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Might is not right: a historical perspective on coercion as a colonial strategy

Reconciliation will require Canada to switch strategies, trading coercion and violence for nation-to-nation diplomacy

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

Full-dress mounted parade by members of the North-West Mounted Police near Calgary, September 1901.

I, like many Canadians, watched in horror as the RCMP’s invasion of unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in early February was livestreamed over the internet. In real time, we saw heavily-armed RCMP officers, accompanied by snipers and attack dogs, arrest unarmed Wet’suwet’en matriarchs on their Yintah (land) and dismantle the Unist’ot’en bridge blockade that had “reconciliation” written on it. It was difficult to watch.

Sadly, though, the Wet’suwet’en raid is all too familiar for those who understand the history of Indigenous-settler relations in what is currently Canada. As I have argued elsewhere, the RCMP raid on Wet’suwet’en territory is not an anomaly but rather a predictable response and part of a historical pattern of governments using police and military forces to suppress Indigenous resistance and clear the way for capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession.

Coercion is a tried and true method of the colonizer’s playbook, the common tactics and strategies used by settlers to defend the colonial status quo. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen many Canadian politicians, mostly white male conservatives, pump their chests and call for the use of force to end the #ShutDownCanada actions that have sprung up in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en struggle. The performed machismo of Andrew Scheer, Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole, and Jason Kenney is unhelpful and dangerous; their comments and proposed tactics risk escalating the situation by legitimizing a “might is right” approach. This aggressive approach is part of Canada’s historical pattern of responding to conflicts with Indigenous peoples with more coercion.

It is important to understand he RCMP’s role as a colonial paramilitary force in its historical context. Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, created the RCMP’s predecessor–the North-West Mounted Police–in 1873 to extend Canada’s colonial control over Indigenous territories in what would become Western Canada. In 1885, the NWMP joined Canada’s military forces in war against different Métis, Cree, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux communities in the west. Afterwards, the police played a key role in forcibly relocating Indigenous peoples onto reserves to help clear the way for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

“Single-Handed”, Charles Russell (1912)

In the early twentieth century, the police surveilled Indigenous organizers, such as F.O. Loft, and they enforced “the rule of law” by acting as truant officers and removing Indigenous children from their communities and taking them to residential schools.

“The Scream”, Kent Monkman (2016)

This history is difficult for some Canadians to accept, especially those who still cling to the mythology of the Mounties as red-coated riders who brought “law and order” to the west. In reality, the police were invented to serve and protect the interests of capital, settler colonialism, and Canadian nation-building.

In recent years, Canadian military and police forces have continued to play a central role in suppressing Indigenous resistance. Many of these conflicts have been captured on film. Below is a collection of clips that show the government’s use of police and military force to suppress Indigenous resistance. These events are part of what Sioux scholar Nick Estes calls an “accumulation of prior anti-colonial experiences, sentiments, and struggles” that is shaping #ShutDownCanada actions today.

In 1968, the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP illegally arrested a number of Mohawk citizens of Akwesasne who blocked a bridge built through their reserve near Cornwall, Ontario without proper consultation and in contravention of the 1794 Jay Treaty.

In 1980, the RCMP arrested several members of the Blood Tribe when they staged a blockade along Highway 5, a stretch of blacktop that divides the reserve and the town of Cardston, Alberta, to pressure the federal government to resolve an outstanding land claim.

In 1981, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) launched two raids on the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation (Restigouche), as part of the Quebec government’s efforts to impose new restrictions on Indigenous salmon fishing.

Incident at Restigouche , Alanis Obomsawin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

In 1990, during the Oka conflict Mohawks at Kanehsatà:ke endured a 78-day siege by the SQ and the Canadian military for opposing the expansion of a nine-hole golf course on unceded Kanien’kéha:ka territory.

In 1995, the OPP shot and killed Ojibwa activist Dudley George during the Ipperwash Crisis. That same year, the RCMP carried out a 31-day siege of Secwepemc territory and arrested numerous Ts’peten land defenders during the Gustafsen Lake Standoff in BC.

In 2013, the RCMP arrested more than 40 members of the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick for blocking a road to resist shalegas and fracking activity on their territory.

In January 2019, the RCMP invaded Wet’suwet’en territory and arrested land defenders at the Unist’ot’en camp, just as they did earlier this month.

This list of incidents demonstrates that the most recent events in Wet’suwet’en territory are part of a long historical pattern of Canada using a “might is right” approach to suppress Indigenous resistance to colonization. The recent outpouring of support for the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters indicates that many Canadians are no longer willing to sit idly by while their governments and police forces ignore legal rulings and violate the rights of Indigenous peoples. Meaningful reconciliation will require Canada to have the courage to switch strategies, trading coercion and violence for nation-to-nation negotiations and diplomacy.

Sean Carleton is a historian and an assistant professor at Mount Royal University. He is also a member of the Canadian Dimension Coordinating Committee.


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