Sid Lacombe and Brian Champ
It’s been a very dramatic start to a new decade on Wet’suwet’en territory.
On New Year’s Eve, the British Columbia (BC) Supreme Court granted Coastal Gaslink (CGL) an injunction “giving them access” to Wet’suwet’en land to continue construction of the fracked gas pipeline from the BC interior to Kitimat on the coast. They obtained approval from the band councils, whose leaders are chosen by democratic elections on the reserve. But the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs maintain that this is their unceded territory, and the band councils have no authority over their land.
Title for the land was recognized as belonging to the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs in the landmark 1997 Delgamuukw decision at the Supreme Court of Canada. The injunction was granted as if this Constitutional question did not exist. It has since come to light that the Canadian government was intent on defying the Delgamuukw decision which they see as a dangerous precedent.
The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs responded on January 4 by invoking their law on their unceded territory, by evicting CGL employees from their land, and by calling for provincial permits to be revoked and for nation to nation talks with the Prime Minister, the British Columbia Premier and the commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
All eyes on Wet’suwet’en
Imediately calls for solidarity actions went out across the country with rallies, marches and other actions happening in Smithers, Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax and many smaller communities in the week of January 7 through 12.
The struggle gained an international dimension on January 6 when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called for the halting of 3 BC projects, including CGL, because of the lack of “free, prior and informed consent” from the rightful holders of title. The hypocrisy of the BC government is staggering. Just months after passing new United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) legislation, supposedly in the spirit of reconciliation, Horgan refuses to honour the rightful title holders under Canadian law with even an in person visit, much less actual nation-to-nation diplomacy.
The RCMP established a road block and “exclusion zone” on January 13 on the road to Unist’ot’en camp. Wet’suwet’en people were turned away from their own territory, media was blocked from access and lawyers have been refused access, which has affected the Legal Observers group that was there to monitor the conflict. This is similar to the tactics the RCMP used before invading and arresting land defenders this time last year.
Last year’s violent raid caught many outside Wet’suwet’en territory and particularly in non-Indigenous communities by surprise. This year many more people all over the world are paying attention, putting pressure on politicians and the police to respect the Hereditary Chiefs.
On January 14 the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) held a press conference to decry the RCMP tactics and urging that Wet’suwet’en territories and rights be respected.
On January 20, Climate Justice Toronto occupied the office of the Deputy PM Christia Freeland, and Extinction Rebellion led a protest that blocked the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal and delayed ferries for over 2 hours. The next day, Indigenous youth occupied the office of BC Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources and stayed overnight. The police arrested 11 indigenous youth. The arrests took place with guns drawn, and the police violence caused damage to their personal belongings and regalia.
In a press conference after being released, 18 year old Ta’kaiya Blaney of the Tla A’min Nation in BC, spoke of the motivation for the protests: “When Canada tries to destroy our lands for profit, what they are trying to do is extinguish who we are, our spirits as Indigenous people, and we cannot stand idly by.”
In the early morning hours of Thursday February 6th, the RCMP moved in to break up the supporters camp at the 39 km mark on the road into Unist’ot’en. They arrested and handcuffed 6 Wet’suwet’en supporters. There was an immediate response by Wet’suwet’en supporters across Turtle Island, including Indigenous Youth led occupations of the BC legislature, the ongoing shut down of ports in Vancouver and Delta, BC, and the shutting down of the Via Rail line by the Mohawk people in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ontario. The Tyendinaga blockade has become a focal point for media and politicians because it effectively shuts down the main transport route between Canada’s largest cities, Toronto and Montreal.
On Friday, the RCMP continued their assault on the Gidimt’en checkpoint at the 44 km mark on the road. They arrested four more land defenders there. Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and their supporters at the 27 km mark on the road, briefly blocked the RCMP convoy from moving out of the territory. In retaliation, the RCMP expanded the exclusion zone to include almost all Wet’suwet’en land.
More actions erupted across the country, including three separate actions in Toronto, followed by a 5 hour shutdown of the Canadian Pacific Rail line. Over 50 solidarity actions happened across Turtle Island and around the world. The message from the front lines of the struggle is to Shut Canada Down.
This means we have to continue building Wet’suwet’en solidarity more broadly because a win for Wet’suwet’en self determination will give confidence to other Indigenous land defenders to resist these encroachments on their land, and inspire new layers of climate justice activists that there is hope.
Union struggle and just transition
There have been statements of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people from BCGEU, Canadian Union of Public Employees, The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Canadian Union of Postal Workers as well as nurses and teacher groups, and we should continue expanding these layers of support. But the power of the working class is on the picket line, and there is currently a militant struggle of Unifor Local 594 workers who have been locked out at the Co-op oil refinery in Regina to protect pensions they thought they’d won long ago. The lockout was imposed after union members had almost unanimously voted to strike.
Fossil fuel infrastructure and infrastructure development at the frontlines of these two struggles have been shut down, and they are both confronting corporations drive for profit that is poisoning Indigenous lands and driving down labour (and retirement) conditions. But there are divisions to be overcome: the refinery workers haven’t framed their struggle in terms of climate demands or support for Indigenous sovereignty. Pensions for workers are not at the top of the priority list for Indigenous land defenders and those in the climate movement. But there are many in the labour movement who are scared and worried about the climate crisis and what it means for their children. Climate justice means fighting in unions for solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people and other Indigenous land defenders: making solidarity statements, donating money for the front lines and publicizing the struggle and making the links to workers’ struggles. It also means concretely building within the labour movement to support a just transition to a sustainable economy, which promises many more jobs than the oil business.
Shut Canada Down
On the night of Saturday February 8th, a small group of protesters blocked the access road to Deltaport, the largest container port in Canada with the plan of blocking the port until the RCMP get off Wet’suwet’en land. On Sunday morning, representatives of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 502, representing workers at Deltaport approached the barricade with a message of solidarity and that they would not cross the picket line. The 300 workers who would normally work there stayed away and the port was shut down. This is a fantastic opening, and represents the kind of action that can win.
On Sunday, February 9th, the militarized RCMP detachment continued its progress down to the Unist’ot’en camp. But with each new incursion by the RCMP or with each attack by police on solidarity actions such as the rail blockade at Tyendinaga in Ontario, there has been a massive response. Justin Trudeau announced on February 14 that the blockades must come down and was met with demonstrations of thousands in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The BC legislature was surrounded and new rail and road blockades have followed.
The government of Canada has no idea how to deal with the type of solidarity that we are seeing. It has created a crisis for the Canadian state.
Justin Trudeau has built an image of himself as a prime minister that understands indigenous issues and is striving for reconciliation. He also calls himself a climate leader. The fact that he is now calling for armed police attacks on Indigenous people to build a gas pipeline puts a lie to all that he has tried to construct.
There are calls from the far-right to take matters into their own hands and attack the blockades. They are being fuelled by Conservative politicians who are openly endorsing vigilante actions. At present they have failed to slow the movement but as the impasse continues, the need for much broader solidarity is obvious.
This conflict brings up a number of interrelated issues about Indigenous sovereignty, climate justice and just transition. Many of these questions are now top of mind for people in Canada and the struggle is far from over.
No Access without Consent! RCMP Off Wet’suwet’en Land! Free the Political Prisoners arrested for defending THEIR UNCEDED LAND!
To learn more, including how you can support the front line, visit unistoten.camp