When people think of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), they often picture the epitomical red-coated “Mountie” on horseback, a silly anachronism in the modern world. This perception – as with so many relating to Canada – is a deliberate projection to mask the true, insidious nature of the state’s institutions. In the past weeks, police actions have shattered the quaint image.
Enforcing a court-ordered injunction granting the Coastal GasLink company access to unceded land of the Wet’suwet’en Nation (People of the Wa Dzun Kwuh River, in north-western British Columbia), officers on 10 February attacked a barricade near a camp of the Unist’ot’en, a Wet’suwet’en clan who have been occupying the area where several energy pipelines will pass. In a dawn raid, armed with semi-automatic rifles and wearing ballistic vests, police cleared the road and detained several Unist’ot’en matriarchs and other land defenders before allowing workers to dismantle the barricade. It was the culmination of days of raids on the camp.
The assault continued the following day, the RCMP raiding a local checkpoint and making more arrests before hereditary chiefs and their supporters blockaded the road, temporarily preventing officers from leaving Wet’suwet’en land. The invasion follows violent raids last year and earlier in the month, and a long period of intimidation and siege. Police established an “exclusion zone” (which now covers almost all Wet’suwet’en territory) and barred First Nations people from entering their own land.
The territory lies in the path of the proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline, which will carry natural gas from northern Alberta, across the mountains and down to the port at Kitimat. The area’s status as an unceded territory means that the Wet’suwet’en retain exclusive rights to the use of land never covered by a treaty. An article in the Narwhal, a Canadian magazine, notes that, since the ruling, the extraction industry and the British Columbia provincial government have pushed for the complete surrender of Aboriginal title. The present struggle over the Coast GasLink is the latest front in this ongoing campaign.
The response to the police invasion was swift. Only a few months after a nationwide rail strike brought Canada to its knees, trains once again sit idle, collecting snow. Indigenous and environmental activists are occupying railways and have forced Via Rail, the country’s intercity service, to shut down the entire network. Canadian National, a freight carrier, has ceased most of its operations as well. Even before the latest assault, while the RCMP was patrolling and intimidating land defenders, dozens of solidarity actions had begun. Supporters in Vancouver blockaded the largest port in the harbour city for four days. The local branch of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union came to the demonstrators with a message of support and union members refused to cross the picket, causing the entire port to shut down.
Blockades and disruptions have spread. Ports, highways, railways and bridges across Canada have been shut down. The largest disruptions have been in eastern Canada. The main railway through the Saint Lawrence Valley linking Toronto with Ottawa and Montreal has been blockaded on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. The largest rail yards in the country have also been picketed by activists, severing Canada’s rail links to the United States. Protesters have also targeted government and politicians’ offices. Indigenous youth and other protesters have blockaded the front entrance to the British Columbia legislature and activists picketed the home and driveway of the premier.
There is nevertheless a split within the Wet’suwet’en leadership over whether to support the pipeline. Elected band councils, the governing powers of which are codified in federal law, support the pipeline and signed an agreement allowing CGL to use Wet’suwet’en land. But the Wet’suwet’en also have a system of matrilineal clans and houses, each with its own hereditary chiefs who oversee the use of their unceded territory. While two chiefs support the pipeline, the others don’t because of concerns about environmental damage and the effect it will have on their ability to use the land. But the disagreement does not boil down to supporters of the pipeline being corporate stooges whose opinions should be disregarded. Many Indigenous people think that the pipeline and other resource extractive industries operating on their land will increase the prosperity of and economic opportunities for their communities.
On the same day as the assault on the Unist’ot’en Camp, various “grassroots” organisations established and bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry began an advertising campaign to discredit the First Nations land defenders. Op-eds and articles are being vomited out by both conservative and moderate pundits, variously attacking the protesters and calling for “civility” and “the rule of law”. But people aren’t having it. Canadians are fucking angry – especially young Canadians. They’re angry about the police, they’re angry about colonialism, they’re angry about environmental destruction and they’re angry at the government.
Under the immense pressure, there are cracks within the government. The Indigenous services minister in Justin Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party denounced his party’s “regressive policies”. In an emergency session of the House of Commons, the Liberals also came under attack from the New Democratic Party, which accused it of breaking international laws concerning the rights of indigenous peoples, and of pandering to the demands of the extraction industry. On the government’s right, the opposition Conservative Party lamented the lack of police response to the “illegal” protest action and the impact it is having on the economy.
The blockades and protests have been sustained for almost two weeks. Many local community members have been supportive, bringing food, supplies and reinforcements. Several unions have issued statements denouncing the raids and backing the demonstrators, but beyond the longshore workers in Vancouver, this hasn’t amounted to tangible action. The strategy of disruption and the issues of land rights and ecology present new challenges, sharpening sectional interests within the working class. The gulf between workers in resource extraction and their associated industries and those who are struggling to end colonialism and climate change will be difficult to overcome.
It’s unclear whether the blockades can be sustained long term. But given the extent of disruption and the quick victory by rail strikers late last year, the logistics network has proven to be a vulnerable target. Currently, 60 freighters are waiting outside Vancouver Harbour, held up by the protests. Canadian National, one of the most profitable companies in the country, has been forced to shut down all services in eastern Canada. The US-Canadian border has been closed in several locations by protesters.
There are no better words than those from a recent post on the Unist’ot’en Camp website: “These arrests don’t intimidate us. Police enforcement doesn’t intimidate us. Colonial court orders don’t intimidate us. Men in suits and their money don’t intimidate us. We are still here. We will always be there. This is not over.”