On July 18, 2022, an article by Geoff Dembicki titled “How a conservative US network undermined Indigenous energy rights in Canada,” was co-published by the Guardian and the Narwhal. The article misrepresents MLI’s work and betrays an eco-colonialist attitude that undermines Indigenous rights.
Serious errors of both fact and interpretation in the article, as well as the overriding colonialist attitude of the piece, were brought to the attention editors of the Guardian and the Narwhal. The title, basic facts of the article, and insinuations of the article are seriously flawed and incorrect at a fundamental level.
The editors of both publications were provided with a list of clear errors in the article and ample time to issue a correction. One small correction to the article was made in August, but rather than substantively correct the misleading article or refute the evidence of clear falsehoods in the piece, both publications have regrettably doubled-down on an article that amounts to little more than overt disinformation.*
The following is a summary of just some of the errors of fact and interpretation that were provided to the editors of both publications.
1. The author of the article neglected to include in good faith the perspectives shared with him by MLI. On June 16, MLI received a media request from Geoff Dembicki. MLI responded to his request on June 17. No further request was made by Mr. Dembicki in association with this story. The following are the questions asked by Mr. Dembicki (in bold) and the answers MLI provided (in italics).
I’m a climate change reporter based in NYC. I’m working on a story that references the Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy Project.
The story will be co-published in the Narwhal and the Guardian and I’m wondering if you’re available to answer the following questions before next Monday at 12pm ET? Phone or email is fine.
The Atlas Network published a 2018 report about the project on its website. How closely did Atlas and the Macdonald Laurier Institute work on this project?
The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, its staff, and the authors affiliated with the Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project were the only entities that worked on that project.
The report says that MLI helped create an Aboriginal advisory committee and that this committee “has provided a shield against opponents that is hard to undermine.” What opponents does that refer to?
Questions regarding the content, nature, or interpretation of a report published by the Atlas Network are better directed toward the Atlas Network.
For the Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project, we created an advisory committee of Indigenous voices to help guide our work and ensure that it was appropriately consistent with the notion of Indigenous autonomy and decision-making. A core, guiding principle of MLI’s work is that Indigenous peoples should be empowered to chart their own courses, whether that be as proponents, partners, owners, or indeed as opponents of projects on territories over which they are rights holders. To put it simply, Indigenous peoples are the best arbiters of their own destinies, and our work aims to emphasize that.
People who disagree with the position that Indigenous peoples should have greater autonomy and decision-making authority over their own lands, interests, rights, and futures could be described as opponents of our work.
The report raises early concerns about UNDRIP and suggests that implementing the treaty could make it harder to produce to benefit from Canada’s “monumental reserves of natural gas, hydro-electricity, potash, uranium, oil, and other natural resources.” Is that an accurate interpretation?
Questions regarding the content or nature of a report published by the Atlas Network are better directed toward the Atlas Network.
The position of many MLI experts on UNDRIP is that the Declaration is a vital initiative but that many versions of implementing legislation were often flawed, vague, and non-committal. Additionally, our experts have raised concerns regarding how the process of developing UNDRIP legislation did not adequately consult Indigenous peoples – a disqualifying shortfall given how UNDRIP itself demands that such consultations take place.
Did MLI have any contact with then-Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould before she deemed UNDRIP “unworkable” in 2016?
MLI’s experts are always in regular communication with MPs, Ministers, and government officials. Questions regarding Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s position on UNDRIP are better directed toward her.
What role, if any, did MLI play in the Senate deciding to not approve Bill C-262?
MLI’s experts provided a number of recommendations regarding the challenges with Bill C-262. More information is available here.
At the recent Antigua Forum, Atlas explains that “Macdonald-Laurier Institute workshopped a project to improve opportunities for native populations in Canada and elsewhere.” Does that project relate at all to the Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy Project?
MLI Distinguished Fellow Ken Coates provided a project pitch at the 2022 Antigua Forum titled Building Indigenous Economic Freedom: Pathways for Autonomy and Prosperity. The goal of the project would be to promote Indigenous economic development across the world, by sharing best practices used by businesses and governments, and ultimately foster both autonomy and prosperity.
This is distinct from the Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project.
2. The title of the article (“How a conservative U.S. network undermined Indigenous energy rights in Canada”) implies by association that MLI opposes Indigenous energy rights. Nothing can be further from the truth – MLI’s experts are the loudest and clearest voices in support of Indigenous energy rights, as was clarified to Mr. Dembicki prior to the publication of his article.
3. The article states that:
“Atlas… [argued MLI] was able to discourage the Canadian government from supporting a United Nations declaration that would ensure greater involvement by Indigenous communities.”
This is untrue. MLI never urged Ottawa to not support UNDRIP. MLI’s experts took issue with the implementing legislation, as did dozens of First Nations who argued that they were not adequately consulted and that the legislation could harm their ability to exercise their own rights over their own lands. This was clarified to Mr. Dembicki in an email response. He ignored this clarification.
4. Generally, Mr. Dembicki asserts that MLI opposed UNDRIP and the concept of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). This is untrue. Even in the papers which he appears to reference, MLI’s authors supported UNDRIP and FPIC in principle but warned that implementation would be fraught in Canada’s existing legal and regulatory environments. This is a conclusion which the Government of Canada came to accept, not because it did not agree with UNDRIP or FPIC, but because implementing it indelicately could actually undermine existing Indigenous rights, such as those protected by Canada’s existing judicially-developed duty to consult framework, which safeguards rights not only on land owned by Indigenous communities but on lands over which there are asserted claims. Had Mr. Dembicki read MLI’s work, he would have reached the same conclusion.
5. Mr. Dembicki takes out of context why MLI’s experts took issue with domesticating UNDRIP and FPIC into Canadian law. The issue was not with UNDRIP or FPIC itself, but rather how these concepts did not fit into Canada’s legal framework and could both undermine existing Indigenous rights in Canada while giving radical voices power over Indigenous communities and their decision making. Again, MLI’s main argument is that Indigenous communities should be more involved, not less involved, in affairs over territories on which they are the rights holders – a position which was categorically misrepresented in the article. This was clarified to Mr. Dembicki in an email response. He ignored this clarification.
6. The author alleges that:
“…the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Atlas Network appeared to interpret this to mean that those communities could effectively veto new oil pipelines, fracking operations and other resource extraction projects.”
This is untrue. As even the Atlas report which Mr. Dembicki cites states, the concern was that fringe groups could undermine Indigenous communities’ rights. MLI has never taken issue with Indigenous peoples exercising their own rights on their own lands. As we have made clear in our work, Indigenous peoples should be empowered to chart their own courses, whether that be as proponents, partners, owners, or indeed as opponents of projects on territories over which they are rights holders.
7. The author alleges that:
“The Macdonald-Laurier Institute with the support of Atlas embarked on “a sophisticated communications and outreach strategy to persuade the government, businesses, and Aboriginal communities on the dangers involved with fully adopting UNDRIP,” the report says.”
This is untrue for numerous reasons. Though MLI is an Atlas network partner, no Atlas network funding had been allocated toward MLI’s work on UNDRIP or the ACNRE project at the time of the publication of Atlas’ report. Mr. Dembicki did not seek to substantiate his claim by asking further questions.
8. In one instance, the author deliberately misquoted MLI Senior Fellow Dwight Newman.* Mr. Dembicki’s article states that:
“Meanwhile, an opposition party member introduced a new bill meant to enshrine UNDRIP in law. This effort slowly gained momentum and political support, but when the bill ended up before Canada’s Senate for approval in 2019, a Macdonald-Laurier Institute scholar named Dwight Newman submitted written comments that the legislation’s inclusion of “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” could “have enormous implications for Canada.”
This framing leads Mr. Dembicki to imply that Mr. Newman was opposed to implementing UNDRIP. Mr. Dembicki implies that the intervention from Newman represents a way in which MLI was party to efforts to “deny rights” to Indigenous peoples, going on to suggest without evidence that MLI received funding from Atlas to do so (more on that later). However, Mr. Dembicki misleads the reader by selectively quoting Mr. Newman in a dishonest fashion. Newman’s full quote was:
While Canada is certainly fortunate to have a judicial system of high quality, on the present text of Bill C-262 and the presence of many different interpretations possible for FPIC in UNDRIP, the Court’s interpretation of FPIC is nonetheless subject to uncertainties that have enormous implications for Canada.
Newman did not take issue with FPIC but rather how a vague and poorly-written implementing legislation could be interpreted in a way which would have unintended consequences for Indigenous rights in Canada, including potential negative consequences for Indigenous communities themselves. Though well-intentioned, he was concerned that it would undermine Indigenous rights. Indeed, far from opposing UNDRIP, Newman clearly expresses his views on the matter in the very same document, suggesting that it is “laudable” to set Canada on a path of UNDRIP implementation:
Overall, Bill C-262 pursues laudable aims and hopes to set Canada on a path of UNDRIP implementation in a carefully negotiated manner over the coming years. However, the present form of the Bill contains various problems, generates more uncertainties than it needs to, and is inconsistent with some of the statements made in support of it. Appropriate amendments can improve this Bill.
The full record, which was provided to Mr. Dembicki in good faith, is available here.
Clearly, the views of MLI’s experts generally and of Mr. Newman specifically were misrepresented by the cherry-picked quotation. Though a modest correct was eventually issued, the broad thesis of the article does not hold up to any fair reading of MLI’s published material.
9. The statement that “this was seen as a major victory by Atlas, which appears to have provided funding for the campaign,“ is incorrect and untrue. Atlas did not provide funding for this work.
*Note: In August, both the Narwhal and the Guardian issued a modest correction as per the critique suggested in item 8. This MLI statement has been edited to reflect the modest correction.
While both publications changed the article as it appeared on both sites to be less dishonest in reference to Newman’s views, the article still makes inferences and is based on premises which remain untrue. In any case, the author still did misquote Mr. Newman originally, and did so deliberately in support of an argument which still remains unsubstantiated.