Nation Against Nation

Wet'suwet'en and the Struggle for Indigenous Sovereignty

Indigenous Protest

On the northern bank of the Ottawa River, amid the hurling of stun grenades and tear-gas cannisters, police and Indigenous militants exchanged gunfire, killing one. It was widely reported that Corporal Marcel Lemay of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the provincial police force, was shot in the face. According to a coroner’s report, however, the lethal round struck the corporal below his armpit, an area his armoured vest did not cover. But the bullet likely would have proved deadly regardless of where it hit: discharged from an AK-47, it could have penetrated even Kevlar. At least six militants, members of the Mohawk Warrior Society, carried weapons capable of having fired the fatal round. To this day, the gunman remains unidentified. No one can say who shot first.

In the nearly three months that followed, amid the heat of summer, 1990, a contest of national consequence befell Oka, the town west of Montréal where Lemay was killed. What came to be known as the Oka Crisis began with that unnerving showdown. But in light of history, it was the culmination of decades, not to say centuries, of mounting colonial tension.

French missionaries had settled Kanesatake, where Oka was later established, early in the eighteenth century, with the aim of converting the native Mohawk to the Roman Church. Rested piecemeal, first by the French and then by the powers of the new nation of Canada, the share of land apportioned to the Mohawk dwindled over the years, eliciting much protest and many demands (all dismissed) for its return. In 1959, development of a private golf course began on a wooded tract known as “the Pines,” to which the Mohawk claimed ownership by right of heritage. Three decades on, Oka’s mayor announced, in addition to the golf course’s expansion, the construction of sixty condominiums on the Pines. In response, residents of the Kanesatake reserve erected barricades, blocking roads leading to the disputed land. Ignoring two court injunctions to remove them, the Mohawk doubled down, arming themselves. The mayor requested that the SQ be brought in to clear the roadblocks. Its emergency-response unit moved in. Corporal Lemay was shot.

This is Indian Land

The escalation that followed saw the deployment of tanks, armoured vehicles, helicopters, and infantrymen of the Canadian Armed Forces. Some two thousand troops were put on standby, while eight hundred of the Royal 22e Régiment assumed the SQ’s position at the barricades. The seventy-eight-day standoff also saw unprecedented expressions of Indigenous solidarity across Canada, with the simultaneous blockading of roads and railways as far as British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province. Mohawk from the Kahnawake reserve, on the opposite bank of the Ottawa, obstructed the Mercier Bridge; commuter traffic around Montréal nearly came to a standstill. Meanwhile, effigies of Mohawk Warriors were hanged and burned. In neighbouring suburbs, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) quelled rioting non-Natives. As the crisis dissipated, vehicles fleeing the Kahnawake reserve were stoned. In the end, plans for both the expansion of the golf course and the condominiums were scrapped.

Some three-hundred kilometers southwest of Kanesatake, in Ontario, lies the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. Since early February of this year, the Mohawk of Tyendinaga and other First Nations have blocked railways, stalling the shipment of food, fuel, and raw materials, as well as trains affecting tens of thousands of passengers, along some of Canada’s most important supply lines. The disruptions, which led to he layoffs of one thousand passenger-train employees and brought rail-freight transport in Eastern Canada to its knees, are intended to express solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en of B.C., who had built blockades of their own. Some in Tyendinaga — where, as at many sites of protest, the flag of the Mohawk Warriors flies defiantly — see their participation as an act of loyalty. “[The Wet’suwet’en] were there for us in 1990,” Andrew Brant, a demonstrator, told The Globe and Mail. But things this time are decidedly different.“ This is a peaceful protest,” insisted Blaine Grass, another demonstrator. “This is not Oka.”

At issue is the construction of a pipeline traversing B.C. from Dawson Creek, westwards across the Rocky Mountains, to the port of Kitimat. The pipeline (officially, TC Energy Corporation’s Coastal GasLink Pipeline) is set to be a crucial component of an even larger project, known as LNG Canada; the purpose of which is to liquify natural gas and export it out of Kitimat, primarily to markets in Asia. Financing for LNG Canada totals some forty billion Canadian dollars — the largest private investment in the province’s history. Its five shareholders are all huge international companies: Royal Dutch Shell owns 40%; PETRONAS, of Malaysia, 25%; PetroChina and Mitsubishi, 15% each; and the Korea Gas Corporation, 5%. Environmental and anti-corporate activists have taken due notice. The undergirding point of contention, however, reaches further and deeper into the chronicle of Canadian injustice.

Along its planned 670-kilometre-long path, Coastal GasLink is to cut through the territories of several First Nations, including the Wet’suwet’en’s twenty-two thousand square kilometres of unceded land. Approval of the six-billion-dollar project, according to Canadian law, rests on the consent of Indigenous peoples on whose lands it would trespass. Following TC Energy’s securing ownership of the pipeline in 2012, the company underwent six years of “consultation” before winning approval from the band councils of all twenty affected First Nations. As inducements, it dangled a cool (though conditional) “$620 million in contract work to … Indigenous businesses for the project’s right-of-way clearing, medical, security and camp management needs,” with an “anticipated” further $400 million–worth during the phase of building.

Though the twenty band councils — the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s among them —collectively endorse the pipeline, traditional house and clan chiefs have spoken out in ardent opposition. Leadership of the Wet’suwet’en is contested, with both band councils (which are elected) and chiefs (whose positions are hereditary) claiming authority over matters of ancestral territory. Band councils are vested with legal jurisdiction only over reserves under Canada’s timeworn Indian Act, and critics deem them colonial constructions and therefore moot. “We are hereditary chiefs, and we have control of this land,” said Chief Na’moks (John Ridsdale) of Tsayu, one of five Wet’suwet’en clans. “Money means nothing to us,” Chief Madeek (Jeff Brown), of Gidimt’en Clan, told The New York Times. “Our children, our land, our future, is here and that’s what we are going to protect.”

Reconciliation is dead!

The Times interviewed Chief Madeek at the site of a barricade — the second of two checkpoints installed on Wet’suwet’en land — where, last January, the RCMP arrested fourteen who were protesting the pipeline. Ten years prior, protestors had set up the first barricade, called Unist’ot’en after a local hereditary group, some hundred kilometres northeast of Kitimat, to block access to the worksites of other natural-gas projects planned to lie along the same path. (Such projects include Enbridge’s twin Northern Gateway Pipelines, cancelled in 2016.) In response to the B.C. Supreme Court’s issuing an injunction, in December of 2018, to dismantle the ongoing blockage at the Unist’ot’en checkpoint, members of Chief Madeek’s Gidimt’en Clan built a second. When demonstrators ignored the court order (revised to apply to both checkpoints), officers of the RCMP, donning tactical uniforms and bearing semiautomatic rifles, moved to clear the self-styled “re-occupation” at the Gidimt’en camp. The Guardian exposed in a retrospective investigation that the RCMP, perhaps with Oka in mind, had argued internally for the necessity of “lethal overwatch.” To public knowledge, none of the protestors were armed. The fourteen arrested on January 7, 2019, were apprehended without recourse to deadly violence.

The sentiments of Chiefs Na’moks and Madeek are not entirely representative, however. Even among the ranks of the Wet’suwet’en chiefs, there is nothing close to a consensus as to the pipeline’s purported benefits or evils. Recently, all three of the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition’s female founders were stripped of their hereditary titles — unjustly, they claim, for their support of the pipeline. Two of them, Darlene Glaim of Grizzly House (Gidimt’en Clan) and Gloria George of Sun House (Laksamshu Clan), bore the titles Chief Woos and Chief Smogelgem respectively. (Wet’suwet’en Nation’s five clans are made up of thirteen hereditary houses. Nine house chiefships are currently occupied; four remain open.) The third founder, Theresa Tait-Day, held the spiritual position of Wi’hali’yte under House Beside the Fire (Laksilyu Clan). “Our system is broken,” Glaim told the G&M. “Our hereditary and elected band council systems don’t have a way to come together … We don’t have unity and we’re a split nation.” George’s chiefship was taken over by Warner Naziel, one of Coastal GasLink’s most vocal opponents. (His former common-law partner, Freda Huson, is a spokeswoman for the Unist’ot’en camp; together, they are often described as the co-founders of the encampment.) A sub-chief of George’s Laksamshu Clan, Adam Gagnon, disputes the very legitimacy of the women’s “tainted” titles. “In our culture, the way my mother explained it to me, any woman who goes after a high chief’s name,” Gagnon asserted, “is a very greedy woman.” Never mind that Huson herself was reported to have been made a sub-chief of Dark House (Gilseyhu Clan) last year.

150000 indigenous children

On the other hand, a sub-chief of Laksilyu Clan, Gary Naziel — who is Warner Naziel’s cousin — denounced the chiefs at the forefront of the protests. These outspoken chiefs, “who say they are making decisions on behalf of all Wet’suwet’en, do not speak for the Wet’suwet’en,” Gary Naziel expressed to the G&M. “They are neither following nor abiding by our traditional laws,” he continued. “They are changing them to suit their own purposes, to benefit themselves.” Wet’suwet’en’s is “a matrilineal system. We inherit our lineage from our mothers.” Three of the “so-called hereditary chiefs” leading demonstrations, he alleged, therefore are not Wet’suwet’en by birthright: two, including his cousin Warner Naziel, are of the neighbouring Gitxsan; while Frank Alec, who assumed Darlene Glaim’s chiefship, is of Lake Babine Nation. “They did not get their names the proper way,” Gary Naziel said. “They took them.”

In the year following the arrests at Gidimt’en camp, “disputes over the pipeline and trapping rights continued to escalate,” the G&M reported. Protestors remained resolutely in place, rebuilding barricades that had come down days after the arrests. In consequence, the B.C. Supreme Court extended its previous injunction, provoking eight of the nine house chiefs to undersign an “eviction notice” of their own. “Over the past year, Coastal GasLink has operated on our territories despite our opposition to the project,” the chiefs wrote. “We must reassert our jurisdiction over these lands, our right to determine access and prevent trespass under Wet’suwet’en law.” Talks between B.C.’s provincial government and the dissenting chiefs were arranged early in February, only for them to fail in acrimony after two days. Nationwide solidarity protests, including the Tyendinaga blockade, erupted amid the fallout. RCMP arrested twenty-eight along the logging road near the Unist’ot’en camp. Local police arrested forty-three in Vancouver and a further fourteen in Delta, south of Vancouver.

As frigid February dragged on, demonstrators across B.C.’s south hampered public transit, road traffic, and access to the Port of Vancouver. “We recognize the importance of disrupting capital, disrupting money and goods that come out of the city of Vancouver,” organizer Dr. Natalie Knight told The Canadian Press. Knight “isn’t from Canada,” according to Global News; she claims Yurok and Navajo ancestry, from the southwestern United States. Her PhD thesis, which “offer[s] Indigenous perspectives on political problems that characterize contemporary working class and urban Indigenous social movements,” was awarded a Dean’s Convocation medal by her alma mater, Simon Fraser University. “This sends a very clear message to business and the government that we are not going to allow business to continue as usual.” As a further six were arrested late in February for violating an injunction to clear the blockade at the Port’s entry, onlookers shouted, “This is genocide!”

Meantime, the Ontario Provincial Police arrested yet another ten at the Tyendinaga blockade after protestors disregarded a midnight deadline to clear out. At least one arrest was made with some force. “Your ancestors came here, sick, tired, and oppressed,” the protestor declared before dozens of placid police, his voice muffled behind a bandana. “[They] came here wanting a better place and our ancestors took care of them, taught them how to live, let them live on their land. What did your ancestors do when [ours] got sick and ninety percent of them died? They violated their treaties. They stole. They killed. But they did it when we were sick. Fuck off, I’ll stay where I want.” Seconds later, a scuffle broke out, ending with the ten arrests. In footage of the confrontation, a handful of officers seem to wrestle the quoted demonstrator to the ground, handcuffing him. All were detained in mere moments.

Among protestors, “Reconciliation is Dead” has become something of a maxim. “Reconciliation,” according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, “is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples … In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted.” Such “harm” consists of the forcible removal of some one hundred and fifty thousand Indigenous children from their families for internment in so-called “residential schools.” The Canadian government funded, and the Catholic Church ran (with the abetting of some other denominations), the residential-school system for more than one hundred years, with the explicit aim of extinguishing Indigenous cultures, languages, and spiritual beliefs. The last such schools were shuttered fewer than thirty years ago. “The cumulative impact of residential schools,” the TRC says, “is a legacy of unresolved trauma passed from generation to generation,” including heinous physical and sexual abuse. (Here’s looking at you, Vatican.) Uncounted thousands of children died in residential schools. This heritage of monstrous trauma has been linked to the extraordinary rates of alcohol and drug abuse, PTSD, suicide, and general destitution found among Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government professes to be “committed to achieving reconciliation with Indigenous peoples through a renewed, nation-to-nation, government-to-government … relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership.” Protestors have a point when, in proclaiming reconciliation’s death, they decry the hypocrisy, cynicism, and electoral opportunism of such a statement. (When it comes to casting ballots, such appeals have proved successful; most Canadians, it seems, like to think of themselves as sympathetic types.) But as for “nation-to-nation, government-to-government” relations: how can these exist when the Wet’suwet’en can scarcely agree on who governs themselves? “It’s not for the federal government to decide who speaks for you,” the Prime Minister pronounced at a town-hall meeting with the Wet’suwet’en in January of 2019. “My job is to work with all of you so that you are taking back control of your land, your future, your people, your destiny,” he continued, adding plainly that “it’s difficult.” Dialogue is paramount. But who, exactly, speaks for the Wet’suwet’en on a “nation-to-nation” basis?

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A morass of legal cases little clarifies the muddle. In Delgamuukw v British Columbia (1997), a decision on an action filed by chiefs of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations, the Supreme Court of Canada codified (albeit obiter dicta — that is, on incidental and non-binding terms) Indigenous rights to unceded pre-colonial territories, called “Aboriginal title”; it also asserted the legal validity of oral history. (Although “general economic development” and “the building of infrastructure … can justify the infringement of Aboriginal title,” in the opinion of the judges.) A subsequent case, Tsilhqot’in Nation v British Columbia (2014), affirmed the “duty to consult” (but not the requirement to heed) Indigenous peoples on matters of territory use. The Indian Act enshrines the authority of band councils strictly over reserves; the Delgamuukw case’s establishment of Indigenous peoples’ rights to traditional lands places them, in many eyes, under the jurisdiction of hereditary chiefs. But neither Delgamuukw nor Tsilhqot’in, nor any other case, instituted the right to self-government on Aboriginal-title lands. (In the Delgamuukw case, the Court declined to give an opinion on the subject.) And there is nothing whatever so much as approaching a firm directive as to which laws, or whose, apply on those lands.

In this regard, the law seems to have failed Indigenous people, and there is evident, urgent need for its reform. In the absence of a definite notion of whose jurisdiction prevails on Aboriginal-title land, those lands and the people who depend on them will continue to be vulnerable to the two overwhelming, unblinking powers of government and industry. Perhaps this is by design; especially if that is the case, it is a stain on Canada’s moral integrity, and not the first.

Nonetheless, effective politics depend on effective leadership, and the Wet’suwet’en are embroiled in a political struggle. Nations demand a consensus from within as to who leads them; they cannot otherwise manage their own affairs, or have meaningful dealings with others, without undergoing crises that risk endangering their own interests. As it stands, that risk is real for the Wet’suwet’en. Blockades have forced government, industry, and the Canadian electorate to pay attention to the plight of Indigenous peoples. But to escape the desperate cycle of disruption and appeasement and dismissal — which remains unbroken since the days of the Oka Crisis — and to achieve self-direction, it may be necessary for the Wet’suwet’en to first overcome their internal strife, doubtless abetted by the ravages of colonialism. That may be the condition on which nation-to-nation exchanges become matters not of haphazard goodwill, but of inalienable importance to the government of Canada. It would be yet another crime if the indelible wounds wrought in Canada’s colonial past, and inflamed by its present manifestation, deny the Wet’suwet’en at least that dignity. For now, things remain at an impasse, though hope lingers. “It’s not over yet,” said Freda Huson of the Unist’ot’en camp. “The nation has stood up.”

As for climate activism and the lessons that might be gleaned from the Wet’suwet’en and their Indigenous allies. Activists could learn a thing or two about the efficacy of obstructing access to worksites, both to stall the extraction of fossil fuels and to compel the public to mark their demands. But they should also make note of the difficulties that come with an apparent lack of leadership. To wean civilization off climate-imperiling resources, not just temporarily but permanently, will require political purchase which cannot be won without some kind of guiding authority, or spokesperson at the least, to articulate their position and organize their efforts. They should also recognize the risks, in terms of their freedom and their safety, that come with confronting the law. Indigenous protestors have boldly put both on the line in the name of their aims. To be arrested at an Extinction Rebellion rally is one thing; at a blockade halting the economic heartbeat of half of a country is another. Getting real on the climate front demands the gumption, grit, and gravity that Indigenous peoples have roused with their own re-enchantment. Time, in shorter supply with every passing day, will tell whether climate activists can do the same.