Re-Occupation and Resistance: The Rise of A New Type of Indigenous Politics

Unistoten_2Two narratives. The one you’re likely to read in mainstream Canadian media: a group of First Nations people have set up a protest camp in Northern BC to block proposed pipelines.  The other, which you will find championed on sites like unistotencamp.com, says that the Unis’tot’en camp, created by a clan of the Wet’suwet’en, are not a protest camp. They are camping on their own unceded land to protect it from invasion and abuse at the hands of corporations and the Canadian government. There is a world of difference between these two stories. One sees the Wet’suwet’en as having sovereignty over their land as an equal treaty partner with Canadians and the other sees them as First Nations resident in Canada and blocking public roads and waterways to protest a Canadian business venture. If the difference seems anything but momentous you have not yet grasped the new era of Indigenous politics in Canada.

As the clan website states, “The Unist´ot´en homestead is not a protest or demonstration.  Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries….. Our traditional structures of governance continue to dictate the proper use of and access to our lands and water. Today all of our Wet´suwet´en territory, including Unist´ot´en territory, is unceded Aboriginal territory.  Our traditional indigenous legal systems remain intact and continue to govern our people and our lands.  We recognize the authority of these systems as predating and independent of Canadian law.”

The Unis’tot’en “camp” is not really a camp, it is more like a homestead. Freda Huson, one of the main spokespeople for the camp, has lived there for three years. Several cabins, gardens and other structures have been built specifically to act as obstacles to pipeline construction, and there is currently a project underway to build a healing centre. In accordance with Wet’suwet’en law, entry into Unist’ot’en territory is controlled by checkpoints at two locations on Unist’ot’en Territory. “Free, prior and informed consent protocol”, a concept enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is conducted at checkpoints leading into the camp. Visitors must in effect pass through customs before they can move what from a government perspective is simply one piece of crown land to another, but to the Unis’tot’en is a passage from Crown land to Wet’suwet’un territory.

Support for the camp is not unanimous among the Wet’suwet’en, whose five elected chiefs are in favour of some degree of pipeline construction. The opposition is being lead by the hereditary chiefs of the five Wet’suwet’en clans and particularly the Gilsehyu (Big Frog) clan, within whose territory the Unis’tot’en camp appears to fall (there are some internal disputes over land boundaries). The Unis’tot’en represent a movement within the Wet’suwet’en to lay claim to the authority and heritage of their people in a way which will preserve the land they live on and stop the pipeline projects.

The BC government is considering 6 different pipeline projects which would cut directly through Wet’suwet’en land. The Wet’suwet’en, like most other BC First Nations, never signed treaties relinquishing title or land rights. And while the Supreme Court has recognized that these territories are unceded in the landmark Delgamuukw v. the Queen the government continues to issue permits on land whose jurisdiction is disputed. According to the Unis’tot’en, the pipeline projects threaten the land and water of the Wet’suwet’en. There is particular concern over the ecology of the salmon population, as fishing is an essential livelihood for the Wet’suwet’en.

The clan is building a network with dozens of other First Nations protesting the coal mining, tar sands extraction, oil drilling, and natural gas exploration that have become major forces in the Canadian economy. Other clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, as well as the Gitxsan and St’at’imc Nations, have established occupations, or better “re-occupations”, this year.Throughout BC there are similar stories of small groups of Indigenous Canadians standing up against International energy giants who have been given permits and support from the provincial government. Lax Kw’alaams members voted earlier this year to reject a $1.15 billion benefits package with the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which is led by Malaysian energy giant Petronas, over environmental concerns. The Lax-Kw’alaams are one of the allied tribes of the Tsimshian people, the largest Indigenous group in Northwest BC. They have set up protest camp on Lelu Island, where Pacific Northwest wants to create a port which would endanger the local ecology. More recently the Lax Kw’alaams went to court to claim title to the land in order to block the project.   “The greatest threat to our traditional territories is that we forget that we own it”, said Christine Smith-Martin, who is identified by the band as a leader in their “reoccupation” camp.

Close to Vancouver a confrontation has been taking place for months between Kinder Morgan and various protesters, including prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous players, on Burnaby Mountain. The City of Burnaby itself has been fighting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion which would go through the Burnaby Mountain conservation area. The dispute dates back to Dec. 16, 2013, when Trans Mountain asked the energy board for a certificate for the expansion project. The City of Burnaby’s bylaw battle against the Trans Mountain pipeline was recently dealt a blow by a B.C. Supreme Court judge who  declared that the National Energy Board rulings take precedence over that of the municipality.The Metro Vancouver city has tried to obstruct the laying the 1,100-kilometre-long pipeline between Alberta and coastal B.C.  The expanded pipeline would ship almost 900,000 barrels a day of crude oil. Burnaby’s fight against Kinder Morgan and the Trans Mountain Pipeline now appears destined to go all the way to the Supreme court as  Mayor Derek Corrigan intends to appeal the BC court decision. On Nov 20 Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, was arrested by RCMP, joining more than 100 others who had been willingly arrested since police began enforcing a court injunction issued a week before ordering protesters to stand down.

“I don’t know who Kinder Morgan is, they are not lords of my land,” Vancouver Metro news quoted Phillip as saying before his arrest. Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell told a crowd of protesters that his nation doesn’t consent to Canada issuing rights to third-party interests with no regard to Indigenous sovereignty, rights and title. Here too on Burnaby Mountain the word of the Chiefs is clear: this is their territory and they are not being consulted.

That these claims are being made in a Metro Vancouver jurisdiction is no longer surprising: last year, the Year of Reconciliation,  City Council, headed by Mayor Gregor Robertson officially declared that the city of Vancouver exists on unceded aboriginal territory. “Underlying all other truths spoken during the Year of Reconciliation is the truth that the modern city of Vancouver was founded on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and that these territories were never ceded through treaty, war or surrender,” reads part of the motion.

“These lands belong to us,”  Toghestiy, a hereditary chief of the Likhts’amisyu clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, recently told Yes! magasine. “They’ve never been ceded or surrendered to anybody. This place is not Canada. It’s not B.C. It in particular is Unist’ot’en territory, and it is occupied and protected.”

The new Trudeau government has said that it will implement the UN Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 32 of the declaration requires obtaining from indigenous peoples “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories”. For some non-Indigenous Canadians the prospect is frightening. Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Calgary and chair of the “aboriginal futures research program” at the Frontier Center for Public Policy, warns that endowing aboriginal peoples with too much power could “handicap Canada’s resource industries”.

For some non-Indigenous Canadians, the prospect of handicapping at least some of resource industries (like mining, oil and gas) is actually an attractive aspect of increased power for Indigenous peoples. As Canadian public intellectual John Ralston Saul recently wrote in his 2014 book The Comeback, “There is already a consensus between Aboriginals and the environmental movement.” That being so, some Canadians are slow to recognize the claims that Indigenous peoples have in accordance with the treaties on which Canada was built, treaties which view them not as subjects but as partners. As Saul recently argued in the same book, the Supreme Court has recognized that the “honour of the Crown” demands that Indigenous peoples be treated not only from a legal-technical perspective but from an ethical one which recognizes the history of Canadian violence and treachery towards Indigenous peoples and treats them in accordance with the original intent of the treaties.  From this perspective economic concerns must take a back seat to the more fundamental question of honourable relations between the Canadian government and First Nations peoples. Yet the habit of seeking to limit Indigenous power and control resources is old and well entrenched in Canadian policy and public discourse, both consciously and unconsciously.

Nor is this issue limited to Canada. As Saul writes, “The relationship between the environment, indigenous people and commodities extraction is on the agenda everywhere.” It is clear to anyone breathing fresh air as opposed to sand that the future belongs to the environmentalists if it belongs to anyone. It will need to. This can only bode well for the hopes of those clans and bands who are linking their claims as Indigenous peoples to the defense of the land. It is also true, however, that recognizing Indigenous sovereignty is not inherently a means to protect ecologies. There are many in the Indigenous communities who wish to profit from resource extraction themselves, and recognizing their self-government in their own territiories necessarily means them making decisions which might or might not be ecologically sound. Only time will tell whether Indigenous peoples will be leaders in transforming the resource sector into a sustainable industry or not. Those who say that recognizing their sovereignty is a matter of justice, however, argue that taking a risk on increasing Indigenous power is not only reasonable but is required by conscience.

Meanwhile at Unis’tot’en winter is settling in. Indigenous and non-Indigenous volunteers are tending the permaculture gardens, hunting, and staffing the checkpoints and lookouts across the land.