Since 2009, members of the Unist’ot’en (C’ihlts’ehkhyu / Big Frog Clan) have been re-occupying Wet’suwet’en territory – in the northwestern part of what is known as British Columbia – to affirm their sovereignty and block any oil and gas development on their unceded lands. They are taking a stand to protect that land for future generations.
In January, direct conflict erupted when the government of Canada sent in the RCMP to dismantle the Unist’ot’en Camp checkpoint and allow Coastal GasLink to begin pre-construction activity related to the company’s planned natural gas pipeline, taking fracked methane to LNG’s $40-billion export facility in Kitimat. The pretext was that the Wet’suwet’en band council chiefs had given their consent to the project, when in fact it is the hereditary chiefs opposing the pipeline who have jurisdiction over the land.
The RCMP arrived en masse and heavily armed, living up to their origins as a force used to suppress Indigenous resistance and clear the way for what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.” Under the auspices of enforcing a legal injunction, the Mounties arrested 14 peaceful land and water defenders to open up an access road for an energy company. The RCMP then stayed on in the area to provide cover for Coastal GasLink to do its dirty work, including destroying traplines put in the path of the proposed pipeline.
The injustice at Unist’ot’en tells us much about the status of so-called reconciliation in Canada. In the lead-up to the conflict, some observers wondered if the federal government would make good on its promises to build nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples or, at the first sign of not getting its way, would simply revert to the “might is right” approach that helped coerce the country into existence over the last 150 years. The events at Unist’ot’en provide the answer to that question.
It comes as no surprise that Canada is still committed to marshalling colonial force to facilitate capitalist development. But it is disappointing to see how quickly some settler Canadians rush to defend the injustice at Unist’ot’en by parroting a number of colonial myths and untruths. Confronted with images of the RCMP violently arresting peaceful land defenders, for instance, many Canadians fell back on romanmantic ideas of the RCMP as Peace Officers. In fact, they are agents for enforcing Canada’s oppressive status quo, from cracking down on Indigenous groups resisting colonization on the Prairies in the 19th century and shooting people during the Winnipeg General Strike to surveillance of LGBTQ2+ and women’s rights activists. Furthermore, Canadians invoked “the law” as a cut-and-dried defence of the RCMP’s operation, whereas Wet’suwet’en territory remains unceded and therefore issues of legal jurisdiction are more complicated than most realize. There can be no justice on stolen land. As CD columnist Pam Palmater has recently argued, if reconciliation is to involve more than tearful apologies, Canada needs to build nation-to-nation relationships and respect Indigenous peoples’ right to say no to destructive resource extraction projects like pipelines.
To echo the statement of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people issued by more than 1,000 scholars from Canada and abroad, “Our best hope for justice and sustainability in Canada lies with communities like the Wet’suwet’en nation, who take their relationship and responsibilities to their lands and waters so seriously that they will risk all they have to defend it. Our hope also lies with the many Canadians respecting and actively supporting the rights of these Indigenous communities to take care of their territories.” We at Canadian Dimension condemn the injustice at Unist’ot’en and stand with land and water defenders across Turtle Island and around the world.
This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Canadian Dimension (Injustice at Unist’ot’en).