation.
In doing so, they force corporations and investors addicted to easy money from oil and other natural resources to put capital into renewable energies and other forward-looking technologies more appropriate for a twenty-first century economy.
Read More: The Fight For a Fish That Feeds the BC Coast
Canada has ample reason to protect and even expand Indigenous rights by moving to the international standard of Free Prior and Informed Consent outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and upholding the Supreme Court of Canada's landmark ruling in the Tsilhqot'in case. These standards and precedents mandate full and informed approval from Indigenous peoples before advancing any projects that impact their territories.
The minority NDP-Green provincial government, which recently unseated the Liberals in British Columbia, has pledged to uphold principles outlined in UNDRIP and the Tsilhqot'in decision and stop the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Amidst metastasizing social injustice, economic stagnation and environmental catastrophe, Indigenous peoples are leading the way forward to a more just future for our lands, waters, economies and all the nations and peoples who share them. Canada must follow.
Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St'at'imc) is a writer currently reporting from across Turtle Island with generous support from the CBC's Indigenous Fellowship and High Country News' Diverse Western Voices Award. He is a regular contributor to The Guardian.
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