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Primal Screams of Generational Hurt

Paul Nicklen
 

I am proud to live in British Columbia and I am even more proud to be Canadian. I am proud that I grew up in the Canadian Arctic with the Inuit and have worked and lived with First Nations communities for most of my working life. I was proud to have voted for Justin Trudeau, who was elected on a primarily environmental platform.

That illusion was shattered once and for all the day I stood next to Chief Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation and learned that the BC Supreme Court had just sentenced land-defender and cousin to Rueben George, Will George, to 28 days in jail for contempt of court.

George was sentenced for refusing to accept an injunction that grants Trans Mountain Pipeline access to lands that the Tsleil-Waututh Nation have never released, ceded or surrendered to government overseers.

At no time, to use the legal language of the times, have the Tsleil-Waututh granted their free, prior and informed consent for Trans Mountain ULC to access areas which, by right, are an indelible part of First Nations heritage that has been home to the Tsleil-Waututh community that has lived off the land for more than 20,000 years.

I learned a hard truth that day, that the Canadian government and the courts are incapable of upholding even the minimum standards of human rights enshrined by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Twenty-thousand years. Think about that for a minute. Some 20,000 years ago, the natural world looked not that much different from how it looks today, though in some ways it was markedly different. Large ice caps dominated the northern hemisphere, which meant the large amount of water frozen in ice lowered global sea levels by several dozen meters. The land bridge across the Bering Strait that connected the Americas with what is Russia today allowed early Nomadic Asian tribes to cross into the Americas, including western Canada. These were truly the First Nations. More importantly to today’s conversation, all available evidence shows First Nations people lived in harmony with the natural world.

On the day of the Supreme Court judgment in May, Tsleil-Waututh lands were fenced off while bulldozers pushed over trees and tore up the soil in front of our eyes. The bulldozers and earth movers were ripping into the ground for a pipeline that will transport the dirtiest oil in the world, from Alberta’s aptly named tar sands to Vancouver, where the oil will be shipped overseas to be processed far away from the land and soil that gave it birth.

On this day, as trees fell and tears ran down the faces of tribal elders forced to bear witness to an unspeakable crime, we were living in a real-world Avatar moment — Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil transported to the temperate rainforests of Canada’s West Coast. It was, once again, a case of money and naked greed sublimating and ruining all that is good in the world.

My partner Cristina Mittermeier and the rest of the SeaLegacy team pushed through our own tears as we documented, on film and in images, the grief, sadness — and anger — that the Tsleil-Waututh felt that day, and still feel today.

When Cristina asked Rueben George to share his thoughts, for the historical record, Rueben let out an ethereal cry that spoke of a hurt for the ages. It was a primal stirring of the soul, a cry of generations betrayed, a testament to the wounds of a culture deeply attached to the earth and soil that gave birth to us all.

It is shameful. As a nation, we should be ashamed and embarrassed at the ways how we have treated the indigenous people of this land. From forced religion to the discredited practice of residential schools, from the loss of ancient languages to, now, the dispossession of their lands, it is a terrible crime.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Canada will miss its carbon targets, trumpeted so loudly at the Paris Agreement signed in April 2016 — six years ago now — and that is a stain on the image of Canada that will tarnish us forever. Rather than being a leading nation in meeting carbon targets, as our leaders led us to believe, we will be just another nation-state that drove a dagger into the heart of the idea of a green, sustainable future that embraces renewable energy at its core. We have become the Brazil of the North. Our own Supreme Court has told us so, even as the voice of the Tsleil-Waututh elders emitted their haunting cry.

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