The world changed suddenly and faster than any of us imagined. What were my main concerns merely days before instantly became virtually nonexistent. My last graduate classes this year were not meant to be held by Zoom conference calls with me sitting in sweatpants on my couch. Yet, that is how I spent the last weeks of classes, discussing issues of human rights violations and post-conflict attempts at reconciliation and reconstruction. In my very last class, our professor asked us to discuss the question of “how will or how has COVID-19 affected global conflict?” How has this pandemic impacted conflicted states or the way we see and view conflicts in society?
My thoughts instantly went to a topic that had been on the back of my mind since the pandemic sent us into a shut down: What has happened to Wet’suwet’en since the pandemic reached a state of emergency in Canada? Days before Canada began to lock down, the issue of this conflict, reconciliation, and Indigenous rights were the forefront of news in the Canadian media and news cycle, in discussions amongst my graduate peers in classes, and amongst activists rising up across the university, city, and the country. Now, what was of the utmost importance regarding the relationship of Indigenous nations at conflict with Canada a few weeks ago is now no more than a distant thought.
This is not to diminish the importance of this pandemic and what is occurring. We are seeing unprecedented times and a change in how we view people in our societies. From the most vulnerable to whom is considered essential, as well as how we view health and safety, how we communicate with one another and the importance of communication and physical connection. I am not trying to detract from these important issues. In fact, I believe that it is important that resources are being directed towards keeping our health and safety as top priorities.
Indigenous nations are quick to suffer during these times, with many reserves and communities declaring state of emergencies before many provinces. Indigenous communities face increased stress related to the pandemic due to the state of isolation of many reserves, and less equal accesses to health care supports. When looking at protecting our most vulnerable, there is also the issue of protecting Indigenous Elders, who are the keepers of Indigenous knowledge in many communities. Protecting the health and safety of communities becomes the top priority during this time, as it is for all of us.
My concern is what happens to Wet’suwet’en during and after this pandemic? While it may appear that the world has been put on hold, the world doesn’t stop, global conflicts and wars do not stop, despite calls for peace. Does this mean pipeline development stops? Do protests stop?
On the outside, the Wet'suwet'en issue has disappeared from public eyes. Stay-Home orders are keeping Indigenous protestors and their allies at home to protect public health and safety. Yet, what happens to the court orders and negotiations in progress at the time just before the pandemic? On March 17, The Globe and Mail released an article that stated that Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs had agreed to postpone negotiations with the British Columbia Government concerning Indigenous self-determination rights to traditional lands. These negotiations would serve as an important piece in asserting Indigenous rights to the Wet'suwet'en lands and against pipeline construction on these lands. A quick search through public news cycle on issues concerning Wet'suwet'en and the massive solidarity protests essentially disappear after this story. I fear for what will be honoured post-pandemic.
One does not have to have a vast knowledge of economics to see that our economy is suffering during this time. Oil and gas prices plummeted within the first weeks of the Stay-Home orders being issued. I don't think that it is a bad assumption to make that post-pandemic, lifting the country from an economic recession will be of vital importance to the Canadian and provincial governments. While the state of our economy is important and a value for all of us, these quick fixes when it comes to oil and pipelines do not bode well with Indigenous causes related to land development issues. Racism, prejudice, power, land and resource control always seem to take precedence when it comes to Indigenous issues in Canada.
On April 26, the CBC released an article that LNG Canada, who are owners of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in dispute with the Wet'suwet'en, have committed to the continued construction of its pipelines, in particular the Trans Mountain pipeline. The article makes no reference to the Wet'suwet'en issue or protests, but mentions that "In the case of Coastal GasLink, the 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline that would feed LNG Canada's export terminal on the B.C. coast, the pandemic may never rival the disruption earlier this year by its opponents." While a rather vague comment, it appears to suggest that construction on the pipeline continues with less inhibition from the protests earlier this year. The main point this article reveals is that if the Canadian government can ensure that pipeline construction is unimpeded by a global pandemic, who is to say that anything will stop this construction after the pandemic when quick and easy solutions to lifting the economy will be so sought after?
What will matter more? Will the environment still matter? Will Indigenous rights still be a concern in the wake of a recession? Will the lands and waters that Indigenous nations and allies fight for still find national solidarity in the wake of a post-Corona world? No one can know the answers to these questions right now. This pandemic has caused many of us to reconsider what and who is most important during this time. Our common values of a society are changing, and while many of these changes can be good, we cannot forget what brought us together before. Whether before, during or after this pandemic, the environment still matters. Indigenous rights still matter, and these are things that we cannot turn a blind eye to.