Promises Not Kept

On his second day in office as president of the United States, Barack Obama issued an executive order to make good on his promise to shut down the Guantánamo Bay incarceration facility in Cuba. Nearly at the end of his second term as president, Obama has not yet realized his promise. The act of holding rendered people continues.

It is hardly surprising to the people when their political representatives fail to make good on their pledges. It is all too common in a system that the ruling classes bill as “democracy.”

North of the border the political process plays out much the same. Nearing one year in office as Canada’s prime minister, by granting approval for the Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal and its pipeline, Justin Trudeau has managed to obliterate two major campaign promises in one stroke: to curb Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and to honor a “sacred obligation” to the First Nations.

Corporate-state media seemed to focus on what the Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal and its pipeline would mean to Trudeau’s commitment to tackle climate warming. Fracking is an environmentally disruptive method of injecting pressurized water to retrieve bottled-up natural gas. Combusting the fossil fuel releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The Northern Gateway pipeline project to bring tar sands oil to the northwest coast is currently in limbo.

Concern for the preservation of the environment and the ecological system underlies opposition to the pipeline and the Petronas terminus in the Ts’mysen territory of Lax U’u’la (Lelu Island) and the rich salmon-rearing waters of Flora Banks in northwest BC.

I previously wrote a three-part series explaining the opposition to the Petronas project. To summarize:

  1. peer-review published science states the project poses a serious risk to juvenile wild salmon
  2. construction of the fracked gas terminal ignores the precautionary principle
  3. it ignores the environmental devastation and collapse of wild salmon witnessed in Sakhalin, Russia after a LNG port was built
  4. the right-wing BC government belittles protesting people as “the forces of no” and “quitters”
  5. the project negates the sovereignty of Original Peoples who oppose the project. The level of opposition was demonstrated by the people of Lax Kw’alaams in 2015 when they unanimously rejected an offer of $1.14 billion to facilitate approval of the project.

What does a “sacred obligation” to first Nations mean?

On 8 December 2015, Trudeau told First Nations leaders:

It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples, one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.

On 10 May 2016, at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, Canada’s minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, announced a change in Canada’s stance from objection to support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples. It is time for a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.

It was a pledge that would begin to atone for centuries of dispossession, genocide, and racism. It was the moral thing to do.

However, on 13 July 2016, Trudeau’s justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation in BC and former regional representative of the AFN, spoke to the First Nation leaders who Trudeau had addressed his “sacred obligation” remarks a year earlier. Wilson-Raybould undercut her cabinet colleague saying:

Simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work actually required to implement it back home in communities.

Wilson-Raybould is also on the hot seat now for her infidelity to the opposition over the Site C Dam in northeastern BC.

It is relatively easy to utter words. Promises hold a special pantheon among words. A promise is a pledge whose fulfillment is bound with the honor of the person who makes the promise. Thus to break a promise is worse than a lie. To knowingly and deliberately utter false words makes one a liar, but when the lie is presented as a promise to carry out some action, then a failure to execute that action eviscerates respect for the person whose word is no longer viewed as honor-bound.

Prodigious liars usually lose respect as well, but there may be a crucial difference. When Bill Clinton averred, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…,” it may well have been a breaking of the vows of his marriage, but it was not a broken pledge to the populace. Semantics aside, this sexual-hijinks lie did not have the wide ramifications such as his failure to come through with health care reform as promised to the American people.

Politicians don’t usually preface their stated action plans with “I promise…,” but because these words are spoken to the electorate who they represent, the words take on the significance of a promise.

Trudeau had a chance to make good on the sacred obligation to First Nations. He didn’t. Thus Trudeau’s promises and his commitment to carrying them out speak to his honor and dignity. The same goes for his cabinet members.

When First Nations are pushed to the brink, they fights back to defend their honor. At the same time, the international standing of Canada is besmirched. The decision to build a golf course on an Indigenous burial ground was forcefully resisted during the Oka Crisis in Quebec; and the violation of a Sundance ceremony by cowboys spurred the Defense of Ts’peten (Gustafsen Lake in south-central BC). There is a determination by the Ts’msyen and their allies to throw whatever wrench it takes into the corporate-governmental entity that seeks to steamroll their rights to steward the land they have inhabited for millennia.

Sacred obligations must be honored. Promises must be kept. If Trudeau chooses not to abide by his obligations and word, then he comes across as another case of a White man speaking with a forked tongue.

UPDATE: A correction has been made in wording of “Northern Gateway pipeline” to “Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal and its pipeline” (6 October).

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.