In contrast to previous Canadian PM Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau has promised a new kind of politics – “sunny ways,” as he put it. The new prime minister promised to take immediate action on climate change and also to amend the recently passed (and universally criticized) Anti-Terrorism Act, a piece of legislation that, as a leaked Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) memo would reveal, specifically targeted Indigenous and environmentalists’ resistance to development projects.
The most important of Trudeau’s promises was the one he made to First Nations across what Indigenous peoples call “Turtle Island”: that the government would adhere to the true “nation-to-nation” relations between the Canadian government and their leadership. In what seemed to be a truly historic step, Trudeau included in his cabinet the first Indigenous minister of justice/attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.
So Trudeau’s hypocrisy, when he was recently exposed as having worn Black and Brown face in earlier years, resulted in a firestorm of well-deserved criticism. Yet this scandal only highlighted the comparative silence surrounding a much more serious issue. This was his government’s handling of the relatively long-standing antagonism between the hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and TransCanada-owned Coastal GasLink (CGL)’s $4 billion pipeline for fracked natural gas through the ancestral territory of the Wet’suwet’en.
The pipeline would deliver liquified natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to a facility near Kitimat, British Columbia, in preparation for shipping to global markets. At issue here is the fundamental principle to which the Canadian government committed itself both in its stated adherence to United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), as well as to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC): that in all development projects that affect unceded territories, Indigenous nations must provide their “free, prior and informed consent.”
The Wet’suwet’en have for several years now struggled hard to defend their lands, building the Unist’ot’en Camp to prevent the CGL and the RCMP from accessing their territories. They have insisted not only on UNDRIP and TRC’s recommendations and Canadian legal decisions establishing the jurisdiction of their traditional governance structures, but also on the authority of Wet’suwet’en law under which all five clans have unanimously rejected the pipeline project. The Wet’suwet’en have also invited settler allies to come and join them on their territories and have engaged in myriad fundraising and educational activities.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called for the immediate withdrawal of the RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territory.
What has been the response? The RCMP ramped up pressure on the Wet’suwet’en by establishing an “exclusionary zone” around the territory, allowing only the hereditary chiefs passage – other Wet’suwet’en members and the media were kept out. Such developments portended a human rights catastrophe of terrible proportions. It is for this reason that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called for the immediate withdrawal of the RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territory, and for the right of the Wet’suwet’en people to continue in their actions to protect the lands, waters and futures of their people.
Indigenous youth of the Nuuchahnulth, Tla’amin, Sto:lo, Namgis, Heiltsuk, Lil’wat, Xwlemi, Qayqayt, Lue Chogh Tue, Shishalh and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nations launched an occupation of the Office of the B.C. Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. They stated that, “Indigenous people defending their lands from destruction are not criminal or disposable. As Indigenous youth, we urge you to uphold Indigenous rights and Wet’suwet’en law by advocating for the removal of CGL and RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territories.”
By February, a protest movement organising demonstrations, marches and days of action throughout Canada, was blockading major roads, bridges, railway lines and ports in support of their cause. Now in late March, during a Covid-19 public health emergency, all levels of government are moving to minimize physical interaction, and this includes the mandatory suspension of all “essential services.”
Pipeline construction continues
However, CGL pipeline construction continues. According to Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, Dini Ze Smogelgem, the company “took advantage of the Covid-19 crisis and accelerated their project.”
As one of the Indigenous Youth leaders, Ta’kaiya Blaney, from the Tla’amin First Nation, recently stated,
“When you attack one, you attack us all… We, as Indigenous youth, know that what Canada is willing to do to Wet’suwet’en people is a demonstration of the measures they are willing to go to bulldoze and destroy Indigenous lands in the name of profit and industry.”
The government sanctioned continuation of the pipeline construction has led to the retort by Indigenous leadership, often in the form of a meme, that “Genocide is not an essential service.” Given the way in which European colonialism weaponized diseases such as small pox and used them against Indigenous communities, this rightly touches an inflamed historical nerve.
And indeed, it takes on different, enriched meaning when we recall that this pandemic can be directly linked to the Anthropocene and the human domination of nature.
This pandemic can be directly linked to the Anthropocene and the human domination of nature.
All this is made eloquently clear by Wet’suwet’en Spokesperson Freda Huson:
“We are doing this to save humanity…. If we destroy the Earth, the Earth will recover; … we won’t. The Earth doesn’t need us; we need it.”
This piece was originally published in the April edition of Splinters.