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Protesters at Wet’suwet’en fight a familiar struggle

By Calvin Trottier-Chi, Managing Editor, January 22, 2019
Source: (Michael T / YouTube)

Much to journalists’ chagrin, progress doesn’t come in satisfying narrative arcs. It is unsteady, disjointed, unpredictable, and ongoing in a way that frustrates the limits of news coverage. The indigenous protests at Standing Rock captured the world’s attention for weeks in early 2016, but few reporters were on the scene when the constructed pipeline leaked 84 gallons of oil on Apr. 4 and 6 the following year. This familiar narrative is playing out in Canada, and the eyes of the nation are on the indigenous Wet’suwet’en Nation, where the Unist’ot’en Camp is blocking a pipeline route. It is only the latest flashpoint in the ongoing struggle for indigenous land ownership, but media attention has brought this protest to the front of Canadian consciousness.

The subject of the protest is the new Coastal GasLink pipeline, a $6.2 billion initiative, that was intended to go through Unist’ot’en Camp and traditional Wet’suwet’en Territories in British Columbia (BC). The Camp, established in 2010, has other plans, though, and has since set up a checkpoint blocking the route. Coming off of the Federal Court of Appeal overturning Ottawa’s approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline, environmentalists and First Nations activists have been granted little respite as the push to build more pipelines continues. This move to increase oil industry infrastructure stands in stark contrast to the United Nations advising Canada to cut its emissions by half within 12 years to prevent catastrophic ecological destruction. The dangers of imminent climate disaster are already becoming apparent: Scientists say that climate change contributed to the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016, which left over 88,000 people displaced, and that we can only expect worse disasters at current trends.

As the world’s third-highest emitter per capita of greenhouse gases, Canada certainly has room to reduce its carbon footprint. Reduction, rather than stagnation, is the strategy that McGill Associate Professor in the Department of Economics, Christopher Ragan promotes, alongside many advocates for pipeline construction across the nation. Ragan believes that fossil fuel use will trend down but that, realistically, there will still be a demand for it in the near future. By that logic, if Canada is to continue to supply and profit from this demand, declining to leave its oil in the ground, more pipelines are in order. He argues that it is more efficient to fight for the implementation of a carbon tax system than to fight pipeline construction. A carbon tax would levy an additional tax on carbon consumers, including both corporations and individuals, in the hopes of curbing the demand for fossil fuels in the long term while proceeding with the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels in the interim.

“Even if we start today to transition toward zero fossil fuels over 50 years, we’re using 97 million barrels a day, and that number will continue to fall gradually, but not instantly,” Ragan said. “So, in my view, we should do both of these things. We should build new pipelines to get our product to market, because the economic benefits are enormous. But, at the same time, we should have a very aggressive and well-designed set of climate policies, and, I would say, front and centre to that, should be a very well-designed carbon price.”

Beginning this April, Justin Trudeau’s federal government will enforce a carbon tax across the country. The provinces of Saskatchewan, Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick, however, did not sign off on the plan and intend to fight the constitutionality of being forced to abide by it. Clearly, Canada presents far from a unified front against what could be the greatest threat of our generation.

The pipeline is not only an environmental problem, but, more relevant to the protesters, an issue of indigenous sovereignty. While the exploitation of resources on indigenous land is a recurring issue, environmental and indigenous concerns are not necessarily parallel, and, to support the latter, it is important to recognize it in its own right.

“A lot of times, people kind of cling to ‘indigenous people all hate pipelines, we’re anti-development, that’s who we are,’ and that’s not the truth,” Tomas Jirousek, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Indigenous Affairs commissioner and organizer of the recent protests against the men’s varsity team’s name, said. “My nation is in support of pipeline development, [and] we’re looking for ways to purchase part of the Trans Canada pipeline. But it’s about educating yourself on the fact that the Wet’suwet’en Nation have sovereignty, have title over this territory, and they decided not to pursue a pipeline, and, so, we need to respect that.”

Today, most indigenous nations are governed by ‘bands,’ representative councils that handle administrative tasks, policies, and programs related to their Nation, typically with some degree of federal funding. The band system was introduced in the Indian Act of 1876 and was designed to replace traditional forms of governance with a more European, municipal-style structure. Titling the elected leader of the band system “chief” was an attempt to diminish the legitimacy of other leadership roles. Yet, in many nations, traditional ways have persisted: Most relevantly, the position of hereditary chief, who is tasked with preserving culture.

“When it comes to hereditary versus elected chiefs, each nation has a bit of a unique relationship between the imposed band council system and the hereditary chief system,” Jirousek said. “This band council situation is still an imposed system, […in contrast with how] indigenous people and the Wet’suwet’en of northern BC have been looking to the hereditary chiefs for leadership. And [the hereditary system is] far [better] recognized by indigenous people [....] We’ve been doing this for thousands and thousands of years, and this is where we look for guidance and leadership in these times.”

As it relates to the recent pipeline impasse, all five elected bands of the Wet’suwet’en Nation have signed on with Coastal GasLink alongside 20 other elected bands across Canada. However, at the time of the injunction against the checkpoints, none of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs were reportedly consulted. All five of them continue to take a stand against the pipeline today.

“The band council system, for the longest time, for a hundred years at this point, has been used as kind of a puppet for the federal government,” Jirousek said. “My grandpa served six terms on our band council back in southern Alberta, and I know that it’s kind of an echo chamber for the federal government in a lot of ways, and they rarely have the strength to push back on a lot of key legislation."

“The band council system, for the longest time, for a hundred years at this point, has been used as kind of a puppet for the federal government,” Jirousek said. “My grandpa served six terms on our band council back in southern Alberta, and I know that it’s kind of an echo chamber for the federal government in a lot of ways, and they rarely have the strength to push back on a lot of key legislation.”

While the distribution of power between elected band and hereditary chiefs remains contested, the topic of land rights has legal precedent in Canada. Two relevant legal cases have aimed to resolve disputes over land ownership: The 1997 Delgamuukw case and the 2014 Tsilhqot’in case. In the Delgamuukw case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that, if nations have retained exclusive possession of their land since Canada first drew its borders, they have a constitutionally-protected title to it. The subsequent 2014 Tsilhqot’in case clarified that it is, indeed, the nation that has title over unceded lands, not the imposed band council system.

Given that the traditional land of the Wet’suwet’en remains unceded to the Canadian government, they still retain legal control over it. However, in the Delgamuukw case, the justices noted that indigenous land rights can be overruled for the sake of economic development in the interior of BC. Though he is the leader of an NDP-minority government reliant on the support of the Green Party, BC Premier John Horgan remains relativelynon-committal on the issue, simply stating that he expects a peaceful and respectful resolution.

However, the crisis has developed quickly. On Jan. 7, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raided the Camp’s checkpoint, carrying out a BC Supreme Court injunction from December ordering the removal of pipeline obstructions. In the days following the raid, the parties have reportedly come to an agreement. Company workers will be allowed to cross, while members of the First Nation will not face arrest and the actual camp at Unist’ot’en will not be torn down. However, it is seems evident that the negotiations were likely coercive, given that the RCMP have previously referred to the Unist’ot’en as a radical extremist group and marched into their camp wearing full tactical gear and assault rifles.

“[The protesters] are negotiating with a gun to their head,” Jirousek said. “The circumstances that [led] them to accept the peace treaty with the RCMP [make this] a difficult negotiation to hold, and so that puts a different light on the treaty for me, in that the federal government isn’t really giving a lot of room for fair negotiation processes to take place.”

With the Paris Agreement commitments still uncertain, Malaysian and Chinese money invested in the pipeline, and various Canadian governmental bodies arguing over jurisdiction, many powerful actors have a stake in the situation’s resolution.

“The Unist’ot’en Camp is not a blockade, a protest, or a demonstration,” the Camp wrote on its Facebook page. “It is a permanent, non-violent occupation of Unist’ot’en territory established to protect our homelands from illegal industrial encroachments and to preserve a space for our community to heal from the violence of colonization.”

McGill students may be a long way away in terms of distance, but indigenous activists emphasize the importance of spreading awareness.

“You guys need to sit down and listen to your indigenous population, you need to listen to us, we’re screaming, and nothing is actually really happening from this,” Vanessa Racine, co-chair of McGill’s Indigenous Student Alliance, said. “So we need to continue screaming, we need you guys to listen, we need you guys to continue to spread the word, and keep helping us, and respecting the sovereignty we have on this land because water is sacred and we need to protect the land that we have.”