Indigenous blockades don’t just decry destruction—they affirm life

The whole world should be standing behind the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their clans and their vision for a different future.

Image Credit: JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

A few days ago, I attended the annual regional gathering of Dehcho K’ehodi Stewardship and Guardian program at the Liidlii Kue Regional High School in the Dehcho region of Denedeh (Northwest Territories, Canada) as part of my work with the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning. Throughout the day, I listened to phenomenal presentations from Dene in Dehcho communities talk about land-based programming in their organizations. By the end of the day, my heart was filled with hope and inspiration as I saw presentation after presentation showing elders and young people fishing, tanning hides, berry picking, moose hide tufting, and traveling on the river in all seasons. I saw speaker after speaker demonstrating a profound love of the land, the Dehcho (McKenzie River), Dene Zhatié (language), and the Dene way of life.

During the closing, I listened through translation while Jim Antoine, former premier of the Northwest Territories, longtime cabinet minister and former chief of Liidlii Kue First Nation, spoke in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their clans at the Unist’on’ten to the audience. His words were clear in their simplicity—this is our home and we need to protect it, not just now, but in the future.

I began the long journey back to my home—Nishnaabe territory in central Ontario, Canada. My first layover was in Yellowknives Dene, Somba K’e or Yellowknife, NWT, and by the time I had reached Yellowknife, Global News was reporting that “61% of Canadians oppose Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockades, and 75% back action to help Indigenous people: poll.”

People protest at a train blockade in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ontario, Canada, on February 21, 2020. The blockades were put in place in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en First Nation hereditary chiefs who oppose a natural gas pipeline in their traditional territory in the province of British Columbia in Canada. Photo by Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images.

In some ways, 39% of Canadians supporting Indigenous dissent through solidarity blockades is significant, yet the single most profound way non-Indigenous peoples can help Indigenous peoples is by respecting our self-determination and our ability to protect our lands, waters, and peoples for the coming generations. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have clearly stated that there is no access to their lands without their consent, and over the past two decades, they have done everything possible within the current structures to protect their lands. And when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police invaded their territory to enforce a court injunction and to make way for the construction of the pipeline, they asked us for our help.

Help to stop a 670-kilometer (416-mile) Coastal GasLink pipeline, infrastructure that is part of the LNG Canada Project, which will transport natural gas fracked from northeastern British Columbia to a terminal near Kitimat, BC, where it will be sent overseas. A project that will become BC’s largest point source emitter of greenhouse gases in its first phase, and according to Marc Lee, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a “carbon bomb.”

Canada has always ignored consent when it comes to resource extraction, and they have always undermined our self-determination and paternalistically decided what is best for our communities and our lands. The state has always placed limits on Indigenous efforts to protect our lands and our peoples with clear demarcations between moral and “legitimate” forms of defending our rights—usually negotiations between state-sanctioned Aboriginal leadership and the crown, along with symbolic acts of peaceful and nondisruptive demonstrations sanctioned by Canadian law, and tactics that disrupt the economic and political systems, such as blockades. It was predictable that by the time I landed in Amiskwacîwâskahikan, or Edmonton, Alberta, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was declaring the “economic impacts of rail blockades ‘unacceptable.’ ”

Shut Down Canada protesters occupy the Macmillan Yard in Vaughan, Ontario, in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders on February 15, 2020. All trains going west to Hamilton, London, New York, and Michigan are now blocked as of 10 a.m. on Saturday. Photos by Rene Johnston/Toronto Star/Getty Images.

In other words, when protecting the land for generations to come, you must do so within the structures we’ve created, and we’ve created these structures to ensure the status quo will be maintained, and that you do not have the right to say no to the extraction of resources from your territory.

You can say no to a pipeline, but you must whisper.

The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs can say no to a pipeline, but Canada is building it anyway, because in Canada, Indigenous consent simply does not matter.

The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their clans have worked tirelessly since contact to protect their lands. They’ve used the Canadian courts in the landmark Delgamuukw decision; they’ve said no to pipelines since 2007; they’ve educated the public on speaking tours, videos, a website, and camp tours; and they have built the alternative—a land-immersive camp with cabins, a pit house, bunkhouses, and a healing center at Unist’ot’en. A tremendous expression of life-giving Wet’suwet’en law and land-based practices.

The practices of life-giving land protection of the Wet’suwet’en reminds me that blockades are like beaver dams. One can stand beside the pile of sticks blocking the flow of the river and complain about inconveniences, or one can sit beside the pond and witness the beavers’ life-giving brilliance—deep pools that don’t freeze for their fish relatives; making wetlands full of moose, deer, and elk food and cooling spots, places to hide calves, and muck to keep the flies away; open spaces in the canopy so sunlight increases, creating warm and shallow aquatic habitat around the edges of the pond for amphibians and insects; plunge pools on the downstream side of dams for juvenile fish and gravel for spawning; home and food for birds. Blockades are both a negation of destruction and an affirmation of life.

Left to right, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Fred Tom Gisdewe, Mohawk member Seth LeForge, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs Frank Alec Woos, Freda Huson, Warner Naztek, and Kloum Khun Alphonse Gagnon address a news conference at the Mohawk Community Centre in Tyendinaga Township near Belleville, Ontario, on February 21, 2020. The Mohawks protest in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the LNG pipeline in northern British Columbia. Photo by Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images.

That’s why the words of Freda Huson, spokesperson of the Unist’ot’en camp, speak to the hearts of Indigenous Peoples all across Mikinaakong, the place of the turtle, when she says, “Our people’s belief is that we are part of the land. The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us. And if we don’t take care of her, she won’t be able to sustain us, and we as a generation of people will die.”

That’s why queer, trans, and Two Spirit artists and young people are on the front lines leading solidarity occupations in Vancouver and Victoria. That’s why Mohawk land protectors at Tyendinaga are blocking the tracks. That’s why, a few short years ago, thousands organized and gathered at Standing Rock to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. This isn’t about pipelines, or jobs or inconvenience or the best way to get our message out. This is about land and life for generations to come. This is about the kind of worlds we collectively want to live in.

In Peterborough, Ontario, my non-Indigenous neighbors have organized themselves into Citizens Against Radioactive Neighbourhoods to say no to BWXT’s license request to create uranium pellets for the nuclear industry in our neighborhood. The plant is a few blocks from my house, directly across the road from the Prince of Wales Public School, the school my grandmother from Alderville First Nation attended in the early 1930s, after her family moved to the city from the reserve. My neighbors are concerned about the long-term health and environmental impacts of rising beryllium and uranium in our gardens and backyards, along with the accumulated effects of the degradation of our environment, climate change, and an ever-increasing exposure to industrial contaminants.  Last week on the picket line I was thinking of what my land looked like before the plant, before the house was built, before Treaty 20 was ignored, before the violence of 300 years of colonialism had removed my ancestors from this spot. I have to imagine what my intact homeland might have looked like. The Wet’suwet’en do not have to imagine—much of their lands are intact. The Dene along the Dehcho do not have to imagine, in part because they were part of a successful mobilization in the 1970s to stop the proposed McKenzie Valley Pipeline, and because of the hard work of the folks in the Dehcho K’ehodi Stewardship and Guardian program.

Protesters marching in downtown Toronto in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en on February 17, 2020. Rene Johnston/Toronto Star/Getty Images.

We can have the same old arguments we’ve been having for centuries about inconvenience, the extra-legal nature of Indigenous blockades, and we can pit jobs and the economy versus the environment. We can perform superficial dances of reconciliation and dialogue and negotiate for the cheap gifts of economic and political inclusion. Or we can imagine another world. We can remember the principled actions of Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake during the summer of 1990 and the mobilization at Standing Rock and find ways to support families, clans, communities, and nations that stand up and say no, you do not have our consent to build this golf course, pipeline, mine, hydro dam, clear cut because we are busy building a different world, and we are so deeply in love with our land, our cultures, our languages, and our families. It is that love and care that Carrier Wit’at multidisciplinary artist and curator Whess Harman described emanating throughout the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protest sites, even in the face of state violence.

Our current world is on fire, warming and melting at an unprecedented rate. The whole world should be standing behind the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their clans and their vision for a different future.

This article was originally published by Abolition Journal. It has be published here with permission.


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