By Robert Jago* – The Nation
When pipeline protesters shut down Canada’s railways, the prime minister stopped pretending to care about reconciliation.
As we speak, Canadian paramilitary and police forces are occupying parts of the sovereign territories of the indigenous Wet’suwet’en, Gitxsan, and Mohawk peoples. This is their attempt to stamp out the blockades, protests, and occupations that indigenous people and their supporters have set up across the country. Protesters have shut down commuter rail services in Vancouver, parts of Montreal, and Toronto, as well as freight rail services in central Canada, and disrupted the Canadian economy in the process. They oppose the construction of a natural gas pipeline that would run through Wet’suwet’en land in northern British Columbia, a project that the group’s hereditary chiefs have said directly contradicts their own legal right to administer the territory.
Since a court injunction allowed the pipeline project to go forward—and the RCMP moved into Wet’suwet’en territory to enforce it—opposition has exploded across the country. In the past two weeks, protesters faced off with police in Ottawa, closed access to the Port of Vancouver and a BC legislature building, and blocked the bridge across the US border in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Mohawk leaders have refused to enforce Canadian court orders to dismantle blockades; on Monday night, after police raided one blockade, the railway tracks going through the Tyendinaga reserve in Ontario were set on fire. In the words of the leader of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, “We’re left with a situation that is escalating on an hourly and daily basis right across the country.”
For Americans, this might feel reminiscent of the No DAPL movement that began in 2016, when the Standing Rock Sioux opposed the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through their territory and supporters from across North America gathered on the reservation to join the fight. That protest camp was cleared in 2017 after Trump took office, and the pipeline was constructed as planned.
What’s happening in Canada is more widespread than that, with numerous focal points for the conflict. While there were isolated protests across the United States in support of No DAPL, there were no blockades like there have been in Canada. The effect on Canada’s economy has already been profound. Reporting Monday, Bloomberg Businessweek quoted one analyst who said that protests could cut Canada’s first-quarter economic growth forecast from 1.8 percent to 1.5. The country’s transportation minister said that the train blockades have created a massive shipping backlog.
Both the RCMP and provincial police forces have arrested protesters across the country in an attempt to stop the occupations and blockades. But for every blockade that’s torn down, it seems that a new one is erected. This was seen in microcosm on Toronto’s suburban rail service Tuesday, as police tried to cope with at least three new blockades that effectively shut down service. In the midst of a chaotic evening commute that day, a spokesperson for Metrolinx—the company that operates the rail line—called the situation “unprecedented,” adding, “It’s a quickly evolving situation, and information is coming swiftly and in limited fashion.” It’s a conflict with no end in sight.
The only thing that’s certain is that the Wet’suwet’en crisis has put a nail in the coffin of what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once called his Liberal government’s most important relationship: the one it has with indigenous people.
The Wet’suwet’en people live in a mountainous and densely forested region of northern British Columbia, just south of the Alaska panhandle. Their home region, like those of many indigenous people across Canada, was never formally incorporated into the country. No war won the territory for Canada; no treaty gave it title. It remains what is known as “unceded territory,” where Canada’s claim of sovereignty is challenged. In Wet’suwet’en, that challenge comes from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, the body formed by the 13 hereditary chiefs of the nation, descendants of the original rulers of that land.
However, they aren’t the only leaders in Wet’suwet’en country. Canada has established client governments on each of the reserves there and across Canada. Under the supervision of the “Indian Act”—the governing law for indigenous peoples in Canada—the reserves are administered by elected band councils which must answer to the Ministry of Indigenous Services in Ottawa. In a situation unique to Wet’suwet’en and a few other indigenous nations in that region, a détente was reached between hereditary chiefs and band councils: The bands rule on reserve, while the hereditary chiefs rule on the rest of the unceded territory.
That détente was broken after the band councils signed on to support the construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that would run through a region of cultural and ecological importance to the hereditary chiefs. The chiefs have demanded that the pipeline be rerouted around their territory, something that the pipeline builders have refused to do. The pipeline has also been championed by BC’s provincial government, a coalition of the social democratic New Democratic Party and the ecologically oriented Green Party, raising the ire of many BC indigenous leaders: They had been hoping for an improved relationship, since BC premier John Horgan’s government just incorporated the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) into law last fall.
The Wet’suwet’en crisis is far from the first we’ve seen in Canada over the last three decades. Before that was the Oka crisis in 1990—which ended when the Canadian government deployed over 4,500 troops for an invasion of Mohawk territory—as well as standoffs at Ipperwash, Caledonia, Burnt Church, Gustafsen Lake, Elsipogtog, and, most recently, the Idle No More movement, which seeks to build indigenous sovereignty, among other goals. Each involved protests—and, in some cases, an armed insurrection—by indigenous people, bristling at mistreatment and ongoing land theft by the Canadian government.
Justin Trudeau’s lip service to Idle No More made him a public figure for indigenous people. In 2012, when he was a member of Parliament but not yet the leader of the Liberal Party, Trudeau visited Chief Teresa Spence, who was then on a hunger strike, in her protest tepee on an island in the Ottawa River, and appeared to give support to the movement.
Trudeau carried his momentum with indigenous people into his campaign to be elected prime minister in 2015—a campaign in which the idea of “reconciliation” featured prominently. The term comes from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the deaths of over 6,000 indigenous children, and the abuse of many others, in the country’s Indian residential schools between the late 19th century and the 1990s. When the TRC released its report in 2015, it announced that it had found Canada to have committed cultural genocide against indigenous peoples, and made 94 “calls to action” for reforming the country’s policies. That day, Trudeau was asked which of the reforms he would implement as prime minister. He said that he would implement all of them.
Reconciliation was seen as a Canadian version of reparations—one big gesture to move past the country’s original sin—and Trudeau promised to deliver it. Indigenous people voted in record numbers that year, helping the Liberals win a strong majority and making Trudeau prime minister.
Once in office, Trudeau made indigenous issues central to his agenda. When indigenous protesters set up another protest tepee—this one on the grounds of Parliament Hill, in opposition to the celebrations marking Canada’s 150th birthday—Trudeau briefly joined them. “You have a prime minister who is listening to you and who is looking forward to working with you,” he told the protesters while sitting in the tepee, “and you have an entire government that is interested in moving forward, hand-in-hand, in true partnership.”
The Trudeau government’s plan for reconciliation included “nation-to-nation” talks, as well as promises to implement UNDRIP federally and increase funding for reserves that still didn’t have clean drinking water. He even appeared on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in 2015 to promise that indigenous people would have veto power over resource projects set to take place on their land.
Since then, Trudeau has backtracked on the specifics of his reconciliation agenda. His promise of equal funding for First Nations education was put off for years. When the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered his government to compensate indigenous children who had been harmed by a child welfare program, he ignored its judgment. As for veto power over resource projects? By the end of 2016, when he was asked about indigenous opposition to the expansion of a different pipeline project in BC, he said unequivocally, “No, they don’t have a veto.”
That project, the Trans Mountain Pipeline, runs south of the Coastal GasLink project currently being protested by the Wet’suwet’en, going west from the Alberta tar sands to the coast of BC. Although Trudeau’s government had refused to obey an order to compensate indigenous children for harm caused by Canada’s own underfunding, it did find CAD 4.5 billion (about $3.5 billion) to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline after its private owner abandoned the expansion project. Now the Trudeau government wasn’t just clearing the way for pipeline projects to be built through indigenous communities: It was building one itself.
As a consequence of these and other failings, the prevailing view among many indigenous people is that Trudeau has betrayed us. When he launched his reelection campaign last year, he mentioned everyone but indigenous people. Every mention of a “nation-to-nation” relationship had been erased from his platform.
It was almost as a challenge to Trudeau that the first blockade in Wet’suwet’en country—the one that closed a pipeline construction access road—was emblazoned with the word “Reconciliation” in large letters. When heavily armed RCMP officers, some in green combat fatigues, breached the blockade on February 10, they broke the “Reconciliation” sign in half.
It was a work of political genius by the Wet’suwet’en. With the sign broken, at least one of their hereditary chiefs arrested, and the RCMP occupying their territory, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs declared, “Reconciliation is dead”—a phrase that echoed across indigenous social media, and has since appeared on signs and banners at protests across Canada.
However, with the protests has come a backlash from non-Natives. With each blockade, there have been calls to arrest the blockaders, dismantle their barricades, and in some cases, give them “un coup entre les deux yeux” (a shot between the eyes).
Police have arrested protesters. They have not given in to calls for deadly violence—possibly out of fear of making the situation worse. Regular Canadians have showed no such restraint: Videos have circulated online of groups of mostly white men taking on protesters on Vancouver Island, in Saskatoon, and in Edmonton. These mobs have been labeled “good Samaritans” by one leading candidate for leadership in the Conservative Party. When a car drove through a crowd of protesters in Regina, the driver was apprehended by police, then released without charge. One former Tory MP tweeted happily about the offer of a free “day at the [gun] range” for anyone who wanted to go down to the blockades. (He later claimed his meaning had been misunderstood.)
The blockades had begun February 6, when protesters started holding up rail traffic east of Toronto. Within days, both CN Rail and VIA Rail—the country’s largest freight carrier and largest passenger rail service, respectively—shut down large sections of their service, and began to lay off their employees. This led to even more calls for tough action to break the blockades and shut down the protests. Among the most vocal has been François Legault, the premier of Quebec—Trudeau’s home province, and an essential voting base for the Liberals if they want to maintain their tenuous hold on power. Last week, Legault declared that he was “asking for a deadline” to be imposed on the protests, and said that he would not rule out a nationwide assault by police forces, “in coordination with every province at the same time.”
Trudeau himself has so far ruled out sending in the Canadian military to break up the blockades. But he has consistently demanded that they come down, and his government appeared to pander to anti-indigenous sentiment by withdrawing a bill they had put forward to implement UNDRIP. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have wallowed in that same bigotry, threatening to block a bill that would add mention of treaties with indigenous people to the citizenship oath.
Every indigenous person knows that when there’s a conflict between the economy and our rights, our rights lose. After both Legault and Trudeau had said the economy was suffering, we knew it was just a matter of time before police action began.
In the early hours on Monday, police moved on a blockade set up by the Mohawks of Tyendinaga; in a flurry of fistfights with local Mohawks, the police took down the obstruction and arrested 10 protesters. The blockade was just one of many across Canada, but it was significant because it blocked rail traffic between Canada’s two largest cities, Toronto and Montreal. That police action poured gasoline on the fire that is the Wet’suwet’en crisis: Within hours, a dozen more blockades had appeared, and burning tires had been put on the recently cleared rails.
Over Tuesday and Wednesday, police dismantled a barricade along rail lines near Sherbrooke, Quebec, and arrested 20 protesters. Courts issued injunctions against ongoing rail blockades between the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick, as well as in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake—where protesters responded by reinforcing their blockade with concrete blocks. When Legault claimed that the blockade was being backed by “Mohawk Warriors” armed with AK-47s, Mohawk leaders said the statement was dangerous and untrue. Some speculated that Legault could be laying the foundations for another military incursion into Mohawk territory—an echo of the Oka crisis.
The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en have said that the only way this can all end is for the RCMP to leave their territory—which would be a humiliating retreat for the Canadian government—and for the Coastal GasLink construction to be halted. The RCMP has closed its temporary office on Wet’suwet’en land, but refused to stop patrols. Despite massive opposition, the pipeline construction has not been canceled. And even if the RCMP do leave eventually, protests could continue: As police have used force against the Mohawks, the Gitxsan—whose blockade was also raided on Monday—and their supporters, the number of grievances has multiplied.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline was always going to be a point of tension. It was Trudeau’s cynical use of indigenous people that turned it into a nationwide crisis. His government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, his failure to obey the Human Rights Tribunal, and his sometimes cruel dismissal of indigenous people and their concerns make up the casus belli of this conflict.
Trudeau’s promises of reconciliation raised indigenous expectations higher than they’d ever been. It’s those hopes that were trampled under the boots of the RCMP at Wet’suwet’en.
*Robert Jago is a writer and entrepreneur based in Montreal. He is a member of the Kwantlen First Nation and Nooksack Tribe, and his writing can also be found in The Walrus magazine.