Since November 2018, indigenous communities and their allies across Canada have mobilized to show solidarity with the Unist’ot’en camp. The community is part of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in British Columbia (BC) and has been trying to prevent a natural gas pipeline, Coastal GasLink, from building on their territory. On Jan. 24, the Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council voted to express support for the Unist’ot’en camp. However, during deliberation at Legislative Council, SSMU’s motion was amended to remove a statement that explicitly opposed the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Club Councillor Victoria Flaherty raised the concern that the motion excluded students from McGill who may be employed in the oil and gas market in the future. In response, SSMU has adopted a contradictory stance on the matter, not opposing the specific pipeline, but still claiming to support the Unist’ot’en. This is not true solidarity; it is not enough to just express support for Unist’ot’en without being opposed to the pipeline going through their territory.
While SSMU claims that it can support the Unist’ot’en camp without explicitly opposing the pipeline, the two issues are inextricable from one another. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the BC government have used excessive force to make way for construction of the pipeline, launching raids that have resulted in multiple arrests. On Jan. 7, the RCMP entered the camp wearing full tactical gear and weilding assault rifles to counter the peaceful protesters. According to Carleton criminologist Jeffrey Monaghan, internal RCMP documents have referred to the Unist’ot’en as an extremist group. The Unist’ot’en issue goes beyond the construction: It is a violation of indigenous communities’ rights to sovereignty and autonomy. That some SSMU councillors would prioritize future job prospects over this ongoing violence is disheartening.
When external federal issues like the Coastal GasLink pipeline arise, it can be difficult to feel like student voices matter. But, universities have consistently played an integral role in creating change. For example, Quebec’s Bill 151 is the product of months of lobbying and activism by SSMU and the Our Turn National Action Plan. When it comes to protesting the pipeline, a statement of support for Unist’ot’en is the bare minimum, which SSMU has failed to adequately provide.
Lobbying local, provincial, and federal governments is an important part of student unions’ and associations’ duties, and the absence of a vice-president (VP) external hinders SSMU’s ability to fulfill this responsibility. After former VP External Marina Cupido resigned in Oct. 2018, McGill students have been left without an executive whose sole responsibility is to represent their needs outside of the university context. In the case of the Unist’ot’en camp and other indigenous advocacy work, a dedicated VP external position is indispensable.
In the meantime, there are many important steps that students on campus can take to support Unist’ot’en. On their website, the Unist’ot’en camp provide an extensive list of ways to support them, such as donations, need lists, and other resources. On the broader issue of indigenous rights, it is important to support on and off-campus initiatives like #ChangeTheName. Campus groups such as the First People’s House, SSMU Indigenous Affairs, and the Indigenous Student Alliance, which held a demonstration in support of indigenous sovereignty on Jan. 14, are all essential resources for indigenous students on campus, and they deserve students’ utmost support. It is important to educate oneself on how to be an effective ally, listen to indigenous communities, and support their right to self-determination.
SSMU’s decision to amend the motion reveals their hypocrisy. SSMU has been quick to support the #ChangeTheName campaign; however, Unist’ot’en has not received that same kind of support. Expressing solidarity with indigenous peoples means expressing support for all indigenous issues, on and off-campus. Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier announced that she is delaying her decision on whether to change the men’s varsity athletics team name until the end of the academic term. SSMU promptly criticized this announcement, and yet, that they cannot even pass a motion declaring total support for Unist’ot’en demonstrates the emptiness of their solidarity with indigenous peoples.