A great Canadian tradition is underway in British Columbia today. That tradition is as follows: any sleazy businessman or company with enough money can obtain official authority to do what they please on land that has been occupied since time immemorial by indigenous people, push them aside, arresting them if necessary, and heartlessly trample their rights in a way that, if it happened in cities or among the broader Canadian population would arouse cries of dismay as to the state of civil liberties in this country.
But this is not 1919 any more: it is now 2019, and the Wet’su'wet’en people, who are standing in the way of a new pipeline being constructed to deliver fracked oil from Dawson City in the Yukon to Kitimat, have prepared well, have constructed more or less permanent installations in the path of the proposed pipeline. and are basing their defence of their lands on a 1997 Supreme Court declaration in the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case that the Wet’suwet’en, as represented by their hereditary leaders, have not given up rights and title to their 22,000 square kilometers of land. As I write this, news comes in that 14 people have been arrested, and the protest has been moved further along the road. Simultaneously a press release has been issued revealing that protests in sympathy with this one have been organized in 24 Canadian cities, towns and villages, right across the country, and in at least five locations in the United States.
The construction company, Coastal GasLink, part of the TransCanada Corporation, received an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court in December authorizing the RCMP to forcibly clear a path through the Wet'su'wet'en Access Point on Gitdumden territory and the Unist’ot’en homestead on Unist’ot’en territory. “We oppose the use of legal injunctions, police forces, and criminalizing state tactics against the Wet’su'wet’en asserting their own laws on their own lands,” say the protesters, in their press release. “ This is a historic moment when the federal and provincial governments can choose to follow their stated principles of reconciliation, or respond by perpetuating colonial theft and violence in Canada.”
Under ‘Anuc niwh’it’en (Wet’suwet’en law) all five clans of the Wet’su'wet’en have unanimously opposed all pipeline proposals and have not provided “free, prior, and informed consent” to Coastal Gaslink/TransCanada to do work on Wet’suwet’en lands, as is mandated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) that has been endorsed by the Canadian government, with a recent declaration by Canadian ministers of the crown that it will be “fully implemented” in Canadian law.
The 22,000 square km of Wet’suwet’en Territory is divided into five clans and 13 house groups. Each clan within the Wet’suwet’en Nation has full jurisdiction under their law to control access to their territory.
Canadians who find this news familiar will not have to go back far to search their memories for similar acts of cavalier indifference by the state towards indigenous peoples, since many such things have happened within living memory, but even if they do go back to the foundation of Canada, and beyond, they would have no trouble discovering that similar acts of violence have been used to push aside indigenous peoples as almost a reflex action of Canadian state power.
I remember following a few years ago the efforts of the Shuswap people, under the leadership of the Manuel family, opposing with their bodies the provincial government’s decision to hand over their unceded lands to a Japanese company intent on expanding the Sun Peaks ski area. Month after month people were arrested for standing in the way, and any structures they built were either burned down or removed. The indigenous people lost that confrontation, and the expansion went ahead as planned..
But this time the Wet’su’wet’en people have done everything to make sure that their protest will take place in the glare of publicity. Indeed, the government has invited such action by its frequent declarations in favor of reconciliation with the indigenous people all across the land, a declaration that rings hollow in face of the decision of the federal court of appeal last year that the “consultation” with indigenous people on the subject of the Kinder Morgan pipeline was nothing more than a paper exercise amounting to the government representatives taking notes and thereafter acting as if they had heard nothing. Inadequate as consultation, declared the court, and nothing has moved since.
When Banff National Park was established in 1885, the traditional territory of the Stoney people was occupied, and the traditional owners were herded into totally inadequate reserves where they were so impoverished that the government had to send in rations to prevent them from starving to death. In one Canadian location after another, as the setters moved in from Europe to take over the lands, the indigenous occupiers were pushed aside unceremoniously, and not until the 1850s, by which time the government knew the land was needed by settlers, was even a pretence made to fulfil the injunction laid upon them in 1763 by the Royal Proclamation, that the government must consult with native people before occupying the land. Thereafter the so-called numbered treaties were signed, in many of which the native signers understood one thing, and the government representatives had an entirely different view of the outcome.
Even in 1968, when I first met groups of native people as a newspaper reporter there were scandalous examples everywhere I went of the illegal and forcible dispossession of native groups to make way for Euro-centred developments such as mines, roads, logging operations and the like. I met a group of dispossessed Crees living in a miserable tent camp near Chibougamau, Quebec, who had been moved six times to make way for newcomers who were given prior rights because they had the means to game the system.
All along the valley of the Ottawa river, the Algonquin occupiers of the land were disregarded as foreign loggers cut down the forest in which they had lived, and their frequent petitions for government to recognize their legal right to their lands were completely ignored.
In Nova Scotia in 1928, a Mikaw chief, Sylliboy vainly pleaded that a treaty signed with his people in the eighteenth century was still valid: he was laughed out of court bringing a case which only a few years ago was finally found to have legal validity fifty years after Sylliboy was dead. These are only a few examples that I have recited off the top of my head.
Here is the last part of the Wet’su’wet’en press release, issued this week:
“Canada knows that its own actions are illegal,” states the Wet'suwet'en Access Point on Gitdumden territory. “The Wet’suwet’en chiefs have maintained their use and occupancy of their lands and hereditary governance system to this date despite generations of legislative policies that aim to remove us from this land, assimilate our people, and ban our governing system. The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en and the land defenders holding the front lines have no intention of allowing Wet’suwet’en sovereignty to be violated.”
“Support has been growing for the Wet'suwet'en with statements issued by national and international organizations such as 350 dot org, Heiltsuk Nation, Idle No More, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Civil Liberties Defense Center, Dogwood BC, Greenpeace Canada, Namgis First Nation, Secwepemc Women’s Warrior Society, and Union of B.C Indian Chiefs.
“The rally organizers further state, ‘We demand that the provincial and federal government uphold their responsibilities to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by revoking the permits for this fracked gas pipeline that does not have consent from any Wet’suwet’en Clan. The federal government, provincial government, Coastal GasLink/TransCanada, and the RCMP do not have jurisdiction on Wet'suwet'en land.’ ”