Latest assault by the Canadian State on Indigenous Territory Results in RCMP Roadblocks, Arrests, Terse Stalemate

Latest assault by the Canadian State on Indigenous Territory Results in RCMP Roadblocks, Arrests, Terse Stalemate

A little more than a week ago, in the early afternoon of Monday, January 7th, militarized Royal Canadian Mounted Police units equipped with bulldozers and assault rifles forcibly breached the Gidumt’en Checkpoint, a primary entrance point into the territory of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.  These RCMP units also arrested 14 unarmed Land Protectors, including a clan elder, stationed around the checkpoint and blocked all roads in and out of Wet’suwet’en territory with armored personnel carriers, effectively preventing the free movement of people in and out of the territory as well as of supplies for those that live in the territory.  This breach was part of a larger effort of the RCMP to enforce a court injunction ruling from November 2018 which intended to force the Nation to allow workers on the Coastal GasLink pipeline (a project formerly under the auspices of Shell but now administered by TransCanada) to work on construction of gas pipelines through their territory, which the Wet’suwet’en had met with peaceful non-compliance up to last week.

The Gidumt’en Checkpoint is the more recent of two checkpoints constructed within the last decade, situated on roads leading into the territory of two different clans of the Nation, the Gidumt’en and Unist’ot’en.  The checkpoint at the entrance of the Unist’ot’en camp is the older of the two, having been constructed in April of 2009 in response to similar events: the incursion of large corporate entities in the oil and natural gas industries, intending to construct pipelines and related infrastructure in their territory, against their consent.  This injunction and it's enforcement by the RCMP is just the latest in a years-long and ongoing assault on the territory and sovereignty of the Wet’suwet’en by the forces of extractive capital and the settler-colonial Canadian state.

While the struggles of all indigenous peoples in Canada against modern settler-colonial violence and displacement must all be steadfastly upheld and supported to the greatest extent possible, the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en against the Coastal GasLink pipeline is particularly significant for a couple of reasons.  

First, the Wet’suwet’en territory is unceded land and the Wet’suwet’en have never signed a treaty with the Canadian state that gives the Canadian state any amount of control or sovereignty over the Nation's territory and thus they should have full control over the use of lands and resources within their territory, in both the de jure and de facto senses.  Of course, settler-colonialism has never respected the sovereignty of indigenous peoples and therefore unfortunately the Wet’suwet’en's national sovereignty exists more theoretically than in the Wet’suwet’en's actual practical ability as a small indigenous Nation to enforce their sovereignty in the face of much, much larger and better-equipped state apparatuses such as the RCMP and the Canadian military and the Canadian state that also operates with de facto jurisdiction over their territories.  Stressing the importance of the fact that the Wet’suwet’en's lands are officially unceded is also not to lessen or trivialize the struggles of indigenous Nations that have signed some sort of treaty with the Canadian state, as such treaties were rarely signed under conditions that approached anything resembling an equal and consensual compromise.   However, it is important to underscore that fact because it demonstrates that, even when it comes to indigenous territories that have officially made no agreement with the Canadian state regarding the access or use of lands or natural resources in indigenous territories, the Canadian state cares little about respecting this sovereignty, because for the Canadian state to respect the sovereignty and legitimacy of any one indigenous peoples' territory would inherently call into question the legitimacy of the entire Canadian state for the simple fact that the land that comprises the current-day national boundaries of Canada was entirely populated by indigenous Nations prior to the arrival of European colonial settlers on those lands, and that the settler-colonial government these settlers established and its gradual expansion over the entirety of what is now Canada is built entirely on just such violent violation of the sovereignty of the indigenous Nations that predated the arrival of European settlers by millenia.  In fact, to refer to this ongoing destruction of indigenous peoples in terms limited merely to such notions of "violations of national sovereignty", although those are indeed accurate descriptions, are insufficient in and of themselves because the scope, both geographically and temporally, of this destruction of the indigenous peoples of what is now Canada constitutes one of the greatest crimes of human history: a brutal, centuries-long genocide of the indigenous peoples of massive swath of an entire continent, which has claimed tens of millions of lives at the hands of European colonial settlers and those acting on their behalf.  Article 2 of the Genocide Convention of the United Nations, commonly considered the most widely-accepted definition of the concept of genocide, assigns the category of genocide to any acts which, when viewed as a whole, meets one or more of the following criteria:

". . . any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; or
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

While it is clear that, through the whole history of the settler-colonial conquest of what is now Canada, the Canadian state and its germinal predecessors have committed countless individual acts whose sum meets all of these criteria many, many times over, it is important to underscore how the penetration of Canadian natural gas and oil capital into Wet’suwet’en territory constitutes an individual act within the larger context of the ongoing indigenous genocide in Canada and North America more generally, by directly satisfying condition C and creating a vastly increased likelihood for the satisfaction of conditions A and B.  Gas and oil pipelines, due to both the product they are transporting as well as the disruption and destruction caused by the physical construction of these peoples, have been repeatedly demonstrated to have adverse effects on local ecosystems.  This is especially crucial where the Wet’suwet’en are concerned, as many of them make their living from hunting, fishing, trapping, etc.; generally earning their living direct from the meticulously preserved and protected land itself and its flora and fauna.  Especially given this fact, the construction of a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory would constitute a major blow to the Wet’suwet’en peoples' ability to continue to live off the bounty of their land un-impeded by settler-colonial incursion and destruction.  Pipeline construction drstically disrupts local ecosystems by destroying habitats of local wildlife, causing local populations to either die out or migrate away, both of which further destabilize what are often already very delicate ecosystems.  The construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline therefore would be contributory towards condition C of Article 2 of the UN Genocide convention, as the removal or sharp decline in the ability of the Wet’suwet’en to live off the land could very well lead to the fracture and effective end of the Wet’suwet’en Nation as a coherent and distinct Nation with its own distinct national territory through forcing the migration of many of the population to nearby urban centers; there would certainly still exist people of Wet’suwet’en origin spread across Canada, but it would be effectively the end of the Wet’suwet’en as a Nation and would result in the erosion and destruction of the Wet’suwet’en's cultural and national identity.  Furthermore, leaks and explosions on pipelines is not an entirely uncommon occurrence and the Wet’suwet’en and indigenous peoples in general will be disproportionately subject to the likelihood of experiencing the most acute manifestations of these possibilities.  Not only can people be killed in the actual explosions and subsequent fires on these pipelines, but when they leak, the environmental impact on the immediate (and often not-so-immediate) surroundings is catastrophic. Oil and gas can penetrate deep underground, vastly crippling and effectively poisoning land for future growth of various species of plants and the fauna that they support, even so far as reaching the water table and contaminating the drinking water of what is often a surprisingly large radius around the immediate leak site.  This is only scratching the surface of the potential harms that can be brought upon the Wet’suwet’en people by such invasive pipeline projects and this author thinks it very obvious how the totality of these circumstances would constitute "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part" and significantly increase the likelihood of the killing of members of the group or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.  The intentional nature of the fact that indigenous peoples will be disproportionately affected by these pipelines is underscored by the fact that there are a couple instances of existing pipelines originally having planned paths that crossed through wealthier white/settler communities, but were quickly diverted and re-routed upon encountering even only mild disapproval of these settler communities of the pipeline plans.  Meanwhile, indigenous peoples in the path of the new pipeline plans, such as the Standing Rock Sioux experience the state's attempts force them to accept these changes at gunpoint following fierce resistance on the part of these indigenous communities and in contrast to the very small level of disapproval needed to get these proposed pipelines re-routed away from white communities.  These discrepancies in state response to complaints makes it clear which populations the the settler-colonial Canadian (and American) states exist to serve and support, and which populations they intend to exploit for the benefit of the settler caste.

This segues into the second reason why the recent struggles of the Wet’suwet’en in particular should be put in the social and political spotlight, and that is because the Canadian state's latest infringement upon indigenous sovereignty comes precisely at a particular historical moment in which the liberal Trudeau administration has made much effort to talk up the idea of "Truth and Reconciliation" between the Canadian state and the indigenous Nations whose stolen land comprises the modern national territory of Canada, and there has been much ado about promises of the Canadian government under his administration to abide by UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), of which the offensive on the Wet’suwet’en territory is in direct violation.  Ongoing infringements on indigenous territories such as the recent offensive on the Wet’suwet’en territory under the Trudeau administration expose the fact that these bold claims were merely that, claims, which were never intended as anything more than lip service ready-made for positive-sounding soundbites in national news coverage.  If there is a lesson to be learned from this aspect in particular, it is that faux-progressive liberalism in electoral politics can never and ultimately will never abide by its empty rhetoric on these issues.  Much like former U.S. president Barack Obama's "positive" rhetoric on immigration is starkly contrasted by his deportation of more people than any other sitting president, so too is Trudeau's faux-progressive rhetoric contrasted starkly by the actions of his administration, and this contradiction is a prime example of this liberal faux-progressive charlatanism.  The contradiction between the historical foundations and material interests of the Canadian state and the indigenous peoples' whose territories it occupies is such that "Truth and Reconciliation" for the indigenous peoples of Canada can only mean the wholesale dismantling of the settler-colonial Canadian state and the realization of national liberation for the many indigenous Nations that call Turtle Island home, for Canada could not exist as it does today if it were not for its very inception being rooted in the violent colonization and expropriation of indigenous lands and natural resources, and the Coastal GasLink pipeline and the Canadian state's injunction against the Wet’suwet’en Nation is just the most recent individual event in this centuries-long history of theft, displacement, and genocide.

As the situation stands right now, hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs have stated that, in order to avoid to avoid further violence being visited upon Wet’suwet’en people by the state, they have reached an agreement temporarily allowing Coastal GasLink employees to work behind the checkpoint, but that the pipeline will never be built on their territory. This represents a terse stalemate in the larger conflict, and the Wet’suwet’en are making it clear that this is not the end of this battle by any means and that this coerced agreement is merely a strategic and temporary concession by the Wet’suwet’en. These hereditary chiefs are asking people around the world to support them in their ongoing struggle to assert their rights and title and protect their lands and waters.

If you would like to materially aid the ongoing resistance of the Wet’suwet’en people against the violence of the natural gas and oil companies and their backers in the Canadian state, you can do so in the form of offering donations to the continued operation of the cultural and political resources and programming provided by the Unist’ot’en camp and/or the legal defense funds for Wet’suwet’en; you can learn more about how to donate by following this link.