An essential feature of meaningful dialogue is the obligation to listen attentively to the words of the other. One listens closely to the words of the other not because it might give a competitive advantage but because it advances cooperation and secures mutual respect and recognition. The obligation to listen closely becomes even more imperative when there is a power imbalance or when dealing with those who have historically and systemically been ignored, silenced or marginalized.
To refuse to listen attentively, or to turn the obligation to listen into a perfunctory or empty pro-forma exercise, not only undermines the mutuality of dialogue, but profoundly disrespects the other as a person or community that implicitly deserves recognition and respect.
Such lack of recognition and respect toward Canada’s First Nations was exemplified in the so-called “consultation” process undertaken by the National Energy Board (NEB) and the Government of Canada regarding the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government fell considerably short of the conduct necessary to meet the duty to consult. In a recent decision (August 30) the Federal Court of Appeal made it quite clear that neither the NEB nor the Government of Canada were all that interested in meaningful dialogue—in listening to or trying to genuinely understand the concerns of First Nations peoples.
The NEB could have allowed First Nations participants the right of oral cross-examination but instead reduced their participation to a pro-forma process “whereby interveners and the Board could submit written interrogatories, referred to as Information Requests, to Trans Mountain.”
Judges Dawson, De Montigny and Woods concluded that “The Board’s process and findings were so flawed that the Governor in Council could not reasonably rely on the Board’s report.”
The Canadian government could have, but did not, depart from the NEB’s findings; they could have, but did not, impose additional conditions on Trans Mountain; they could have, but did not, enter into a meaningful dialogue, or attempt to honestly grapple with the concerns expressed in good faith by indigenous applicants “so as to explore possible accommodation of these concerns.”
Instead of “a genuine and sustained effort to pursue meaningful, two-way dialogue,” Canada and the NEB reverted to an all-too-familiar paternalistic, colonial and unilateral perspective: one that refused to listen to the voices of First Nations people but was more than willing to take care of the profit interests of Kinder Morgan shareholders and the fossil fuel industrial complex.
If they have an ounce of integrity or self-respect, Trudeau, the Liberal government and the NEB should be chastened and ashamed by the appeal court’s recent decision on the expansion of the pipeline.
Before they do anything more, they need to first apologize for what they have already done to First Nations peoples, and, indeed, to all Canadians.
Fred Guerin is a member of Climate Action Powell River, a teacher of philosophy at Vancouver Island University and leads the monthly Philosopher’s Cafe.