Article in the Star today has a discussion about the extent to which “social license” should be obtained from government and industry before going ahead with major projects that affect the environment. The chair of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Michael Binnion recently remarked that the Harper government has done a terrible job at getting social license.(1) I personally was not familiar with the term social license, although the gist seems straightforward – companies need popular support to go ahead with projects that may impact a broader group. The first result of a Google search turned up an internet site dedicated to social license defines it similarly “Social License has been defined as existing when a project has the ongoing approval within the local community and other stakeholders, ongoing approval or broad social acceptance and, most frequently, as ongoing acceptance.”(2) Upon looking a little further, this site is run by a Oil Industry consultancy in Vancouver that offers “socially enhancement” strategies for the energy industry.(3) They specialize in putting a socially responsible face on inherently violent and exploitative activities. What they do is a charade – doing in order to pretend something is true when it is not really true.(4)
Social license seems like a way to put greater onus on industry and government (frequent bedfellows) to seek out and take into consideration public opinion, but it starts from the premise that everything is on the table so long as enough people endorse it. Who is consulted? Why should people be forced to do violence to other people, to the land, to themselves? Also, the disproportionate amount of funding from the oil and mining industry for propaganda and bribery make claims of having obtained social license extremely dubious at best. Social license and other similar concepts rely on the language of informed consent and community consultation, using these terms they seek to validate the underlying processes of mass resource extraction, militarism and disregard for indigenous rights. Where does social license get it’s legitimacy? The people? The concept is a public relations tactic of groups such as the Harperite-Oil Industry alliance and is being used to carve out some kind of positive social narrative in which to cloak despicable deeds.
This strategy is on display in the Star article linked to here, in which Joe Oliver – former Minister of Natural Resources, and current Finance minister (obviously Canadian resource and finances go hand in hand) – announces to a bunch of people at the (Preston) Manning Institute that Canada should be less concerned with obtaining social license. Of course, Oliver sounds like the cold hearted industrialist that he is, and an immediate response (at least my immediate reaction) is to reject his callous greedy position. So then, do I endorse the position of the need for more social license? That would seem to be the alternative to Oliver’s position the article presents. Making this social license seem like the progressive alternative to crass extractionism is the dangerous move that is made by the social license discourse. It stays with in the bounds of the logic of colonial capitalism, in which the tar sands and the pipelines must and inevitably will go ahead. I reject this position and social license is a sham way of trying to get people to play by these rigged rules.
Later this week #Shutdown Canada (Feb.13) and numerous marches and events (Feb. 14) are planned to put pressure on the federal government to call an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Woman. The lead-up to these events has also been an occasion for a number of high profile roundtable discussions about the nature of the problem as well as the type of action needed to meaningfully intervene. Mostly clearly present in these discussions is the fact that in the past 30 years over 1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or disappeared, a rate of direct violence drastically higher than exists in other Canadian demographics. This issue has garnered international attention including Amnesty’s International’s 2004, “Stolen Sisters” report which denounced the government’s inaction and official indifference – which has stubbornly persisted.1 A recent roundtable discussion of Indigenous women in Vancouver highlights the ongoing connection between colonial and capitalist exploitation that contribute to the devaluation and destruction of indigenous women and communities. As Anishnawbe film maker Audrey Huntley describes, “Violence against Indigenous women that enabled land theft and displacement of the Indigenous population is an inherent part of the settler-colonial project. That’s how Canada was built and continues to exist. Indigenous communities, in particular Indigenous women and children who are the centres of those communities, stand in the way of ongoing colonization of land and resources. Racism is the fuel that feeds the fire and it is at the heart of the societal indifference that is so hard for our community, and in particular for the family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, to bear. While the last year has finally brought unprecedented media and public attention to the issue, the violence has not stopped and, in fact, may be increasing. This makes sense given the extractivist and austerity-focused agenda of the Harper government and the impacts that violence on the land has on Indigenous women particularly, and our community and society as a whole.” 2 Later this month (Feb.27) Perry Bellegarde, the newly elected Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations will meet with two Conservative ministers – Kellie Leitch, (Minister of Labour and the Status of Women) and Bernard Valcourt (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs) – to discuss the issue of violence against indigenous women. “We welcome their support. We welcome their attendance,” Bellegarde said, expressing hope the ministers will act on what they hear at the meeting. “That’s what we’re all trying to address: a co-ordinated strategy, a co-ordinated approach, an implementation plan to deal with this,” he said. “The feds are there; the provinces are there; indigenous peoples are there; families are there. Let’s map this out.” 3 However, few see this terrain as very favourable to seriously redrawing the map of ongoing colonial oppression and cultural violence underlying the epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women. The fact that two former Grand Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations, Sean Atleo and Ovide Mercredi have become high-paid consultants for the Oil Industry, raises severe doubts that such elite politicking intends to address the fundamental linkages between colonial and capitalist violence.4 Many indigenous people feel that an federal inquiry isn’t enough, or even the right way to address the problem. Such an inquiry would require a great deal of money which some feel would “only tell us what we already know” without changing systems of oppression. At a recent meeting in Winnipeg the director of Ka Na Kanichihk, Leslie Spillet, said, “We’re losing people not just to murders, our kids are killing themselves for Godsakes. Our men are killing our women. Not just non-indigenous men are killing our women. Our kids are committing suicide. We’re in a crisis here.”5 The call is for action now and for the sustained dismantling of the social and psychological violence that is an ongoing part of colonial capitalism. 1. http://www.amnesty.ca/sites/default/files/amr200032004enstolensisters.pdf. 2.http://rabble.ca/columnists/2015/02/this-system-hasnt-killed-me-yet-roundtable-on-gendered-colonial-violence 3. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/afn-s-perry-bellegarde-hopeful-ahead-of-meeting-on-murdered-missing-aboriginal-women-1.2952780 4.http://business.financialpost.com/2014/12/10/b-c-heavy-oil-refinery-project-names-aboriginal-leaders-as-advisors/?__lsa=eb36-b249 5.http://aptn.ca/news/2015/02/10/families-missing-murdered-indigenous-women-want-action-instead-inquiry/.