The recent RCMP raids of Wet’suwet’en land defenders in northwestern British Columbia have left many Canadians shocked and angered. The RCMP are justifying their operation as an enforcement of a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to clear resettlement camps and allow Coastal GasLink to carry on building a natural gas pipeline.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have countered that their lands remain unceded, a fact reinforced by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1997 Delgamuukw decision. The chiefs argue that the laws they uphold predate and override Canadian laws, including injunctions, in their territory.
Yet B.C., facing pressure from the energy company, has instructed the RCMP to enforce the injunction anyway.
Images of RCMP officers, some dressed in camo gear and armed with automatic rifles, arresting unarmed Indigenous peoples clash with the popular mythology of the “Mounties.” The stark contrast between the galloping Mounties of the Musical Ride and the militarized police force sent in to be the muscle for an energy company has led some Canadians to view the RCMP raid on the Wet’suwet’en as an anomaly.
History, however, proves otherwise. Far from a one-off event, the RCMP’s operation in Wet’suwet’en territory is part of an ongoing pattern of police and military units being used by governments in Canada to suppress Indigenous resistance and clear the way for continued capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession.
As Canadians, we need to understand the RCMP’s role as a colonial paramilitary force in 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 of Indigenous territories in what would become Western Canada.
Inspired by similar colonial police forces in the British Empire, and in the wake of the Cypress Hills Massacre (the mass murder of Assiniboine peoples by American whisky traders on June 1, 1873), Macdonald tasked the NWMP with containing Indigenous resistance on the prairies and guarding against the possibility of American annexation of the region.
When Canada went to war against different Métis, Cree, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux communities for control of the West in 1885, the NWMP formed an important part of the government’s armed forces.
In recent decades, Canadian military and police forces have continued to play a central role in suppressing Indigenous resistance. In 1990, during the Oka conflict, Mohawks at Kanehsatà:ke endured a 78-day siege by La Sûreté du Québec and the Canadian military for opposing the expansion of a nine-hole golf course on unceded Kanien’kéha:ka territory.
Later that year, the RCMP forcibly arrested Lil’wat land defenders blocking Duffey Lake Road to protest clear-cut logging on their territory.
In 1995, the OPP shot and killed Dudley George during the Ipperwash Crisis and they carried out a 31-day siege of Secwepemc territory and arrested numerous Ts’peten land defenders during the Gustafsen Lake Standoff in B.C.
In 2013, the RCMP arrested more than 40 members of the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick for blocking a road to resist shale-gas 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 on Monday.
Despite Canada’s promises to strengthen its “Nation-to-Nation” relationship with Indigenous peoples, the events in Wet’suwet’en territory confirm that Canada remains committed to its “might is right” approach.
History shows us that this is a losing strategy. Meaningful reconciliation will require Canada to switch tactics, trading armed police and military invasions for negotiation and diplomacy.
Sean Carleton is a member of the Canadian Dimension editorial collective. He is a historian and an assistant professor at Mount Royal University.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.