What a week it has been on Turtle Island. As I write this on Friday morning, VIA rail has indefinitely suspended all passenger train service across the country, with the exception of two short routes, one in northern Ontario and one in northern Manitoba, and CN has shut down its entire Eastern Canada operation.
Why? Well, the simple answer is because Mohawks in eastern Ontario have had a rail line blockade in place for more than a week, in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people of British Columbia, who are resisting the attempts of Coastal Gas Link, a subsidiary of TransMountain Pipelines, to build a natural gas pipeline across their land.
But the complex and real answer is that train service across Canada has been shut down because the Canadian government refuses to recognize the sovereignty of First Nations and the legal obligation of the settler government to obtain full, prior and informed consent from hereditary (not elected) Indigenous leadership before allowing any extraction or use of resources on lands that are not ours to claim.
This act of resistance by the Mohawks, and many more – over the past week, Indigenous peoples and their allies have blocked ports in Vancouver and Halifax, a rail line in Toronto, rail lines in Quebec and British Columbia and the B.C. Legislature as well as occupied federal cabinet ministers’ offices and the department of justice building in Ottawa – did not appear out of nowhere.
The fight of Indigenous peoples for sovereignty is long-standing on Turtle Island, with struggles to stop pipelines on Indigenous land only the most recent campaign in that fight.
The Unistoten camp, an Indigenous re-occupation of Wet’suwet’en land, began in 2009, with the establishment of a checkpoint. That land has been continuously occupied since then, to prevent the illegal extraction and use of its resources. In 2012, a healing centre was built, and the hereditary leaders of the five Wet’suwet’en clans took a firm no pipelines position.
The January 2, 2020, decision of the British Columbia Supreme Court to grant an injunction to clear the resettlement camps and allow Coastal Gas Link to continue its construction of the pipeline and the decision of the RCMP last week to aggressively dismantle the camps and arrest those living in them, led to immediate solidarity resistance across the country.
It is important for those of us who are settlers and the beneficiaries of our predecessors’ colonization to understand this history in detail. It is not my story to tell, but I encourage you to watch Mi’kmaq lawyer Pam Palmater’s YouTube video of last week, in which she talks about the five things we all need to know about this history.
The rule of law
Prime Minister Trudeau said earlier this week that he recognizes the important democratic right of peaceful protest but that “we are also a country of the rule of law and we need to make sure those laws are protected.”
And here lies the rub. The rule of law, a much vaunted concept by those who hold power in western so-called democracies, stands for the idea that all people and institutions are subject and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced. Some of the principles supporting the rule of law are that law is supreme, all are equal before and accountable to the law, there is fairness in the application of the law, all participate in decision-making and there is procedural and legal transparency.
Surely, then, there is no rule of law in play here. There are at least two systems of law that exist: the laws, many of which have never been extinguished, developed by Indigenous peoples who occupied Turtle Island originally and who continue to occupy it today and those created by the Europeans who invaded this land a couple of hundred years ago.
Those original laws are still sovereign, according to both section 35 of the Canadian Constitution and a number of international laws. In the story unfolding across Canada right now, those laws give the Wet’suwet’en peoples the first title to all their traditional lands, on which they are asserting their lawful claims to use the lands to the exclusion of others, including Coastal Gas Link.
B.C. Premier John Horgan calls recent events in his province “extraordinary” and says that 150 years of colonization will not be eliminated quickly, yet his government has asked for and been granted an injunction to stop further blockades of the legislature.
The Prime Minister wrote a letter to Gitxsan national hereditary chief Norman Stephens in which he claimed that “There is no more important relationship to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples.”
Yet, a number of his cabinet ministers are insisting that Indigenous blockades and occupations be ended before they will meet with resisters.
The inconvenience to thousands of would-be rail travellers and the economic impact of the shutdown of the movement of goods across Canada is not insignificant.
But, surely, this is a time when inconvenience and economic impact must take a back seat to justice. Surely, this is a time when Canadians have an opportunity and an obligation to do the right thing; to stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples across this country as they fight for their legal rights as established under international law as well as the Constitution of Canada.
“Despite Canada’s promises to strengthen “Nation-to-Nation” relationships with Indigenous peoples, the events in Wet’suwet’en territory confirm that Canada remains committed to its “might or right” approach . . . . Meaningful reconciliation will require Canada to switch tactics, trading armed police and military invasions for negotiation and diplomacy.”