The expression “rule of law” has been used many times in this dispute between some Wet’suwet’en people (not all) and the developers of the pipeline and the British Columbia government and the Canadian government and various other interested parties. All sides throw this expression at each other like weapons.
I am a recovering lawyer, so all my life, I have thought it is important to respect law. I still do. A country in which laws are not respected is a country headed towards anarchy. That is what many of us object to about the current President of the United States, Donald Trump. He thinks his country is a place where the laws apply to everyone but himself. His lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, argued in the recent Senate impeachment trial, that anything the President did was permitted by law. He seemed to say, the President by definition could not break the law. But most importantly, there in the United States and here in Canada is what to the people think? Do they respect the rule of law? I really believe America is demonstrating conspicuously that Americans do not respect the rule of law. Few of his millions of supporters object. As long as it helps Trump win is all that counts. I don’t want Canada to be like that.
To most of us that was an anathema. That is not what law is. Law applies to everyone, even the rulers. The President is not a king. Therefore the President must obey the law just like the rest of us. This is a fundamental concept to a society that wants to avoid anarchy. Does the same not apply to Wet’suwet’en people and their allies? Does the same apply to Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier John Horgan? I hope so. The same goes for the Canadians who have been roundly criticizing the Wet’suwet’en people and the damage their blockades of trains have been harming the Canadian economy.
But what is the law? That is not as quite as simple as it might seem. Clearly, the law includes the Constitution Act and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982. It also includes the British North America Act that created the country of Canada in 1967. In fact it includes all laws passed by the Parliament of Canada within its jurisdiction as provided for in the British North America Act. It includes laws of the province of British Columbia pursuant to which permits can be issued to permit the construction of various projects such as pipeoines. It includes the laws of British Columbia that create a court of law and governs the decisions that are made by courts. Then of course there is common law. That is law created by judges interpreting the law. The laws of Canada also include those laws that were adopted by the British Parliament before 1987 but only to the extent that valid Canadian laws have not been enacted to contradict such laws. One of those laws is the Royal Proclamation of 1763. I will be commenting on it because it is relevant. This may surprise some of you, but in recent years there has been a growing recognition among Canadian courts and Canadian people that the law of Canada also includes aboriginal law. When Europeans came to Canada the people that occupied this country had laws too. Those laws are also important. They must also be respected. All of these laws are part of our “rule of law.”
Sometimes laws overlap. Sometimes laws contradict each other. Sometimes purported laws are outside their jurisdiction and hence invalid and not legally binding. Then courts have to determine what is really the law of Canada in the circumstances of any case.
With such a mosaic of laws it is not always easy to determine what is the law. That’s why lawyers are important. I had to say that.
In the Wet’suwet’en matter many laws have become important. It is not necessarily so easy to say what is the law and how should it be enforced.
A friend of mine recently asked me if there were any people who had never been displaced. I had no answer to that question. Frankly I don’t know. I know that strife has been common since time immemorial. Strong people have ousted weaker people. That might be true but what is the significance of that? Is that what law is? The strong can do what they want? Too bad so sad? I know that is a common American attitude. They are not as squeamish as the rest of us. Many of them think they conquered Indian people, as they call indigenous people, so might is right and that is all there is too it. Canada of course has not conquered the First Nations of Canada. The Wet’suwet’en, for example, were not conquered.
Canada has always prided itself on being a country of law. Really that goes back to at least 1763 when the British monarch proclaimed the Royal Proclamation. Canada and its predecessors always wanted a solid legal foundation for the country. The Canadian government always recognized that without a solid legal foundation, Canadian society would be built on a shaky foundation. I think that was, and is a good idea. Because Canadians wanted a society based on the rule of law they realized they would have to negotiated with the Indigenous people of Canada to share occupancy of this wonderful country. The could not just impose the laws of the recent arrivals. That has made things very interesting in Canada, but I am proud of our country for taking that approach.