Five reasons why Murray Rankin’s comments put Wet’suwet’en land defenders at risk of violence and criminalization

Published by Brent Patterson on

Photo: Murray Rankin with federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh (who supports the Coastal GasLink pipeline, but who also criticized the recent RCMP raid against Wet’suwet’en land defenders: “That’s not reconciliation.”)

Murray Rankin, the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation in the province of British Columbia, has highlighted following the RCMP raid against Wet’suwet’en land defenders, allies and journalists on November 18-19 that the provincial government does not and should not have any say over police operations.

There are at least five shortcomings in Rankin’s approach that put the lives of Wet’suwet’en land defenders at risk:

1- Rankin says: “In our democracy, it is not the government of the day that directs police to do their work.” But his reasoning should not be extended to suggest that the police are not ultimately accountable to the government.

Even the RCMP state that “the Commissioner of the RCMP is autonomous when it comes to the operational and investigative activities of the organization” but that the Minister of Public Safety is “accountable … for the actions and decisions” of the RCMP.

Impunity leads to further violence against land defenders.

2- Rankin’s colleague Mike Farnworth, the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, has also stated he does direct “police operations”.

However, Farnworth did authorize on January 27, 2020 the “internal redeployment of resources within the Provincial Police Services” that enabled the second RCMP raid just a few days later against Wet’suwet’en land defenders.

The lack of transparency on the part of Farnworth, Rankin and other cabinet ministers creates a dangerous situation for land defenders.

3- Rankin also says: “There has been — it’s no secret — conflict between the elected and the hereditary system, but we continue to do this historic work [of sorting through that conflict].” His comment obscures the different jurisdictions of these bodies.

Vancouver-based lawyers Kate Gunn and Bruce McIvor have argued: “The [federal] Indian Act does not provide authority for a Chief and Council [band council] to make decisions about lands beyond the boundaries of the First Nation’s reserves.”

They add: “By contrast, the Hereditary Chiefs are responsible under Wet’suwet’en law and governance for making decisions relating to their ancestral lands.”

The failure to acknowledge land rights and then blur the jurisdictional roles of different governance bodies endangers land defenders.

4- To his credit, Rankin has stated: “The long-standing impacts of colonialism and systemic racism continue to affect Indigenous communities to this day.”

This report by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security acknowledges “the pervasive nature of systemic racism in policing in Canada”. And law professor Benjamin Perryman has noted in the Toronto Star: “Canada’s long history of using force to dispossess Indigenous people from their land.”

But Rankin’s failure to link colonialism and, as University of Birmingham lecturer Steve Hewitt notes, the historic role of the RCMP to move “Indigenous peoples onto reserves to free up land for European settlers”, puts present-day land defenders at risk.

5- Premier John Horgan has stated that “free and informed consent” does not apply to the Coastal GasLink project because it was already in the works prior to the passage of the provincial Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA). Horgan has also stated that cancelling the pipeline is “not an option for me.”

As such the cabinet of which Rankin is a member bears responsibility for entrenching a situation in which land defenders are being put at risk.

We continue to follow this with great concern.

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