‘Revolution is alive’: Canada protests spawn climate and Indigenous rights movement

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‘Revolution is alive’: Canada protests spawn climate and Indigenous rights movement

Since a police raid on an Indigenous territory at the start of February, a wave of civil disobedience has surged over Canada.

Mohawks in Ontario and Quebec have erected rail blockades that paralyzed passenger and freight travel on some lines. Other protesters – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – have followed suit, blockading tracks across the country. Thirty-seven people were arrested in Toronto this week for standing on commuter tracks during evening rush hour, paralyzing the city’s Union Station.

Social media has lit up with fiery rhetoric over the climate crisis and Indigenous rights. Street marches have filled cities and towns across the country with the sounds of beating drums and chanting voices.

The movement has amassed an unprecedented array of allies at home and abroad. Greenpeace has thrown its weight behind this anti-pipeline, pro-Indigenous rights movement – as have independent groups as far afield as San Francisco and London.

The protests are dialing up the pressure on prime minister Justin Trudeau, who came to power promising both to repair Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, and to make meaningful environmental policy changes.

Now people are calling his bluff. “Reconciliation is dead, revolution is alive,” protesters shout – the mantra of a burgeoning Indigenous rights movement.

It began in a remote community in northern British Columbia, when hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation declared their opposition to the construction of a C$6.6bn (US$5bn) pipeline through their territory. Members of the band and their supporters established a string of roadblocks and camps to block pipeline workers’ access.

The Wet’suwet’en nation have lived on their territories in what is now British Columbia for thousands of years. They have never signed treaties or sold their land to Canada. 

With a population of about 5,000, the Wet’suwet’en are composed of five clans (Gilseyhu, Likhts’amisyu, Laksilyu, Tsayu and Gidimt’en), which are further divided into 13 house groups, each with its own distinct territories.  

The Unist’ot’en, the People of the Headwaters, belong to the Gilseyhu clan. 

Hereditary chiefs are responsible for the health and sustainability of their house group territories, and Wet’suwet’en law prohibits trespass on the territory of other the house groups. 

Wet’suwet’en people have retained their legal traditions and continue to govern themselves through the Bahtlats (feast hall), where decisions are ratified and clan business is conducted.

In early February, the federal police launched a string of raids to enforce a court injunction won by the Coastal GasLink project. Police arrested activists, and quickly broke up the camps – but almost immediately, protests erupted across the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en.

“I think [Indigenous and non-Indigenous people] were horrified to see the RCMP going in by force and removing the Wet’suwet’en from their territory, and their supporters,” said Indigenous policy analyst Russ Diabo, who is also a Mohawk from Kahnawake near Montreal. Last week, the RCMP’s own oversight body found many errors in the federal police’s handling of the Wet’suwet’en protest.

The response from the Mohawks – thousands of miles across the country – was immediate and uncompromising, perhaps because they had lived through something similar.

In 1990, the Mohawks of Kahnawake and Kanesatake near Montreal participated in a 78-day revolt known as the Oka Crisis, over the planned expansion of a golf course onto a burial ground. For the Wet’suwet’en, the pipeline is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long fight over their exclusive rights to traditional territory, which at one point went all the way to Canada’s supreme court.

Though there are parallels between the two revolts, Diabo said the Wet’suwet’en movement has gained broader appeal because it at its core, it is about Canada’s doublespeak on the environment.

Just six months ago, hundreds of thousands of Canadians joined climate strikes, including Trudeau himself – despite the fact that his government continues to pursue massive fossil fuel projects.

“We’re still debating the environment versus the economy,” Diabo said. “So it’s about their title and land rights – but this goes to the broader issues about Canada’s approach to climate change.”

The fact that so many non-Indigenous people have joined the protests has prompted criticism from conservatives, who accuse climate activists of appropriating a worthy First Nations cause to drive their own whitewashed agenda.

“We have ideologically motivated protesters and activists who, in many cases, have no connection at all with the First Nations community,” said Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer.

Quebec’s premier François Legault even claimed without evidence that Kahnawake Mohawks had stockpiled AK-47s – an accusation swiftly denied by the Mohawks, who said Legault was trying to “incite a response”.Alberta, meanwhile, has proposed legislation that would put jail pipeline protesters for up to six months and issue massive fines starting at $1,000 a day.

Glen Coulthard, an associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s political science and First Nations and Indigenous studies departments, and a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, said governments are working hard to paint protesters in a negative light “to render these movements as insignificant – the acts of outside agitators – in order to discredit the broader issues being raised”.

But the participation of non-Indigenous people is critical to the Wet’suwet’en movement, said Diabo, adding that many Indigenous groups have stayed silent for fear of losing federal funding.

Sylvia McAdam, a founder of the Idle No More resistance movement and a University of Windsor law professor, as well as a Cree from Big River First Nation in Saskatchewan, said the participation of so many non-Indigenous people was heartening.

“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,” McAdam said.

To her, the core issue is about land – namely, the Doctrine of Discovery, the legal concept by which European explorers have justified seizing Indigenous lands since the age of Columbus.

Across Canada, many First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups have outstanding land claims that have never been properly addressed by the country or its courts.

Successive Canadian governments have called for “reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples, but Coulthard argues that such such calls have been little more than PR cover for landgrabs and business-as-usual.

“Reconciliation attempts to create a business climate that is conducive to investment and legal jurisdictions that will facilitate non-Native economic development on Native land,” he said. “You’re seeing it fail. We’re witnessing it in real time.”

As the climate crisis becomes a top concern for a majority of Canadians, the Wet’suwet’en resistance movement represents an important shift in the country, said Coulthard.

“Canadians are recognizing that, in words and deeds, it’s Indigenous peoples who have demonstrated themselves as concerned about the environment and our long-term well-being. Canada sure hasn’t done that. The provinces sure aren’t doing it.

“So they’re getting behind people who have both stated historically – and have demonstrated right into the present – that they’re willing to take those obligations they have to the land seriously.”

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