The chief of a Manitoba First Nation (reserve) intends to proceed with a powwow despite provincial COVID-19 regulations prohibiting large gatherings. Recently, four other First Nations set up blockades in northern Manitoba. One chief publicly tore up the court order to reopen presented to her by polite RCMP officers. In other parts of Canada, similar things are happening. The reasons are inconsistent – one to protect a community from virus infection, another to hold large gatherings, putting people at risk of infection.
The precedent is the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief issue, which was playing out immediately before the pandemic brought normal life to a screeching halt. In that case, a tiny group of people with dubious titles managed – in partnership with climate activists – to paralyze the economic life of the country. Instead of taking decisive action to end the blockades, the federal government sent a cabinet minister scuttling off to appease the odd group. A secret agreement resulted, to the delight of the unelected faction. That agreement – that could fundamentally alter everyone’s property rights – was immediately and predictably challenged by the elected chiefs in what promises to be lengthy tax-funded litigation.
In addition to the federal government giving in to blockaders’ demands, the police are extremely reluctant to enforce court orders where Indigenous claims are involved. The Manitoba chief who chose to publicly rip up the court order in the presence of the RCMP knew that there would be no consequences. In fact, the authorities gave in to her demands. (Why judges even entertain applications for Indigenous blockade injunctions – knowing that their orders will not be enforced, and probably disrespected – is unclear to me.)
Most chiefs would not even consider defying health regulations, setting up blockades, or ripping up court orders. Instead, they work cooperatively with other levels of government and corporations to improve conditions in their communities and provide employment opportunities for their constituents. But for the chiefs who feel entitled to choose which laws they will or won’t follow, some questions should be asked: if one chief chooses to illegally hold large gatherings while another feels free to prohibit people suspected of carrying germs from entering or passing through their community, can the second chief blockade the first chief’s community? For that matter, can the mayor of a surrounding town prohibit those possibly infected people from entering their town – perhaps setting up barricades in order to do so? Is it okay for that mayor to rip up a court order?
As it is beginning to look like this crazy-quilt free-for-all kind of country makes sense to this Prime Minister – should we ask him some questions too? Does he realize that he is bargaining away the fundamental property ownership rights of citizens – in secret? Is it his intention to Balkanize this country into 635 different nations, each with its own set of laws? Does he think Canadians will stand for that? Mr. Prime Minister, this would require constitutional reform. If you wish to fundamentally change our country you must do so openly and by means of the constitutional reform process that guarantees every Canadian their say. And I am pretty sure that when they have that opportunity they will vote for a country that is one nation – where every citizen is equal and subject to the same laws.
Brian Giesbrecht, a retired judge, is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.