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  • Backlash: Science and Reconciliation’s Future

    Loys Maingon

    In the midst of an epic global failure to address planetary heating, BC struggles to find a path that would bring together science, economics, justice for First Nations and real measures to address the climate crisis.




    All of humanity needs to come together and cooperate —put differences aside and work together”

                                                     —Louis Verchot

    IN BRITISH COLUMBIA a catastrophic fire in early May heralds another unprecedented fire season. Some rivers are running dry after a record low winter snowpack that threatens hydro power generation. Paradoxically, as in Alberta, whirling disease is now firmly established in the Columbia River system, and will doubtlessly spread with the carelessness of tourism and industry. Perhaps dry rivers will stop the disease? In Alberta another fire threatens Fort McMurray in May 2024, as in 2016. In Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew helicopters over an unprecedented, massive fire in Flin Flon, and mutters concern about an unprecedented fire season. In the Nass Valley the Nisga’a have voted to invest in an LNG pipeline to feed the Ksi Lisims project—which is opposed by their neighbours because Ksi Lisims threatens prime salmon nursing habitat. Nearly forty years since James Hansen first presented in both the US Senate and Congress the relatively simple physics of fossil fuels and climate change, today’s entirely foreseeable and logical outcomes are treated as a surprise, and climate change is often denied where it might question the legitimacy of environmental destruction some call “prosperity and industry”.

    There are logical reasons to cease prevaricating about fossil fuels. One of them is the repeated fires and flood cycle at our doorsteps; the other is the weight of scientific evidence, not funded by the fossil fuel industry, not written by economists, nor psychologists. It is written by climate scientists and biologists. Science is not a belief. It is a human right enshrined in the 1948 Bill of Human Rights. When science is denied or misrepresented—it is a violation of human rights—at the very least. Science provides us with an objective base for human co-operation, which is needed more than ever as we face a growing existential threat to humanity.

    Like the Haisla who announced in October a joint venture to develop an LNG facility in Kitimat with Pembina, the Nisga’a have voted to stake an economic future in fossil fuels with Shell in Prince Rupert, just as other Canadians clamour to grow the oil and gas industry while denying the consequences to future generations. It is a poor choice, as circumstances show. The project is opposed by the Nisga’a’s neighbours, the Lax Kw’alaams, whose traditional territory includes the regionally key prime chinook nursing ground, Pearse Island, which would be highly impacted by tanker traffic.

    The Ksi Lisims project will require all the hydro energy expected from Site C. It will produce a carbon bomb of 12 million tonnes of energy per year—which is 32 megatonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) per year, or one half of BC’s current total GHG emissions, as Seth Klein has pointedly noted in an excellent article. “Fortunately”, this will not impact BC’s “net zero” plans, because the LNG will be burnt in Asia… Accounting does not understand this planet’s and humanity’s unity, anymore than Canadians understand that transitioning away from fossil fuels is an existential necessity. Nor does accounting consider long-term consequences. Science does.

    As most conservationists agree, UNDRIP and reconciliation are currently our best hope for changing the colonial social paradigm of the past 150 years to meet the federal “30x30” targets needed to address climate change and biodiversity commitments set out in Montreal last year at COP15. However, like most government commitments and aspirations, implementation falls short. As James Hansen recently commented on the over-optimism of climate models, the hope sold by politicians is really “Hopium”. Many scientists now feel that 1.5°C is: “Just a political game.” A cynical game at that. A recent Guardian survey of 383 of 843 leading climate scientists shows that very few believe we will be able to stay at or below 1.5°C; the majority (77%), believe that 2.5-3°C or more is most likely (see Figure 1 below). Generally, the events we have seen from 2023 until now are within the 1.2°C range. Exceeding 1.5°C would trigger tipping points, but 2.5°C would be catastrophic. That is where we are headed at the gas pump.

    From the Guardian:



    Nine years on, we are nowhere near meeting the 2015 Paris targets. As UBC’s David Boyd politely noted upon stepping down as the UN Special rapporteur: “there is something wrong with our brains that we can’t understand how grave this is.” We are sleepwalking or lying to ourselves about the gravity of our situation, in a vain stubborn hope that we can continue ramping up a fossil-fuel-driven economy and continue consuming as usual without consequences.

    As the new chair of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, Astrid Schomaker, is appointed, it has been noted that the appointment “follows global failure to meet any targets on protecting ecosystems.” Once again, after much fanfare, at COP15 in December 2022, every country—except the United States and the Vatican—signed onto self-aggrandizing “commitments” promising to deliver on 23 targets that would protect 30% of the planet by 2030, only to deliver on none to date. Significantly, the failure to implement is in part a product of the contradictions between economic priorities and environmental reassurances, and in large measure a disturbing product of the growing chasm between the public and its government.

    Of serious concern for scientists, notwithstanding the explicit seriousness of our planet’s situation, government policies and implementation strategies have exacerbated the problem by alienating public support. Around the world people are revolting and pushing back against a technocratic approach to policy implementation which downloads responsibilities and costs of policies onto the average taxpayer. That is alienating voters and moving them to the demagogic right of the political spectrum. It is visible in the protests of farmers in Europe, and the “Gilets Jaunes” movement in France revolting against higher gas prices that make life unbearable for ordinary people, and the anger in Canada at higher food and gas prices, as elsewhere.

    The source of the problem lies in the superficiality of government policies and the ingrained superficiality of “sustainability” programmes which do not aim to address climate change itself, but to alleviate the symptoms in order to further the illusion that business can continue as usual and that climate adaptation, like recycling, can be made easy. The failure of this approach was manifest at the United Nations conference to negotiate a treaty on plastics which Canada hosted in April. This is, once again, an attempt to address plastic recycling without having to tackle or discuss its root sources: a consumer economy of endless growth, population growth and a world in overshoot that does not want to discuss the real problems. As noted in a recent paper aptly entitled “World scientistswarning: The behavioural crisis driving ecological overshoot” by Josef Merz, William E. Rees and others, the climate problem is really a population behavioural crisis. Until we address that behavioural crisis and cooperate to promote our long-term interest in a stable climate rather than continue to promote economic competition to “grow the economy”, talking about sustainability is just talk.

    While government policy is well-publicized by mainstream media, here as elsewhere it is increasingly difficult to gauge to what extent public media actually connects with public sentiment. Policy is made and implemented from above with little or no real public consultation and discussion. Public consultation, in BC takes two forms. The first is the disturbing “alternative process,” which is regularly abused by municipal governments, and regularly practiced by the provincial government. In the “alternative process” governments vote to implement a measure discussed “in camera” (“secretly” is the real, if impolite, synonym). If taxpayers who object do not raise within six months—at their private cost and time—a petition representative of 10% of the electorate, the measure is implemented. The other alternative is to present the project or measure as a fait accompli in a public presentation at which the public can voice concerns pro forma. Regular government practice is to keep public meetings small by not meeting with the general public, but with select representatives of stakeholder associations in an “open house” format. It is Orwellian. The “open house” is actually closed to the public. In either instance, there is a lack of genuine democratic public engagement and discussion. A polarizing outcome is to be logically expected, particularly when people are left out of a discussion by representatives and civil servants whose salaries they pay for.

    Public dissatisfaction is often only articulated at the ballot box, once every four years. In the interim growing anger simmers. Unsurprisingly, public meetings in BC have come to strain the bounds of civility, but somehow politicians and civil servants are surprised at the level of public animosity they have stirred. The recent meteoric rise of the newly resurrected BC Conservative party, which has been surging steadily since November and now polls at 38.9% against BC United (Liberals) at 15.3% and ahead of the NDP at 36.2%, is a measure of growing unease at government aboriginal policies that should concern biologists working in conservation. The resurgent BC Conservative Party overtly denies climate change, is pro-business, has little or no interest in conservation, and has repeatedly objected to the lack of public consultation with regards to aboriginal title settlements.

    The current government’s poor timing and handling of the aboriginal land claims file, compounded by its systemic practice of manipulative “consultation” has made a mess of this very important issue. In January the government introduced amendments to section 7 of the BC Land Act. This should have assured that aboriginal consultation would be guaranteed in all future projects. In keeping with its normal practice, the government consulted with First Nations, but only minimally informed the general settler population, which makes up 94% of the population, of this change at the last minute.

    For years, courts have issued deadlines by which aboriginal claims need to be settled, so there is no doubt that aboriginal claims must be addressed. In most cases, all indications are that the government challenges in court to aboriginal rights and title would fail, as did the provincial government’s recent opposition to the Nuchatlaht title to Nootka Island, where the government acted to protect forest companies, at taxpayer’s expense. However, as an Angus Reid survey showed, only a government completely out of touch with the voting public would alienate 94% of the public. The February poll showed that only 18% of the general public would give aboriginal government full shared decision-making power, 82% indicated that Victoria should retain final decision powers, and 33% believe that First Nations should have no say. The government, therefore, had to put a pause on the motion in February following a very hostile public reaction. This was compounded by abhorrent cross-cultural conflict incidents that could have easily been, and should always be, avoided.

    Incidents in Pender Harbour that began in 2018 have pitched shíshálh (Sechelt) Nation against shoreline property owners. These incidents have revealed the very real chasm that exists between “reconciliation” and entrenched property rights of BC taxpayers. In early February 2024, this concern had reached fever pitch exposing the rift between the two communities and the lack of government-led consultation and discussion, just as the Eby government was about to release new amendments to section 7 of the BC Land Act. The Pender Harbour incidents and other friction points around the province revealed the actual extent of public unease at handing over control of public lands to First Nations. It is important to understand what went on and for how long, regardless of our personal position on these issues and the personalities involved.

    While it has become common practice to sanctimoniously acknowledge that we are on someone’s “unceded territory”, it is a whole different matter to acquiesce to First Nations exercising governance over private property in practice. Shíshálh Nation recently attempted to assert its juridiction (aboriginal rights and title) over its territory in Pender Harbour, after coming to an agreement with the provincial government. (The plan has just been implemented by an Order in Council.) Notwithstanding that since 2014 a string of BC Supreme Court decisions have established that BC First Nations should have a stronger say in the management of their territories, the problem of how this is to affect the property rights of taxpayers has rarely, if ever, been the subject of a serious public discussion. As with much of BC’s public and environmental policies, real problems and questions are magically whisked away in camera in the Hopium fumes of Lotus Land.

    As is often the case, the problem really stems from its handling and packaging by the provincial and local governments. The province worked out a “Dock Management Plan” with shíshálh Nation. This was done without full consultation (if any) with the landowners who had legally built docks following the usual permitting system. Shíshálh Nation has a legitimate claim to the area because it is home to many important archaeological sites of cultural significance, and shíshálh Nation wishes to remove the docks in order to restore traditional salmon habitat. The situation was triggered by two facts. Neither the province nor shíshálh Nation worked with the property owners. Shíshálh Nation used the provincially approved plan to exercise its cultural right on the assumption that the provincial civil servant’s agreement spoke for the un-consulted settlers.

    Much grief might have been avoided if instead of taking a cultural approach to warrant the exercise of aboriginal title, shíshálh Nation and the provincial government had taken a scientific approach to the protection of fish habitat to include, and work with, the landowners. The concern raised by the aggrieved dock owners back in 2018 was that “the shíshálh deal could be a blueprint for other First Nations that hope to assert control over their traditional territories.” This unfortunate mismanagement has consolidated cross-cultural mistrust and has resulted in the first legal challenge to DRIPA (Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s Act). It is before the courts as of 14 May 2024, and is certain to strain relations between First Nations and settlers in British Columbia. That science was not used to find and create common ground between the two cultural groups is now a wasted opportunity to build bridges.

    Since the demise of amendments to section 7 of the BC Land Act, the BC government has undertaken a number of “restorative” initiatives. Most notably, following a federal lead to recognize Haida Nation title to Haida Gwai, the BC government and the Council of the Haida Nation have signed an agreement officially recognizing Haida Gwaii’s aboriginal title over Crown lands. The Haida and the provincial government were quick to note that the agreement: “does not impact private property or government jurisdictions.” This is in keeping with Haida Gwai’s established history of successful environmental co-management, and therefore management guided by a blend of science and First Nations knowledge. This should be a model for British Columbia, and indeed the world. Though not entirely without controversy, this agreement should alleviate settlers’ concerns over private property rights, and point the way to better relations in practice.

    The concern for many British Columbians is that with the implementation of DRIPA— without engaging in a full one-on-one cross-cultural conversation—we stand the risk of seeing genuine efforts at reconciliation rolled back. We are seeing similar problems arising in nations that have recently been leaders in reconciliation. After decades of progress the new New Zealand government has initiated a massive rollback of aboriginal rights including the intention to minimize Maori language and revise the Treaty of Waitangi. Australia, which was set to recognize and include aboriginal rights in its constitution six months ago, fell short of the needed public support. After surging over the last three decades, Indigenous rights in Latin America are facing a backlash. There is a growing global backlash, particularly in Ecuador and Peru. Latin America is now wracked with violence over Indigenous lands.

    Together with the rise of demagogic right-wing governments there is a deterioration in the status of First Nations globally. They are placed in a kind of double jeopardy by cultural expectations imposed on them and by economic necessity. Their cultural interests in the environment and the need to raise their communities make them targets of economic development both if they stand in opposition to development, and if they are lured into usually exploitive cooperative economic ventures with development. The federal 30x30 plan is an expression of this ambiguous relationship. It places the burden of environmental responsibility on First Nations, while exonerating settler society of any responsibility. This is is a very vulnerable situation, particularly as climate change unfolds.

    In reality, the responsibility to posterity, so clearly articulated by Bernard DeVoto in the 1940s when he wrote The Western Paradox, belongs to every human being, regardless of their culture: “What we want posterity to do for us is to value us as ancestors and predecessors: what we want posterity to do for us is to appreciate and enjoy the undiminished natural heritage we passed on to them.” Posterity is everybody’s obligation and everybody needs to find common ground to work together, though governments regularly fail us by pulling us apart and inviting conflict. Reconciliation should be a means to bring us together and enhance our collective conversation and common interests. In BC it is quickly turning into a poisoned chalice.

    In British Columbia, the common ground we all share is the state of our salmon populations, whose well-being is intimately linked to the state of our forests, our rivers, our estuaries and oceans and our shorelines. All are a nexus of First Nations knowledge and Western science where we find more common ground than divergence “to work together and put differences aside.” Reconciliation is not top-down. It cannot be mandated from above by a government remote from all its constituents. Reconciliation is a bottom up conversation in an age of social media in which people seem to have lost the arts of conversation and listening.

    Loys Maingon (retired biologist)




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