We’ll tread that fine line…

I hope nobody mistakes my approach to racism and cultural tolerance as ‘the right way’. People a lot more well-versed than I am in the vagaries of anthropology, history, sociology, and psychology (just to name a few relevant fields that I am utterly clueless in) have time and again failed to find the surefire path forward to diplomacy and harmony. I can barely sweet-talk women at the bar. If there is a ‘right way’, and I don’t believe that there is one, I’m an unlikely candidate to be the one who comes across it.

That being said, I know that some methods are better than others. There may be few things that we know to be surefire correct, but there are a hell of a lot that we know to be just plain wrong. There are, like logical fallacies or lousy apologetics arguments or privileged whines, arguments that are uttered pre-refuted. We know colour blindness doesn’t work, we know that ‘reverse discrimination’ isn’t what people say it is, we know that dividing the world into ‘racists’ and ‘non-racists’ is a house built on the sand of bad psychology. We can dispose of these arguments just like we can the “well then why are there still monkeys” ‘proof’ that evolution is a liberal conspiracy from the Muslim atheist devil.

Some situations, however, are quite a bit more tricky:

No aboriginal prayer ceremonies, please, and no kindergarten plays about dead fish: The request from Taseko Mines Ltd. seeks to reshape the federal environmental review for its new Prosperity Mines application. The review is expected to get under way as early as this week, with the appointment of a panel and terms of reference, after the company’s first proposal for a copper and gold mine was rejected because of significant adverse environmental effects.

With the Harper government clamping down on environmental opposition in the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, first nations leaders are worried that Ottawa is now sympathetic to the request to limit their opposition to the massive open pit mine. “It scares us, we’re afraid this company will influence them,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government. He said the company should abandon its project if it isn’t willing to respect the community’s traditions, which include prayers and drumming.

Now I have no idea what the path forward here is, but sometimes it helps to try and see the whole board.

The argument from racism

First off, this request reeks of racist paternalism:

In a letter to federal environment minister Peter Kent, Taseko president Russell Hallbauer complained last November that the “fairness and objectivity” of that the first panel review was tainted by allowing a first nations activist to sit on the panel.


However, [Minister Kent] said it may be appropriate for the panel to try to limit the “hyperbole” around a given proposal.

Oof. Implying, no wait I’m sorry that’s the wrong word, outright stating that a hearing process is tainted because a member of the community being impacted by the hearing’s decision is fairly clear-cut. Of course a First Nations activist can’t be fair and objective. I hope that Mr. Hallbauer also insists that anyone with financial ties to Taseko also be removed from the panel, as well as anyone who is a political appointee, as well as anyone who lobbies for any mining concerns, as well as anyone who lives in the area. After all, they’re all just too ‘emotional’ about the destruction of the land (or the money filling their pockets). We wouldn’t want the ‘objectivity’ of this process to be compromised by something so silly as people who actually have some skin in the game.

This is one of those coded language issues, where ‘fairness and objectivity’ usually means white skin (and often testicles). Anyone remembering the furore that was kicked up when Sonia Sotomayor made the entirely reasonable point that a Latina would bring a new (and heretofore unrepresented) perspective to the Supreme Court will certainly understand why implying (this time it’s correct) that First Nations advocates cannot be ‘fair and objective’ rubs me decidedly the wrong way. Telling everyone to tone down the ‘hyperbole’ of their homes being destroyed is also a very nice touch.

The argument from secularism

“That is who we are,” he said in an interview Monday. “If you don’t respect our culture and our spirituality as a company, then pack up and leave, this is the way things are in the Tsilhqot’in. We are spiritual people.”


…Science was given short shrift when the panel allowed a group of kindergarten children to present a play “in which the children wore fish cut-outs on their heads, moved around the floor, and then all fall over simultaneously, symbolizing the death of the fish.”

This too rubs me the wrong way. I am a firm believer in evidence-based policy, and I do not recognize ‘spirituality’ as evidence. I don’t think my government should either. Insofar as ‘spiritual’ beliefs are an intrinsic part of life for the Tsilhqot’in Nation, any assessment of likely impact will have to take that into account. At the same time, whenever I hear Christians whine about how cracking down on religiously-motivated anti-gay bullying is an infringement on their right to ‘religious freedom’, I have to put on 4 or 5 more pairs of glasses just so I have enough eyes to roll. Asking for an environmental assessment to be hinged on ‘spiritual’ beliefs elicits much the same response.

The argument from politics

A federal panel appointed under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act ruled in 2010 against allowing the proposed Prosperity Mine to proceed.


The federal government, which is bringing in sweeping legislative changes to make it easier for companies to get approval for natural resource projects, announced in November it would let the company file a new application based on a plan that doesn’t include destroying Fish Lake.

First of all, if it weren’t illegal, I would try to throw each and every single member of this government just to see how far I could trust them. Since rising to power, they have attempted to smear and steamroller every form of opposition by demonizing and undermining them rather than engaging the arguments. I have little trust that they will suddenly discover a streak of impartial fairness when it comes to greenlighting this project, especially considering the fact that they took large chunks out of the environmental regulatory mechanism in the most recent budget.

This smacks of political opportunism running afoul of the noises they’ve made about redefining Canada’s relationship with First Nations Canadians. Considering the huge blowback they’re facing over their pet pipeline, I can’t imagine they’re too happy about this latest development. After all, considering the deft skill for diplomacy they demonstrate on a regular basis, I’d think they’re in quite a bit over their heads.

I don’t know what the answer is here. I do know that I think it’s even less likely that Stephen Harper’s government is going to find an equitable solution than it is that I will. I know I haven’t really listed all of the movie pieces of this story quite yet, but at least it’s a start.

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P.S. In case you’re curious about the reference in the title