Tag Archives: free prior and informed consent

More Meaningful Consultations: A Comment on the Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations

The incoming administration promises to reinstate the tribal consultation mandate. More can be done to meet the standard set by the RESPECT Act and make consultations more meaningful.

Federal agencies are required to consult with Native American tribes (and with Alaska Native Corporations) on infrastructure projects — highways, dams, or railways, for instance — and on permits for mines, pipelines, and other industrial development projects when they affect tribal lands and interests. Consultation policies and practices vary from agency to agency, but in all cases these consultations are supposed to be “meaningful.” What makes them so needs to be carefully spelled out.

“To promote robust and meaningful consultation,” the Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations promises to reinstate the Consultation mandate put in place by the Obama administration and “ensure that tribal consultations adopt best practices consistent with principles reflected in the RESPECT Act.” The Act in question is H.R. 2689, which languished in the House after being introduced by Representative Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona in the 115th Congress. The Act sought to establish, among other things, this Sense of Congress:

effective, meaningful consultation requires a two-way exchange of information, a willingness to listen, an attempt to understand and genuinely consider each other’s opinions, beliefs, and desired outcomes, and a seeking of agreement on how to proceed concerning the issues at hand; and consultation can be considered effective and meaningful when each party demonstrates a genuine commitment to learn, acknowledge, and respect the positions, perspectives, and concerns of the other parties.

The Act sets the bar for everyone involved. It describes meaningful consultation as deliberation among equals, a good faith undertaking to seek (but not necessarily reach) agreement together. It places more emphasis on recognizing different perspectives and positions than on reconciling them. It highlights a genuine and joint commitment to listen and develop understanding of each party and of the issues. Meaningful consultation will go well beyond mere transaction — or information exchange — to encompass learning and collaboration. Rooted in mutual respect, consultation can be both a dignifying encounter and an adventure.

The standard the RESPECT Act sets for meaningful consultation is worth reaching for right now, even if it remains to be seen whether Representative Grijalva will reintroduce the bill and whether the 117th Congress will make it law. Here are a few areas where work might begin.

  • Information ethics should develop with information systems.

A 2019 Government Accountability Office study of 21 Federal agencies discovered an information gap: agencies simply do not have accurate contact information for the appropriate tribal representatives. To remedy the situation, the GAO recommends that the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council develop a plan for establishing a central federal information system. While centralization might serve the FPISC goal of administrative efficiency, it can also raise significant issues around security and trust. Sharing control of data and data governance with tribes might help alleviate such concerns.

Information systems are already evolving to accommodate new collaboration technologies (like channel-based messaging and videoconferencing) to support consultation. Best practices still need to be identified and shared; and, just as importantly, inequities need to be addressed. As noted in the Biden-Harris plan, rural areas and reservations are disproportionately underserved by high-speed internet. It will take significant investment in broadband and 5G before new applications can be brought into the mix.

Where information technology can help consultation in other ways — with topological, geological, and archaeological reviews — other ethical considerations arise. Centering the discussion on shared data and published scientific information can help temper conversation and prevent powerful outside groups from exercising undue influence, but the model also has its limits. When scientific understanding appears to be incommensurate with tribal knowledge of the land, waters, and regional history, respectful consultation will strive to give both due consideration.

  • Dialogue will determine the value of information.

The text of the RESPECT Act itself could be amended to reflect its own sense of what makes consultation meaningful. The Act aims to “ensure that meaningful Tribal input is an integral part of the Federal decision-making process.” In this caption and throughout the Bill, the effect of the word “input” is to cast tribes as information sources, not full-fledged participants. Gathering or recording tribal input is only the first step at building dialogue, where information acquires meaning.

The colorless, technocratic term “input” appears to have found its way into the legislative lexicon via the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (Section 204), which calls upon agencies to “permit elected officers of State, local, and tribal governments…to provide meaningful and timely input.” Five years later, Executive Order 13175, still the touchstone for tribal consultation policies, moves beyond granting tribes permission to mandating “an accountable process to ensure meaningful and timely input.” This order does not, however, contemplate ways federal agencies might be accountable to their tribal counterparts, as they would be in a cooperative undertaking.

No surprise, then, that sixty-two percent of tribes surveyed by the GAO “identified concerns that agencies often do not adequately consider the tribal input they collect during consultation when making decisions about proposed infrastructure projects.” This finding appears to indicate that agencies cannot consider all by themselves the input they collect. Due consideration will take building “meaningful dialogue” — as a 2009 Presidential Memorandum on Tribal Consultation puts it — through “regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration.” It is best undertaken jointly.

  • Consultation still falls short of consent.

The 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples establishes that states “shall consult and cooperate with the indigenous peoples” to this clearly-stated end: “in order to obtain” Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. A 2010 State Department Announcement of US support for the Declaration fails to take into account the subordinating conjunction “in order to” and the purpose it unambiguously indicates, allowing only that the US understands the Declaration “to call for a process of meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, but not necessarily the agreement of those leaders.” Instead of securing informed consent, as required by UNDRIP, the consultation process becomes a way of reserving discretion.

From the tribes’ perspective, as summarized in a 2017 study, consultation is merely box-checking unless undertaken with the aim of obtaining free, prior, and informed consent or at least reaching compromise. The Biden-Harris plan takes a step in this direction, promising to “uphold leasing and right-of-way regulations that strengthen tribal sovereignty and ensure tribal consent on tribal lands.” The plan makes no mention of the UN Declaration, however, and it remains to be seen how far this deference will extend.

Consent places front and center issues of self-determination, of autonomy and, in the context of government-to-government relations, sovereignty. One test of respect for self-determination comes when tribal leaders withhold consent or say “no,” as the obligation to obtain consent clearly implies the right to withhold it. Efforts to overlook or sidestep that obligation altogether are bound to diminish confidence that consultations will be appropriately heeded and outcomes will be just.

This serious shortcoming — which cries out for remedy — need not be a fatal flaw. “No” might signal a standoff or it might offer an opportunity to articulate and explore alternative plans. Good faith, constructive disagreement can test unexamined assumptions, illuminate unseen risk, and bring new interlocutors to the table. Agreeing to disagree need not mark the end of negotiation; it can indicate that parties will acknowledge differences, respect the distance they establish, and rejoin the dialogue.

Though consultations do not satisfy the human rights obligation to secure free, prior, and informed consent and do not necessarily yield agreements, they can help agencies take tribal interests into account and help tribes gain better understanding of (and some say in) decisions that affect them.

On a practical level, starting consultations early and returning to them throughout the life of a project can prevent conflict and costly delay further down the road. Just as importantly, consultation can help agencies gain much-needed perspective on emerging risks and complex problems, from economic and energy policies to food security and environmental protection.  And taking steps to improve tribal consultations might also raise the bar for other public consultations, making government a little more responsive to all citizens.

Ultimately, however, consultation will be meaningful only to the extent that all parties so find it.

Palmater on the Right to Say ‘No’

The very first post I wrote for The Asking Project set out always take no for an answer as a cardinal rule of asking, and I’ve revisited that rule a couple of times since, drawing connections with Margaret Gilbert’s ideas of joint commitment, looking at the way saying no turns the ethical spotlight back on the person doing the asking and — most important of all — sets conditions for new respectful relationship.

There’s a strong connection between this (ethical) rule of asking and (legal) considerations of consent. This is complex territory, so an illustration might be useful. Consider, for starters, this piece Pam Palmater wrote back in October on the indigenous “right to say ‘no’,” as enshrined in the doctrine of free, prior and informed consent.

A little background. After a Canadian court ruled against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the Trudeau government announced that instead of appealing the decision, it would undertake a consultation process with First Nations. Palmater accused the government of conducting a charade, of “using” or abusing this process “to force the expansion of this pipeline.”

Regardless of whether the new consultations are led by a former Supreme Court justice or Trudeau himself, Canada has already decided that the pipeline will be built, before ever talking to any of the impacted First Nations, including those that have asserted Aboriginal title. This renders our constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights meaningless. What legal value is the federal government’s constitutional obligation to consult, accommodate and obtain the consent of First Nations before taking actions that would impact our rights and title, if “consent” is interpreted as the right to say yes but excludes the right to say no? It makes no logical sense to interpret the law in such a way, especially to a constitutionally protected right.

Imagine if consent was interpreted this way in both the ordinary and legal understanding of the word “consent.” When a school sends home a permission form seeking a parent’s consent to allow their child to take a field trip, if the parent does not give consent, the school cannot allow the child to participate. Similarly, if a patient refuses to give consent to an operation to have their hip replaced, then the doctor cannot perform the operation. The absence of consent means no — in other words, a veto that has real legal power and meaning. Imagine if consent was interpreted in this illogical and diminished manner for sexual relations as it is for Aboriginal rights. Imagine if sexual consent in law meant that a man could consult with a woman on whether she wanted sexual relations, and was even willing to accommodate (“where appropriate”) her wishes about how to have sexual relations, but she had no right to say no — no veto over whether or not sexual relations occurred? That is called sexual assault and it is a crime.

The greatest injustices that have ever been committed against First Nations in Canada have resulted from denying the sovereign right of our Nations to say no. The right to have a real veto over infecting our blankets with smallpox; from scalping our people; from stealing our children and raping, murdering and torturing them in residential schools; sterilizing our women and girls; from the forced adoptions of our children into white families during the Sixties Scoop; to the murders and disappearances of our women and girls; to forced human trafficking and now the destruction of our lands and waters for profit.

The right to say no is an inherent part of the legal concept of consent. To interpret this concept otherwise is racist, discriminatory and self-serving, not unlike the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius. Surely, even the Supreme Court would not interpret their own decisions in such an impoverished manner. To do so would render Section 35 [of the Constitution Act, protecting First Nations rights] an empty shell of a constitutional promise.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 3

Third in a Series

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, pushing jobs.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, pushing jobs.

Sunlight and Skullduggery

When it comes to parceling out the land, water and future of the Lake Superior region to the highest bidders, few have matched the auctionary zeal demonstrated a couple of years ago by David Dill, a member of Minnesota’s House of Representatives. In the debate over the proposed Boundary Waters Land Exchange, Dill was among those urging that the state should exchange School Trust Lands in the Boundary Waters area for 30,000 acres of Superior National Forest. Since by law Minnesota would be bound “to secure maximum long-term economic return” from lands thus acquired, Dill proclaimed, “we should mine, log, and lease the hell out of that land.”

Dill understood this much: if there is hell to be found in Superior National Forest, there is probably no better way to bring it out.

The unanswered question in Minnesota and throughout the Lake Superior region is not, however, theological: it’s whether extractive industries and the developments they bring will actually deliver “long-term” economic benefit for the region, and not just a short-term spurt or boom, or another period of destructive plunder followed by long-term decline. That is not just a question up for debate by economists and other experts; it is, at root, a political question.

As I’ve suggested in my first two posts in this series, the complaint filed by the Marquette County Road Commission against the EPA is part and parcel of an effort to shut this question down, or exclude it from public consideration. This complaint is only incidentally about a haul road. It’s part of a political offensive that aims to stifle debate and hand the future of the region over to unseen powers. Those powers lurk under legal cover of the dark 501c4 “public welfare” organization funding the MCRC’s lawsuit against the EPA.

So with this lawsuit, the Road Commission pretends to political authority that goes way beyond building and maintaining Marquette County’s roads: it assumes the authority to direct economic development in Marquette County and decide what’s in the area’s best interest. In order to seize that authority, I’ve said, the complaint sets up an “anti-mining” straw man, and tries but fails to prove that the EPA had a “predetermined plan” to prevent the construction of County Road 595.

No surprise, then, that the argument gets especially tendentious whenever the complaint tries to demonstrate collusion or discover “anti-mining” attitudes within the ranks of the EPA itself; and where it comes up short, it raises questions about the motives and associations of those bringing these allegations.

Consider, for example, the report to Senator Carl Levin’s office by an unidentified “informant” (Exhibit 15), who alleged that at a meeting with “environmental and tribal groups,” EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman made remarks to the effect that:

1. the EPA will fight mining in Michigan,
2. that there will be no mining in the Great Lakes Basin,
3. that there was or will be an EPA sponsored Anti-Mining committee, and
4. that the KBIC [Keweenaw Bay Indian Community] tribe had received an EPA grant which [sic] they used the funds to sponsor an anti-mining activity.

The informant seems to have been lying in some places and exaggerating in others: Hedman claims she never made the remarks attributed to her. But the MCRC complaint doesn’t hesitate to repeat the informant’s false allegations, and it tries to build its case around Senator Levin’s staffer’s awkward summary of what she heard from an unnamed informant who proved untrustworthy in every particular.

True to pattern, the complaint casts both environmental groups and the KBIC as “anti-mining groups” as it doubles down on the informant’s lies. The detail about the EPA grants is wildly inflated. The EPA gave the tribe “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the MCRC claims, even as the KBIC was “actively lobbying USEPA against local mining and against CR 595.” This turns the false report of an unspecified “anti-mining activity” to “actively lobbying,” and it neglects to mention that EPA grants to the KBIC are, in large part, to help the tribes cope with the lasting damage done by mining and industrialization. (In recent years, grants have supported things like a survey of tribal fish consumption habits to reduce health risks associated with contaminants in fish, or the tribal Brownsfield response program.)

The phrase “actively lobbying” is especially cheeky here, for a couple of reasons.

First, the Eagle Mine project went ahead without the full, prior and informed consent of the KBIC. A Section 106 hearing ignored testimony from tribal elders that the ground at Eagle Rock is sacred to the Ojibwe, and objections by the KBIC and the Ho Chunk to the location of the mine portal at Eagle Rock were summarily dismissed. Tribal appeals to the EPA went unheeded.

Second, if we are really going to start tracking lobbyists and money spent on lobbying efforts, then in all fairness let’s spread the sunshine around and give a full account of money and efforts spent actively lobbying for mining interests in northern Michigan and throughout the Lake Superior region over the last decade. Or if that is too arduous a task, a full accounting of the money behind this complaint would suffice.

The complaint also fails to mention that the EPA responded immediately to Senator Levin’s office with a full schedule of grants given to the KBIC and the charter of the “cross-media” mining group at EPA Region 5. Cross-media groups are formed to satisfy the Cross-Media Electronic Reporting Rule. The fearsome EPA-sponsored “Anti-Mining” group turned out to be a specter of the informant’s imagination, and really comes down to bureaucratic reshuffling in order to make electronic reporting easier. There’s just no red flag to raise.

Elsewhere, when the complaint tries to demonstrate “anti-mining” sentiment within the EPA itself, the best the MCRC can do is police tone. There is an EPA official who writes “sarcastically” to a colleague at the Army Corps of Engineers, and then there are a couple of sentences in a January 2011 email by Daniel Cozza, an EPA Section Chief. Cozza refers to Wisconsin as “the new front” and says that in a three-hour town hall meeting Governor Scott Walker was “pushing jobs” when promoting the Gogebic Taconite project.

I think the WI Governor’s additions to the Welcome to WI signs stating ‘Open for Business’ is a sign of things to come. I listened to the 3hour [sic] townhall meeting last night regarding the G-TAC or taconite mining project in the Gogebic Penokee range and sounds like they are pushing jobs.

This sounds pretty innocuous, and I am unsure where the offense is: “pushing jobs”? That’s a pretty apt description of the rhetorical tactics used to promote mining in midwestern districts and around the world for that matter. Job numbers are overstated, as Tom Power notes in his study of sulfide mining projects in Minnesota. In Wisconsin, Senator Tim Cullen, Chair of the Senate Select Mining Committee, said he was amazed that immediately upon signing a controversial mining bill into law in 2013, Scott Walker and his cronies were “telling the workers of Wisconsin, who need jobs, that the jobs are just around the corner….The people who understand the mining industry know the jobs are years away.”  Sounds like they were being pretty pushy to me.

Of course, “front” might suggest a battle or military campaign, or it might imply that Cozza sees himself or the EPA as embattled, fighting against the encroachment of mining projects — which of course the EPA is, and will continue to be if it is going to protect the environment against the resurgence of mining all around Lake Superior. Forbes Magazine, hardly a bastion of environmental activism, struck the same note when it ran an article on Gogebic Taconite’s Chris Cline with the title: “Billionaire Battles Native Americans Over Iron Ore Mine”; Dale Schultz, a Republican State Senator who broke with his party to oppose Wisconsin’s mining legislation, said his conscience would not allow him to “surrender the existing environmental protections without a full and open debate”: no one gasped in horror and astonishment at the white-flag battleground metaphor. Mike Wiggins, Chair of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, did not mince words and declared the Gogebic project tantamount to “genocide,” as it would kill the wild rice crop. The list could go on.

So the real objection is that some people working at EPA are not enthusiastically on board with the agenda of the mining company and its development plans for the area. They’re not supposed to be; they’re supposed to protect the environment. The complaint is still far from proving that the EPA itself, when making its specific determinations about CR 595, acted with bias or according to a predetermined plan.

It’s interesting, however, that the complaint should make an example of Daniel Cozza and his attitudes toward Wisconsin mining. Cozza has a long history with the environmental regulation of mining in Wisconsin, and he was working in EPA Region 5 when the Crandon Mine project unraveled, due to the inability of the mine’s backers, which included Eagle Mine developers Rio Tinto and Kennecott Minerals, to meet tribal water quality standards and deliver appropriate environmental assurances. Cozza is said to have caused “consternation” when he reminded Crandon Mining in a letter of its “duty to look at the cumulative economic and environmental impacts” of other mining projects in the region; and it was this big picture perspective that prevailed when Governor Tommy Thompson signed a mining moratorium into law in 1998.

To many people inside and outside the mining industry, Crandon seemed to signal the end of mining in Wisconsin, and there are still bitter feelings within the industry about the failure of the Crandon project. Having lost in the courts and the legislative arena, the industry and its backers resorted to other means, achieving their first big comeback victory in Wisconsin with Scott Walker’s 2013 mining bill.

By signing it, the governor also obliterated his past. He had voted for the mining moratorium in 1998 as a member of the Wisconsin Assembly. As governor, Walker worked to ease regulations, and did a decisive about-face during his 2012 recall election, when he received a $700,000 contribution from Chris Cline and Gogebic Taconite. That mind-blowing, mind-changing contribution came via the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a dark money 501c4 like Stand U.P., the organization now putting up other people’s money — whose? — for the Marquette County Road Commission’s lawsuit against the EPA. Corruption is in the cards.

Sustainable Development, Derailed

train-derailment-sept-ilesOn Thursday of last week, an avalanche derailed a Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway freight train owned by Iron Ore of Canada as it made its way north along the banks of the Moisie River.

Divers recovered the body of Enrick Gagnon, the train’s engineer,  just this morning. The train’s lead locomotive is still completely submerged in the Moisie and another is partly submerged. Each locomotive holds about 17,000 litres of diesel fuel, and a 20 kilometer slick — “a silvery layer” — has spread over surface of the Moisie. The train was not hauling ore; its freight compartments were empty for its northbound run.

The Moisie and its watershed are part of a designated aquatic reserve, so the river is technically protected from mining activity; but so far as I can tell, the 16 mile stretch that the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway line runs along the Moisie was built in 1954, when mining first began in the region, and more than fifty years before the Quebec government published its conservation plan.

One stated aim of that plan is to protect native species, including and perhaps especially the Atlantic salmon running in the Moisie. As nearly every report on the Moisie catastrophe notes, the pristine waters of the remote northern river are internationally renowned for salmon fishing.

For the Innu of Uashat mak Mani-utenam, whose traditional territory the Moisie crosses, the river is much more: it is, in the words of one newswire report, a thing of “inestimable cultural value.”  So development in Innu territory continues to risk the inestimable for the merely estimable: in this case iron ore, jobs, growth. The Innu, who call themselves “the true owners of the land,” say they never consented to the tradeoff, and that the mining operation in their territory violates “international law, particularly the principle of ‘free, prior and informed consent.’”

Now, with this trainwreck, the Innu have an environmental crisis on their hands; but over the past couple of decades, the Innu say, they have also witnessed a gradual and “cumulative” effect on the environment and their community due to “the intensification of industrial activities” in the Sept-Îles region.

Iron Ore of Canada has a lock on the region’s economy, and development opportunities in the Labrador Trough are, in the words of IOC’s CEO Zoe Yujnovich, “potentially unconstrained.” Rio Tinto, which owns the majority stake in IOC, recently increased annual production capacity for the region from 18 to 23 million tons of ore concentrate, and plans to open a new mine called Wabush 3 to help meet that goal.

A 2013 publication touting Rio Tinto’s “Sustainable Development” plan for the region notes that the additional revenue generated by IOC’s “wholly owned rail company” will keep pace with growth: “use of the railway is set to increase significantly in the next few years as a result of our own expansion projects and junior mining startups in the area.” In other words, more trains than ever will be traveling along the Moisie, from Labrador to Sept-Îles Junction.