Learn about the Wet'suwet'en and the role of protests

The Wet’suwet’en struggle to assert their rights over their unceded territory has been dominating every major news headline in the last few weeks.

The conflict came to a head when the RCMP enforced a court injunction to carry out militarized raids on Wet’suwet’en land, and arrested peaceful land defenders in order to force through Coastal Gaslink’s fracked gas pipeline.

This is in spite of repeated calls from Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposing the pipeline to have nation-to-nation talks with Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Trudeau to help resolve the dispute, which have been rejected.

There’s so much information swirling around that it’s difficult to pick out the truth or understand what and why this is going on. To help cut through the noise, here are some key pieces you need to know:

Wet’suwet’en Band Councils and Hereditary Chiefs

The Wet’suwet’en nation is governed by both elected band councils and hereditary chiefs.

Band councils are colonial governance structures, created by the federal government through the Indian Act in 1876, to weaken traditional governance structures. Councils oversee matters that affect reserves, specifically the distribution of federal funding. They are accountable to the federal government. Band councils signed Benefits Agreements with Coastal Gas Link.

Hereditary chiefs and their system of governance long predate colonialism. They have authority over all the land and resources of the Wet’suwet’en Nation -- which spans far greater territory than the reserves. This land is unceded and was never surrendered by the Wet’suwet’en Nation to Canada, which means it remains, to this day, sovereign Indigenous territory that belongs to the Wet’suwet’en nation.

Hereditary chiefs of all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en nation have never consented to the Coastal Gas Link project crossing their territory.

To read more about these two systems, here are some sources:  

What about the rule of law?

Here’s the thing: Indigenous laws are a part of the rule of law. Canadian courts have repeatedly acknowledged this, and governments are legally bound to take them into account -- it’s just that they rarely do.

Hereditary chiefs never surrendered their land to Canada. They never signed a treaty. It remains unceded Indigenous territory, and they have a right to assert their sovereignty and make decisions over their land.

This legal right is recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1997, in a case known as the Delgamuukw decision, the SCC recognized the limitations of band councils and ruled that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have authority to govern their unceded territory.

For centuries, Canada has put its laws above Indigenous legal systems, with the aim of dismantling those systems. The Wet’suwet’en are resisting this. This is about more than just a pipeline.

But what about the court injunction?

Alienating Indigenous peoples from their land has been a key strategy of colonial expansion and resource extraction. Yellowhead Institute’s report shows how tools like court injunctions are used today to continue this pattern.

British Columbia’s “right” to grant permits to companies like Coastal Gas Link to build pipelines on Indigenous territory isn’t based on any established law. The Supreme Court of Canada, in another 2004 ruling, acknowledged that it’s instead based on the fact that the Province has, for over 150 years, simply made unilateral decisions about Indigenous lands.

To read more about these rulings and how Indigenous law is the rule of law, here are some resources:  

The role of protest in democracy

Acts of nonviolent civil disobedience like the railroad blockades are causing lots of people to raise concern about disrupting the economy, and the inconveniences to everyday life.

But these types of actions have been hugely important to justice movements throughout history, specifically because they disrupt and bring attention to a broken status quo.

Without the Indigenous rail blockades, most of us wouldn’t have heard about this situation. The media wouldn’t be reporting on it, and governments would be able to continue to ignore it.

Think about Martin Luther King Jr., using nonviolent civil disobedience to advance civil rights that otherwise could have been easily ignored. It wasn’t popular at the time. For perspective, more people opposed MLK’s historic March on Washington in 1963 than there are people who oppose the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests.

Right now, people are really frustrated. But it shouldn’t be aimed at Indigenous people trying to protect their homes, their land, and their rights. It should be on successive governments who for years have refused to address what’s at the heart of this dispute: that for too long, Canada has stripped Indigenous people of their land, laws, and culture without consequence.

Imagine armed tactical units swarmed your home and arrested your family in order to build a pipeline on your land that you consistently said no to.  

Reconciliation and the way forward

It’s easy to make big rhetorical commitments to reconciliation, but it’s meaningless when politicians keep ignoring Indigenous law and putting the interests of a resource company over the rights of Indigenous people.

Prime Minister Trudeau and BC Premier John Horgan must start walking the walk. If they are truly serious about reconciliation, they must show their commitment by immediately removing the RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territory and engaging in nation-to-nation talks with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. These are the incredibly reasonable demands of the chiefs -- which if met, will also end the rail blockades.

Here are some ways you can show your support to the Wet’suwet’en protecting their land and rights:
Leadnow envisions a Canada that guarantees human rights and dignity for all. We envision a country that respects, protects, and fulfills the rights of Indigenous peoples and marginalized populations, and strives for just relationships between all people who live here. We support the hereditary chiefs and the Wet’suwet’en nation standing up for their rights.

Thank you for reading, and for all that you do,
Cherry and Brittany on behalf of the entire Leadnow

P.S. Check out this toolkit for people who want to support the Wet’suwet’en: http://unistoten.camp/supportertoolkit2020/