(The Canadian Press)

(The Canadian Press)

Legal experts say injunctions not effective in Indigenous-led land disputes

Protests began earlier this month when the RCMP moved into Wet’suwet’en territory to enforce a court injunction

As demonstrations continue across Canada in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposing a pipeline through their territory, legal experts suggest it’s time to reconsider how injunctions are employed when responding to Indigenous-led protests.

The protests began earlier this month when the RCMP moved into Wet’suwet’en territory to enforce a court injunction against opponents of Coastal GasLink’s natural gas pipeline development in northern British Columbia. A group of hereditary chiefs rejected the court’s decision on the company’s application, saying it contradicted Wet’suwet’en law.

As solidarity protests popped up on railways and roads across the country, other companies sought their own injunctions to remove the blockades, arguing the demonstrations were causing harm to business and to the Canadian economy.

St. John’s-based lawyer Mark Gruchy, who represents clients charged with breaching an injunction while protesting at the Muskrat Falls hydro site in Labrador in 2016, said Indigenous resistance to resource development is too complex an issue to be addressed through injunctions in their current form.

“It’s frustrating for me as a lawyer to watch, but I think there’s a relatively straightforward way to really take the edge off and to change the future,” Gruchy said from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where five of his clients had just been cleared of criminal charges related to the Muskrat Falls protest. Several other people still face trials or sentencing after being charged for the same incident.

Gruchy said the concerns raised in his clients’ case will continue to surface across Canada unless politicians work to “modify the tool” being used to resolve such resource and land disputes.

As an example, he proposed that in cases related to an Indigenous-led protest, injunctions could be structured to allow for mediated consultation instead of a heavy-handed order for the protest to stop.

“This issue, really, is a very sharp collision of a major political, social issue with the legal system, and I think that politicians should do their best to … blunt the impact of that,” he said. The current situation is “not good for … the long term health of our legal system,” he added.

John Borrows, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, said there is a precedent of a legislative solution being employed when injunctions were causing disruption.

READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en chiefs, ministers reach proposed agreement in B.C. pipeline dispute

In the mid-20th century, the widespread use of injunctions by employers against striking workers was leading to increasingly volatile disputes in British Columbia. The provincial government eventually adjusted labour legislation to outline required negotiation practices in disputes.

“It seems to have created some safety valves or more productive ways of talking through what the dispute is, and so I always wonder whether or not what we learned in other contexts could be applied in this context,” Borrows said.

He said injunctions preserve the status quo, because aboriginal title issues do not need to be considered. That causes complications when complex title and governance issues are at stake, as in the Wet’suwet’en case.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church acknowledged the difficulty of addressing underlying Indigenous law issues in her decision on Coastal GasLink’s injunction application, writing “this is not the venue for that analysis, and those are issues that must be determined at trial.”

Others have said the legal tests applied when considering an injunction request favour corporations, because financial losses are more easily demonstrated than environmental or cultural ones.

A study of over 100 injunctions published last year by the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led think tank based at Ryerson University, found 76 per cent of injunctions filed by corporations against First Nations were granted, compared with 19 per cent of injunctions filed by First Nations against corporations.

Irina Ceric, a lawyer and criminology instructor at British Columbia’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University who worked on the study, said the use of injunctions to dispel protests has been on the rise in Canada. But the last three weeks have been “off the charts,” she said, with 12 granted since protests began — more than half of them to the CP and CN railways.

She said the recently granted injunctions raise questions, because in some cases the evidence used in the applications has not been made public, and in other cases it’s unclear why mischief laws would not have sufficed.

“I don’t know if this is the intent, but what it does is that it gives the corporations that are impacted by these blockades the power to call the shots in terms of protest policing, which I think is really problematic,” she said.

Ceric said that rather than waiting for the provinces to introduce legislation, it may take a Supreme Court of Canada challenge to change how injunctions are applied in response to Indigenous protests.

Shiri Pasternak, a criminology professor at Ryerson University and research director of the Yellowhead Institute, said legislators appear to be responding to recent events with more extreme measures rather than reconsidering how injunctions are used.

She pointed to a law introduced in Alberta this week that would heavily fine people who block roads and rail lines and said the recent proliferation of injunctions speaks to their function as a last resort for companies when negotiations with Indigenous leaders break down.

“It’s just proving how instrumental this tool is for removing people from their land,” she said.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coastal GasLinkIndigenousPipeline

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Andrew Swanson was arrested Wednesday after he was wanted for an alleged choking assault and for obstructing police. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Victoria police arrest Andrew Swanson on warrants for alleged choking assault, obstruction

A member of the public spotted Swanson and called 911 before police came and made the arrest

(Black Press Media file photo)
Youth sustains minor injuries in stabbing at Saanich Plaza

Suspect under age of 16 taken into custody, no risk to the public, police say

Sue Hodgson returns as publisher of the Peninsula News Review starting June 1. (Courtesy Sue Hodgson)
Peninsula News Review welcomes back Sue Hodgson as publisher

Dale Naftel takes helm of Oak Bay News as publisher

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 25-May 1. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 case counts continue to trend down

Fewer than 200 active cases on the Island, down from highs of 500-plus earlier this spring

Jackson Peters picks, plays and sings on Willows Beach. Peters likes to tour parks in Greater Victoria to practice his music and enjoy the outdoors. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)
PHOTOS: Beach weather strikes in Oak Bay

Willows hosts those looking to swim, play volleyball and build sand castles

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of May 4

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you plan to travel on the Victoria Day long weekend?

It’s the unofficial start to the summer season. A time of barbecues,… Continue reading

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

(File)
With revenge porn on the rise in 2021, B.C. seeks feedback for new legislation

New legislation could help victims take down images and receive compensation

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent sails past a iceberg in Lancaster Sound, Friday, July 11, 2008. The federal government is expected to end nearly two years of mystery today and reveal its plan to build a new, long overdue heavy icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver, Quebec shipyards to each get new heavy icebreaker, cost remains a mystery

Vancouver’s Seaspan Shipyards and Quebec-based Chantier Davie will each build an icebreaker for the coast guard

Most Read