By ADAM RITSCHER
The Wet’suwet’en are an Indigenous people who live in the forested mountain valleys of British Columbia, just south of the Alaskan panhandle. They have lived there since before the first European colonists arrived in the region, and are governed with the same system of hereditary chiefs that they have had for centuries. They have never been conquered, nor have they ever signed a treaty giving up their land or surrendering their sovereignty. Instead, Canada, and the province of British Columbia, were simply built up around them.
Canada, through its “Indian Act,” has set up a reserve for the Wet’suwet’en and imposed an officially recognized tribal council, which interfaces with the federal government. But the traditional hereditary chiefs have continued to serve as a sort of defiant, parallel government. Over the years, a de facto division of labor has emerged, in which the tribal council administers the official reserve while the council hereditary chiefs speak for the rest of the Wet’suwet’en’s unceded traditional territory.
That arrangement was torn asunder when the officially recognized tribal council signed a deal with TC Energy on behalf of its proposed Coast GasLink natural gas pipeline, which would transport fracked gas to a liquid natural gas facility and shipping terminal on the Pacific Ocean. Despite the tribal council signing off on it, the hereditary chiefs and many of the Wet’suwet’en people are determined to stop the pipeline from passing through their land.
To stop the pipeline, the Wet’suwet’en set up protest camps, as well as roadblocks along construction access roads. These roadblocks have been attacked by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police starting in January. Wearing military-style uniforms, the RCMP swooped in and arrested people conducting traditional ceremonies, and tore open the gates that the protesters had set up.
Rather than breaking the back of the Indigenous resistance, however, these RCMP raids ended up being the spark that ignited a national fire. Solidarity protests erupted across Canada. Some of these protests saw bitter battles with groups of racists, and in Regina a car was driven into a solidarity protest. But the protests continued. In early February, a number of Indigenous protesters and their allies began occupying railway tracks, preventing numerous CN freight and VIA Rail passenger trains from moving.
The main railroad blockade is being carried out by Tyendinaga Mohawk. The Mohawk have stated that they are carrying out this solidarity action to thank other First Nations people for supporting them in previous struggles they have had with the Canadian government. And what a powerful solidarity action is has been! The site of their blockade is in Belleville, Ont., which is a major choke point for Canada’s transcontinental railroad network.
Several railroad blockades have gone up elsewhere in Canada. Additional actions have taken place at ports, bridges and international border crossings. Courts are issuing enough injunctions to wallpaper a room. Police are scrambling to break up blockades, only to see them go right back up. Following a police raid on the Tyendinaga Mohawak blockade, for example, Indigenous protesters responded by setting the tracks on fire.
Meanwhile, the ruling class of Canada is crying bloody murder. Despite his earlier attempts to paint himself as a friend of First Nations people, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly scolded protesters. Others in government and the media have tried to whip up a racist backlash. But so far, the Indigenous protesters are standing strong, and in doing so are setting an inspiring example for all of us.
We urge our readers to support the Wet’suwet’en and other First Nations who are taking this stand, to build local solidarity actions, and to donate to the Unist’ot’en Legal Fund at tinyurl.com/tvg96xj/ .