Painting The Wet’suwet’en People By One Stroke

February’s beginning marked a tumultuous period for Canadians. Raids made by the Royal Canadian Mountain Police on Wet’suwet’en territory elicited a series of protests throughout the country by Indigenous and Non-Indigenous citizens. Respectively, prompting the obstruction of passenger and freight trains transporting construction materials, propane gas and grain near major ports like Toronto and Montreal.


The raids effectuated the court injunction won by the Coastal GasLink Project, ironically supported by the ‘climate change striking’ Trudeau. Nevertheless, the movement that fuelled such protests began in a smaller community situated in northern British Columbia after hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation voiced their opposition to the C$6.6 billion (US$4.7 billion) pipeline within their territory.  The arrest of several protestors was met with expected controversy, along with Alberta’s proposed legislation to jail pipeline protestors for up to six months if not fined $1000 a day.  This criticism emerged from Wet’suwet’en chiefs and allies who remarked that such police conduct encroached on their land sovereignty.


Inherently, the Wet’suwet’en resistance movement signals a change in the way Indigenous people have been perceived within Canadian politics. While the protests have been halted, in view of the project’s advancement, it is integral to deconstruct the trajectory it leads behind. Additionally, three dimensions need to be explored with tensions remaining high between Indigenous, non-Indigenous and governmental forces.


Undoubtedly, scholars specializing in Indigenous, political and law-based studies have been quick to comment on the nature of the situation. In turn, establishing a constructive dialogue that should be considered in the wake of such political polarization. Glen Coulthard and Sylvia McAdam are inevitably two of them.


Glen Coulthard, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s First Nations, political science and Indigenous studies departments, as well as a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation association claimed that federal power has been striving to portray protestors negatively “to render these movements as insignificant- the acts of outside agitators- in order to discredit the broader issues being raised.”


Sylvia McAdam, on the other hand, has echoed that the engagement of non-Indigenous Canadians is a hopeful turn toward the prospect of reconciliation. As a founder of the Idle No More resistance movement, a law professor at the University of Windsor and Cree member herself, she writes that “[whether] you’re protesting water [contamination], whether you’re protecting land, whether you’re speaking about white supremacy- those are all symptoms of the core issue.”


Given the complexity of issuing effective measures in regulating government projects like this pipeline initiative, the circumstances surrounding the pipeline protests and its actual deployment must be carefully observed. A definitive course of action does not exist that is best for all members involved without making other agents worse off.  For this reason, the resolution proposed must be built on compromise.


The first dimension encompasses the ethical implications behind the pipeline project. Particularly, the credibility concerning which members of the Indigenous community were included when assessing the implications tied to approving the project. While some may argue that the implementation of the pipeline will promote economic prosperity for the state, the way in which the pipeline motion was developed is still under scrutiny by hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation.  In testifying before the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs on March 10, 2020, Wet’suwet’en sub-chief Theresa Tait-Day revealed that pipeline project was hijacked by five male chiefs without the further consultation of female input along with Liberal cabinet ministers who made a secret deal with them.


She expressed her disapproval by stating that: “[the] government has legitimized the meeting with five hereditary chiefs and left out their entire community. We cannot be dictated [by] a group of five guys.”


Under the same token, it is important to evaluate the input made by other hereditary chiefs that do not fall in line with the conventional view to oppose the project, whilst understanding why they think distinctly about the matter.


Thus, the secondary dimension to this pipeline dilemma is the Wet’suwet’en people who favour the project installation. Tait Day, pertaining to the Wet’suwet’en Matrilineal Coalition had her title removed as a hereditary chief for defending her decision to support the Coastal GasLink project.  She adamantly assures Canadians that “[over] 80 percent of the people in our community said they wanted LNG to proceed” drawing upon the fact that her community requires the economic prosperity produced from this project to create a more sustainable community.


“We need to have the benefits of our land. We need to be able to have equity stakes in projects that come forward,” Day professed, arguing that in being supported by Non-Indigenous environmentalists, the hereditary chiefs were actively disrespecting the rest of the community.


Other Indigenous members have also mirrored this sentiment in perceiving the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline as beneficial to the creation of jobs for previously disadvantaged Indigenous communities facing a declining lumber industry. Leading on to the third and summative dimension of this piece: can white, privileged Canadians truly comprehend what it means to be an Indigenous person seeking to break through the status quo?


It is evident that while the protests are based on good intentions and needed in a society that welcomes freedom of speech, the interests of the Wet’suwet’en people are not all the same. Painting them by one stroke is lethal in fostering a greater Indigenous presence within Canadian politics.


Many protestors fail to recognize that many of those from the Indigenous population want the pipeline to be built and likewise, want to be integrated into a Canadian narrative, not separated- again.


Marion Shepard, a member of the Indigenous nation articulates that “[it’s] none of their business. All of these protestors don’t have a right to close down railways and ships.” She confirms that ignoring that not all interests are represented by this stance further creates fractured governance that amplifies conflict instead of resolving the communal difference.


In truth, Canada needs to stop painting its most vulnerable population by one stroke if it seeks to stop perpetuating the systemic repression of its own people.

Silvia Saavedra

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