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What Canadians should Know about the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s Struggle

Currently, all Canadians should be aware that they are living through a historic movement for Indigenous rights known as the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement. The movement started in British Columbia when the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. It quickly spread all over the country when the Wet’suwet’en put out a call for solidarity. Hundreds of protests, rail blockades, and fundraiser events were then organized.

What Canadians should Know about the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Struggle

Ever since the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs put out a call for solidarity, blockades such as this one in Toronto have risen up around the country. (Image Source: Daily Hive)

The pipeline, a $6.6 billion project, is intended to carry fracked liquefied natural gas from the cities of Dawson Creek to Kitimat, a distance of 670 km. The natural gas will then be prepared for export to global markets, mostly in Asia. Yet the pipeline presents a wide range of concerns for the Wet’suwet’en Nation, including water pollution, the destruction of their land, and the influx of non-Indigenous workers which would create social tensions within the community. It is a struggle for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, such as the right for Indigenous Peoples to have control over their own resources on lands that they never agreed to give up. Canadians have the duty to learn about this historic movement, including who the Wet’suwet’en people are and why the pipeline is opposed.

What Canadians should Know about the Wet'suwet'en Nation's StruggleThe pipeline route (Image Source: coastalgaslink.com)

The Wet’suwet’en First Nation, located near Burns Lake, British Columbia, is particularly well-known for defending their sovereignty and way of life, such as their traditional system of government. Their traditional government consists of five different clans with hereditary chiefs. The Potlatch, or feast hall system, is an important ceremony and an integral part of Wet’suwet’en government. The Potlatch serves to redistribute wealth and consists of gift-giving ceremonies. Disputes and breeches of Wet’suwet’en law are also settled at the Potlatch, which is why the ceremony can last for several days as an important decision is being made. Needless to say, the Wet’suwet’en governing system is older than all of Canadian law, including the Indian Act which imposed the elected chief and band council system which now exists on many reserves and some argue undermines traditional governance. The Indian Act also banned the Potlatch from 1884 to 1951, although this did not stop the feast hall from continuing underground. Unlike many other First Nations in Canada, the Wet’suwet’en have never signed a treaty with the Canadian government. This is true for most of the land in British Columbia, which was never ceded to Canada by Indigenous Peoples. This means that the Wet’suwet’en, along with other B.C. Indigenous groups, are all sovereign nations, the implication being that any conflict with Canada should be settled in the form of a nation-to-nation discussion rather than automatically subjugating the Wet’suwet’en to the Canadian settler state’s laws.

What Canadians should Know about the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Struggle

  The Wet’suwet’en Traditional Government (Image Source: Wetsuweten.com)

Given the history of how the Wet’suwet’en have fought to protect their culture such as conducting Potlatches underground, it should come as no surprise that the hereditary chiefs have always resisted territorial occupation by Canadian resource extraction companies. The Unist’ot’en house of the Wet’suwet’en has been blocking all pipeline construction crews from entering the territory since 2010. In December 2019, the hereditary chiefs opposed the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. This was after the B.C Supreme Court granted the Coastal Gaslink pipeline company an injunction against the Wet’suwet’en nation. This means that the Unist’ot’en camp was ordered to stand down as construction began. The injunction was granted despite Coastal Gaslink’s record of violating environmental policies. The situation escalated when the RCMP was employed to enforce the injunction.

What Canadians should Know about the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Struggle

Land defenders at Unist’ot’en Camp opposing the RCMP invasion of Wet’suwet’en yintah (traditional territory). Canadians must understand that despite what the media tells them, Indigenous Peoples are not a threat and are fighting to protect the land and water which we all depend on. (Image Source: unistoten.camp)

The RCMP has a terrible history of oppressing Indigenous Peoples ever since it was first created by John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, with the explicit intent of controlling Indigenous Peoples. Its record of police brutality continues today with more than one-third of people shot to death by RCMP officers within the last decade being Indigenous. The Canadian government allowing RCMP officers onto Wet’suwet’en territory is seen as an act of aggression, considering the negative relationship between the RCMP and Indigenous Peoples in general. The court injunction meant that the RCMP would be defending Coastal Gaslink workers, not the Wet’suwet’en people. Their presence is also disrespectful to the hereditary chiefs as the RCMP is a paramilitary force, and trespassing on land belonging to a sovereign nation should be called what it is: a foreign invasion. Wayne Mackay, a Dalhousie University law professor, states that the whole conflict is a nation-to-nation issue between Canada and the Wet’suwet’en nation. He describes a hypothetical situation in which the U.S were to send their police to Canada. The Canadian government would have the right to order them to leave and, if they refused to comply, it would be a violation of national sovereignty. Indigenous nations should be given the same amount of respect as Canada would give any other kind of nation.

What Canadians should Know about the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Struggle

Unist’ot’en Camp has been blocking access to Wet’suwet’en territory since 2010 (Image Source: unistoten.camp)

The RCMP has also made violent arrests in Wet’suwet’en territory, including that of three matriarchs who were drumming and holding a ceremony to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women. The ceremony involved hanging red dresses to remember the women. 

What Canadians should Know about the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Struggle

Coastal Gaslink workers taking down the red dresses (Image Source: The Narwhal)

The red dresses draw attention to one of the main reasons why the pipeline receives so much opposition. Many supporters of the Wet’suwet’en cause believe it to be a purely environmental issue, but the issue is more serious: Indigenous women’s lives are being threatened. Resource extraction projects on Indigenous territory lead to what are known as “man camps,” or worker camps, which have been directly linked with an increase in cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. These findings were reported by Canada’s National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

What Canadians should Know about the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Struggle

Indigenous youth who support Wet’suwet’en are not only opposing the pipeline for environmental concerns, but also the threat to Indigenous women, children and two-spirit individuals. (Image Source: National Observer

Politicians from all parties are trying to turn Canadians against the Wet’suwet’en Nation. They have used hateful language to describe Indigenous land defenders. For example, Trudeau has paradoxically accused the Wet’suwet’en land defenders of breaking the law by attempting to block the RCMP from their lands, when the Canadian government violated UNDRIP (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) by forcibly evicting Indigenous Peoples from their land in the form of violent arrests of peaceful protesters. He attempts to portray them solely as lawbreakers to discourage sympathy for the fight against the pipeline. Peter MacKay, who is running to be the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, has described Indigenous Peoples as “thugs” who are holding the country “hostage.” Actions in support of the Wet’suwet’en, such as the Tyendinaga rail blockade, have been misrepresented by political figures and called a “violent protest,” though the Indigenous activists were unarmed and the only violence that occurred during the protest was carried out by the RCMP and OPP (Ontario Provincial Police). It appears that in a desperate attempt to gain popularity, both liberal and conservative politicians want to make it seem like Indigenous Peoples are threatening Canadians and their livelihoods. The reality is that Indigenous Peoples, especially women, children, and two-spirit people, are the most vulnerable in the country and their lives are being put in danger by the Canadian state’s aggression.

A major implication of racist language targeted towards Indigenous Peoples, delivered by political heads, is hate crimes by the general public. People who have always held racist views are now less afraid to express them. Violet Baptiste, a Cree woman in Winnipeg, said she was approached by a group of white people at a bus stop hurling racist insults at her.  A truck driver also attempted to run over a group of protestors at a solidarity blockade. Both the Wet’suwet’en and the Mohawks of Tyendinaga have received bomb threats from an unidentified white supremacist group. The group Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en, who occupied the British Columbia Parliament Buildings, were targeted by a dangerous white supremacist group called Soldiers of Odin. In all of these instances, the victims were unable to get justice. The police and government made no attempt to protect them from danger.

What Canadians should Know about the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Struggle

The Tyendinaga rail blockade near Belleville, Ontario was the largest action of support for the Wet’suwet’en heriditary chiefs. (Image Source: CTV news)

Canadians must do everything in their power to condemn any casual racist remarks they overhear. It is vital to not blindly believe everything the media and politicians say, but also gain insight through valid resources. For example, the latest updates from Unist’ot’en camp can be found on unistoten.camp or by following Unist’ot’en camp on Facebook and Twitter. This will ensure you are getting the latest information from the front lines, which mainstream media often does not report, such as continued RCMP presence. The Gidimt’en checkpoint on Instagram also has live feeds for transparency with its supporters. Canadians must get informed so they can stand up against the government’s cruelty and racism towards Indigenous Peoples.

To help support the Wet’suwet’en, remember to report any racist comments you may see on social media. The Unist’ot’en camp has put out an official supporter toolkit on their website for a complete list of ways to help out. This includes donating money to the front-line land defenders, contacting government officials, and attending solidarity events. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs continue seeking solidarity actions, especially in the form of calling your MP or companies who have invested in the Coastal Gaslink pipeline and telling them to withdraw their support.

This is an issue which Canadians must not be complicit in. It serves as a major wake up call for anyone who was not yet informed on Indigenous rights. We must refuse to accept what our government is doing and realize that we have more in common with the land defenders than we do with energy company CEOs. We all need clean water and land to survive, and that right is being violated by Coastal Gaslink. Individuals should consider doing something beyond thinking positive thoughts. When it comes to reconciliation and defending Indigenous rights, politicians from all parties have proven that they do not have any interest in bringing about change. We must not make the same mistake as them.

Author

What Canadians should Know about the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Struggle
I am a student at the University of Toronto who loves observing the urban wildlife here such as pigeons, squirrels and raccoons. I enjoy writing poetry and decided to write from the point of view of a pigeon because I always think it’s fascinating to read creative writing from the perspective of any non-human entity. I wanted to keep this poem light-hearted and fun while still mentioning some of the important issues in Toronto such as pollution and poverty.