The Wet'suwet'en Question: Solidarity and Reconciliation
Those who know me more personally, know that speaking about Indigenous issues is something that I am rather passionate about, so much so that I am currently writing a Master's thesis on the role of land claim dispute settlements and whether they lead to reconciliation of the Indigenous-Canadian states. I have been an anti-pipelines supporter since high school and can recall debating the issue of pipelines on Indigenous lands in a social studies class in the 11th grade. Yet, I am apprehensive when it comes to more publicly writing about my thoughts on these issues out of a fear of judgement.
Over the last few weeks I have seen something incredible in impacting people around me through inspiring conversations, rallies, marches, and walk outs. I have had meaningful conversations about the right of the government on Indigenous lands, the right for Indigenous people and allies to protest, the idea of what is inconvenience and of reconciliation, and of a desire to gain a better understanding of what is truly at stake here. These conversations with friends, family, peers, coaches, and students in the last few weeks has inspired me. After months of losing a desire to write, I found something that has sparked passion in me again to put into words...
In December 2019 a court injunction was passed that allowed for the RCMP to forcibly remove barricades erected across Wet'suwet'en territory to block construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia. In response, barricades across railways, bridges, ports, and urban intersections, as well as marches and rallies all across Canada broke out in support of the Wet'suwet'en people. These protests are in solidarity against the actions of the B.C. government and their refusal to engage with the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs, and their disrespect to Indigenous rights to traditional lands. What is surprising is how quickly the solidarity protests spread and the national attention they have brought to the Wet'suwet'en issue. People who would have never thought twice about Indigenous people protesting a oil and gas pipeline in northern B.C. have suddenly been engaging in conversations on the matter.
I first learned of the Wet'suwet'en barricades over a year ago, when a Facebook video surfaced on my feed of RCMP officers who had forced their way through an anti-Coastal GasLink pipeline barricade on the Gitdumt'en Territory on January 7, 2019. The barricade was put up by Indigenous people who were singing and crying, trying to protect our lands, rights, and water, while the RCMP arrested fourteen unarmed peaceful protestors. I didn't hear anything of the issue again until a year later, when the issue of RCMP injunctions to remove protestors on Wet'suwet'en land became national news once again. This time however, the story did not fizzle out as most viral videos tend to do. This time the story travelled, mobilizing Indigenous people and allies, both young and old, into action. Yet, what these actions and protests mean for reconciliation is a huge issue.
What is happening in Wet'suwet'en is not a new story. In fact, this is an issue that has been reoccurring over generations: from the history of treaties as "land surrenders," forced relocations of Indigenous people onto reservations, to stand offs against the Canadian state, like the 1990 Oka and 1995 Ipperwash Crises. The history of the colonial disposition of Indigenous people bleeds across the pages of Canadian history. This issue is by no means simple. There are many complexities surrounding this issue: the difference between Band Councils and Hereditary Chiefdom, the importance of the Indian Act, the Doctrine of Discovery, the Duty to Consult, historical vs. modern treaties, and what is Aboriginal Title in Canada. All of these issues are connected, and I could spend time writing a post on the importance of each of them.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to The Current for a segment on the Megan Brown case that had broke the week before. I was surprised to hear that within the same episode, there was a panel discussion on the Wet'suwet'en and solidarity protests that were gaining spirit across Canada. Listening to this panel, I felt troubled by the commentary and certain misrepresentations provided by the panelists. In the discussion, one panelist spoke of potentially seeing future modern treaty negotiations occurring; another comment was that the protestors' use of barricades across Canada as an example of Indigenous people exercising their democratic rights, showed that reconciliation was occurring in Canada.
The Current's panelist's comment on seeing a modern treaty in Wet'suwet'en is too simplistic. The modern treaty process encompasses the tradition of structural violence towards Indigenous people in Canada. The Comprehensive Claims Commission established in the 1970s to negotiate modern treaties with Indigenous nations where no historical treaties exist (this includes a large majority, but not all, of British Columbia, including the Wet'suwet'en territory). The modern treaty process requires the extinguishment of Indigenous rights to the land, what is usually referred to as "Aboriginal Title," which results in a formal transfer of Title to the Crown. This is seen as legal cession of Indigenous land to the Canadian government. The cession of land is required first before there can be any negotiation for Indigenous self-government. These negotiations are incredibly costly to Indigenous nations and reveal real power imbalances between Indigenous nations and the Canadian government. It should not be required for Indigenous people to have to surrender any of their rights in order to negotiate for self-determination. No one should ever be put this position of having to choose to surrender their rights.
What also troubled me about the panel's discussion was the idea that the solidarity protests as examples of democratic expression, therefore were examples of reconciliation occurring for Indigenous people in Canada. Are these blockades to protect traditional lands and waterways and the power they have had in gathering support nationwide an example of reconciliation occurring in Canada at this moment? This misconstrues what reconciliation truly means, and especially what it means for Indigenous people in Canada. For it is the existence of these protests in themselves that shows very clearly that reconciliation is not occurring Canada. This perspective comes from a liberalized notion of what constitutes as Indigenous rights. Indigenous people are not asking for Canada to define our own rights. We are asking for the recognition of rights that we never relinquished. I do believe that there can be power in engaging within the system to bring about change. Yet, why do Indigenous actions have to be seen as operating within colonial institutions in order to be seen as effective? Are these nations and these protestors not powerful in their own right outside of these notions?
There is a viral image shared by Greenpeace Canada on their Instagram page. RCMP officers are tearing down a barricade with the word "RECONCILIATION" printed across it, red dresses hanging from trees. As an Indigenous woman, there is something profoundly sad about this image. The current Canadian government ran on a platform in 2015 on promises of reconciliation for Indigenous people across this nation, but what we see instead is another trail of broken promises that have encompassed Indigenous and Canadian history for centuries. Broken promises is the story of treaty making and Indigenous land in Canada. Is it now the story of reconciliation?
As Indigenous protests refuse to settle across the country and protestors continue to be arrested as they fight to protect Indigenous rights and land, I think of something that I heard in an interview of Jesse Wente, CBC Radio's Metro Morning columnist, on an idea he had shared a year ago that "Reconciliation is Dead" in Canada. Wente expresses how glad he is that reconciliation "deserves to die." He speaks of reconciliation in Canada as the promotion of a "myth" or "false history telling" that has been held by years by Canada of its relationship with Indigenous people, particularly when it comes to land and resources. This version of reconciliation aids Canada's version of story meant to overshadow a history of Indigenous disposition, genocide, and denial of sovereignty for the benefit of Canadian corporations and governments. He says that now that this myth of Canada has been put to rest, that the truth is finally coming forth, we are free now "to do the actual work," and "stop pretending this is a relationship to be saved."
I think Wente offers a very valuable critique to the nature of reconciliation in Canada as a political platform in recent years. Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Final Report and 94 Calls to Action were released in 2015, reconciliation between Indigenous nations and the Canadian state has been a constant in the Canadian political landscape. Reconciliation is a buzz word for any sort of Indigenization or in the context when any Indigenous issue arises in any dimension across Canada. Yet this idea of what reconciliation truly means for Indigenous people has become lost. The reality is that there is no one way of reconciling the relationship between Indigenous people and Canada, just as there is no one Indigenous person in Canada. Reconciliation will mean different things to different nations. Reconciliation can't be used a blanket for all Indigenous matters, nor can the TRC's Call's to Action be seen as a checklist for reconciliation.
I know some may not carry hope of a renewed relationship, but I would like to believe in hope of a renewed shared future. I would like to believe that a future where Indigenous nations and Canada can reach a place where the original intent of treaty relationships - the promise of two separate but equal nations living peacefully alongside each other - can actually be realized. This is the reconciliation that I want to see. Perhaps Wente is right and the old conception of reconciliation is dead, making way for new paths. Indigenous voices on how to reconcile the future are showing that they are powerful, and they will be heard.
Galloway, Matt. "The Current for Feb. 14 2020." CBC Radio: The Current. February 14, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-feb-14-2020-1.5462642.
Green Peace Canada Instagram Post. Instagram. February 11, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/B8boKR0FHvL/
Manuel, Arthur. Unsettling Canada: A National Wake Up Call. Toronto: Between the Lines Publishing, 2015.
Metro Morning. "'Reconciliation is dead and it was never really alive': Jesse Wente." CBC News. February 25, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/jesse-wente-metro-morning-blockades-indigenous-1.5475492?cmp=rss.
Wet'suwet'en Access Point on Gidimt'en Territory. "Gitdumt'en Under Siege." Facebook. January 8, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/wetsuwetenstrong/videos/472608843268486/.
Pasternak, Shiri. "No, those who defend the Wet’suwet’en territory are not criminals." The Globe and Mail. January 15, 2020. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-no-those-who-defend-the-wetsuweten-territory-are-not-criminals/.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. Winnipeg, 2015. http://nctr.ca/assets/reports/Calls_to_Action_English.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg, 2015. http://nctr.ca/assets/reports/Final%20Reports/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf.