*This is an opinion paper, therefore the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of MARL.
The beginning of this year presented itself in a ghastly and unprecedented way, suddenly submerging us in a multitude of critical societal issues, and subsequently posing upon us a variety of fundamental questions. Putting aside alarming matters of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so far the most divisive annual events for Canada remain, arguably, the aftermath of civil disobedience protests associated with the construction of a Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline through the traditional lands of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in Northwestern BC.
Latently, the dispute between oil and gas industries, Indigenous communities, and governments has been ongoing for many years. This mentioned dispute opposes rather essential matters of various benefits of a $6.2 billion industrial investment against rather sacred matters of Indigenous rights and Indigenous sovereignty. The fact that federal and BC governments have reached a proposed arrangement with the Wet’suwet’en Nation to recognize its hereditary governance system while deferring resolution to the pipeline dispute confirmed that apples were not compared to apples. The lack of “free, prior, and informed consent” of Indigenous Peoples in the court decision, as it was expressed by regional Chief for British Columbia Terry Teegee poses the question: was fair justice achieved? Among all the complexity and diversity of opinions expressed, this event suddenly snatched many of us out of stereotypically comfortable complacency, and unambiguously demanded to carefully reexamine our understanding and acceptance of multiculturalism and rights of Indigenous peoples.
The protest marches and blockades are over, paint was carefully scrubbed from walls, windows, and monuments, but the question of how to assess such desperate action remains. Should we gauge it concerning human rights or descension into anarchy? How does it reflect our national integrity: are we a whole, divided, or broken nation after all? As a society, striving for justice, equity, and reconciliation, what lessons can we learn and take into the future?
Considering earnestly, “Is this the future you want?”- a query spray-painted on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights during different civil disobedience protests - I suggest that John Rawls’s theory of justice, together with Leonard Swidler’s dialogue principles, offer helpful perspectives for our argument.
For instance, a leading feature of Rawls’s theory of justice is the priority it gives to the right over the good. The author defended a state which remained neutral to different ways of life, while promoting, in its economic policies, the well-being of the least advantaged. For him, claims based on the rights of individuals always trumps over claims based on the “good that would result to them, or to others, from violating those rights.” In other words, “the loss of freedom for some” can never be “made right by a greater good shared by others.”
No matter how attractive, therefore, benefits (i.e., contracting and employment, community programs, training and educational opportunities) for the Indigenous communities along the pipeline route may appear, they should never be offered as a bargaining chip. Overcoming existing disparities, following Rawls’s theory, should be a standing matter of government’s economic policies and should not depend on the outcomes of the Coastal GasLink dispute.
Still, the pipeline conflict was not about “money interests vs. money interests” or “land titles vs. land titles”, but the Coastal GasLink interests were opposed to Wet’suwet’en governance and the nation’s right to its traditional territory. In other words, the conflict appeared to be constructed on two remote monologues instead of one equal dialogue.
Moving forward, how then we can reassure that an equal dialogue happens every time? According to Swidler, dialogue is a conversation on the same subject between two or more parties with differing views. The purpose of equal dialogue is to learn from the other so that she or he can change and grow. According to Swidler’s ten principles of dialogue, each participant must come to the discussion with complete honesty and sincerity (third principle). “Honesty and sincerity” means full disclosure of “major and minor thrusts” and informed consent based upon such disclosure. Hence, the tentative arrangement between Wet‘suwet’en hereditary chiefs and senior government ministers acknowledged the land title rights, as parties still disagree on how to move forward with the controversial pipeline.
Equal dialogue should not impose one’s worldviews on those who have reached conclusions different than one’s own. Likewise, participants must enter the dialogue without any preconceptions as to where the points of disagreement lie (sixth principle). There may be a point where a participant cannot agree without going against one's own principle position; that is the real point of disagreement—which most often turns out to be different from the assumed ahead of time.
It is crucial, therefore, to have a healthy level of self-criticism. A lack of such criticism implies that one’s stance has all the answers, thus making dialogue not only unnecessary but unfeasible (ninth principle). We are still healing from our colonial past, and our journey towards reconciliation is still far from over. Unsurprisingly, recent findings of the National Post’s poll displayed that 69% of Canadians deem themselves to be a “broken nation.” To move forward, we must accept this as awareness- even an unpleasant one- and not try to deny it. As the primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, it is impossible if participants never made a misstep.
We must accept that these issues are ones on which people of goodwill can agree and disagree, and refrain to willingly or unwillingly impose their own doctrines on others. Then, we may agree that the reached resolution between the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation in British Columbia and the federal and provincial ministers is a fundamental step that should be taken before any further concerns over a controversial natural gas pipeline project may be resolved.
One way or another, all conflicts are toxic, and there is never genuinely a winning or, contrarily, genuinely losing side. We are all often left hurt, and more so in Canadian society, where many are still healing from events associated with a colonial past. Needless to say, though, the noted instances of hate speech and death threats directed at the protesters are intrinsically intolerable. Ultimately, a sobering awakening arose, shifting illusory glossiness of an internationally accepted image of a country, ranked as #1 for the quality of life into an unpleasant picture of a broken nation. Some refused to accept brokenness as a piece of awareness, reaffirming instead that we’re well and Canada “is not broken”. In reality, we must recognize and fully accept our faultiness and our brokenness in order to move forward with the dialogue as equals. In the words of Bryan Stevenson, “We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
March 29, 2020
by Stefan Bilynsky firstname.lastname@example.org
Stefan is a MA in Bioethics & Health Policy student at Loyola University Chicago. Lives and works in Winnipeg, MB.