Protestors opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline are being forced to move by RCMP officers after blocking the rail lines in Burnaby, B.C. on Nov. 2020 (Photograph by Darryl Dyck of The Canadian Press)

Topics: Justice | Indigenous

What Canada can learn from Brazil about returning land to Indigenous communities

Brazil's new government has made several commitments to Indigenous reconciliation in a fraction of the time the Canadian government has been in power


After Canada’s third National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, Canadians may feel like pretty good Indigenous allies. We’ve voiced our agreements with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities by reposting platitudes on social media, wearing orange shirts and attending local powwows. We consider these gold medal achievements in a marathon race between the powers of progressive thought and the forces of nationalist pride where the mere recognition of this nation’s colonial abuses against Indigenous populations is a salve to our collective consciousness. Then the Brazilian government, led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had to go and announce the removal of illegal settlers from Indigenous land in the Amazon. As Canadians heaped effusive praise on ourselves for doing the bare minimum of acknowledging our history, the truly progressive actions of Brazil’s government — reaching 10 months in power this October — put the policies of our eight-year ruling government to shame with a single policy shift.

When former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was in power, he stripped his country’s Indigenous environmental protection communities of their power. As Brazil sacked the Amazon rainforest’s natural resources, Indigenous protests were met with state and civilian violence – including murder, displacement and environmental degradation. With Lula’s progressive government gaining power in January 2023, most of these policies have been reversed. As has the damage to the surrounding ecosystem. Expelling gold miners from Indigenous land in the Amazon reduced deforestation by 36 percent within Lulu’s first six months in office. Sure, Brazil hasn’t transformed into a haven for Indigenous groups overnight. Even as Indigenous leaders discussed Amazon protection with Brazilian politicians at a summit in Belém, Brazil in August, protestors who challenged oil companies faced violence at the hands of private security companies. It should be noted that according to the Amazon Banks Database, Canadian banks and private wealth firms are major investors in oil companies drilling in the Amazon. Scotiabank making a $1,091,377,000 deal through Petrobras Global Finance BV is just one example of Canadian institutions financing companies with interests in the Amazon.

Pushback aside, Brazil’s reconciliation is difficult to ignore compared to Canada’s balancing act of Indigenous relations and Big Oil. Take TC Energy Corp.’s Coastal GasLink pipeline, a proposed 670-kilometre pipeline planned to run through the Wet’suwet’en nation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admonished Indigenous land protectors and non-Indigenous protestors to stop erecting blockades on Canadian railways before protests ended in militarized intervention and arrests. Amnesty International Canada’s secretary general Ketty Nivyabandi called the pipeline construction a “brazen violation of the community’s right to self-determination and a lamentable step backwards in Canada’s journey toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.” The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ main concern was the ecological threats to the Morice River, one of the few clean water and salmon spawning sources left in the area. 

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The 1150-kilometre Trans Mountain pipeline the Canadian government purchased in 2018 from Texan company Kinder Morgan Inc. for $4.5 billion – currently costing Canadians $30.9 billion and counting – became the flashpoint between our government and Indigenous communities. As in Brazil, private security and oil workers descended on the unceded territory of the Secwépemc. Several legal battles have ensued since then. The Canada Energy Regulator for the Trans Mountain pipeline recently approved a route change plowing through the Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation. But in 2021, the Indigenous community negotiated with the government to divert the pipeline route to avoid desecrating traditional land holding spiritual and cultural importance. As seen with previous settler agreements, the Trudeau government reneged on their original agreement to avoid a nine-month delay and $86 million expense on top of the five years and billions already invested into the project.

The Enbridge-owned Line 3 runs along Indigenous lands from Manitoba to Minnesota. It will have the impact of 38 million additional gasoline vehicles or 50 new coal-fired power plants. Indigenous groups on both sides of the border are ringing alarm bells. Who can blame them? In May, industrial wastewater courtesy of Imperial Oil seeped into the Athabasca River in Northern Alberta– not once, but twice. Members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation only learned of the danger after the second spill in February through an environmental protection order, even though the first was reported to the Alberta Energy Regulator in May 2022.

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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 2015 report declared the Canadian government’s residential schooling system on Indigenous peoples amounted to cultural genocide — something Indigenous nations have known and asserted for years. The same year, Trudeau’s government launched an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Again, an issue Indigenous communities had insisted was uninvestigated yet very real. Only in 2019, after the results of the inquiry concluded that “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses” contributed to a “deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocidedid the government accept the term “genocide.” Contrast this with the current Brazilian government’s response to a report revealing 99 Indigenous children under the age of five from the Yanomami tribal territory died as a result of malnutrition and illness. In President Lula’s first month in office, he tasked his Justice Minister with opening an investigation into genocide. It took the Lula government one month in office to not just consider the impact of a “genocide” on Indigenous people in Brazil, but also act on it. It took the Trudeau government four years, several inquiries and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation releasing the names of 2,800 child victims of Canada’s residential school system to even invoke the word. 

While Brazil still has hurdles to overcome to establish a healthy relationship with the Indigenous peoples, it’s impossible to ignore the commitments Brazil has made in a fraction of the time our current government has been in power. While recognizing the need for a holiday allowing Canadians to confront our frayed relationship with Indigenous nations is nice, recognizing Indigenous land rights and respecting the eco-stewardship of those communities means more. No amount of orange shirts, fireworks or heartwarming solidarity statements can make up for colonization or an attempted genocide. The truth can never be reconciled unless it transcends intention and evolves into genuine action. 


Byron Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist who investigates the intersections between arts and culture, lifestyle, and politics.

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  • says:

    Once again not all native Canadian communities are against the development of natural resources especially LNG. Not a word about them in Broadview. Why is that