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I struggled with which powerful depiction of violence against Indigenous Peoples to begin this story with — something to illustrate the fight for Indigenous Rights that has been ongoing since contact, and has continued since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Canada in late January 2020 even though many people’s attention turned away as the pandemic spread.
Just a couple weeks after Canada’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, RCMP invaded Wet’suwet’en camps. Photos and videos captured peoples’ attention online, across the country and internationally. Images of officers in militarized gear, armed with rifles — stark figures with shiny helmets and covered faces approaching on a blanket of snow. A video where one camp occupant begged an officer to stop pointing a gun at him.
Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Gisday’wa’s cabin — used as a meeting place for land defenders — was destroyed by a fire overnight in August.
White commercial fishermen attacked Mi’kmaq fishermen in the fall. It was all caught on video, flares shot at Indigenous crews on the water, the chaos of yells and crashing waves. A van burning, a lobster facility destroyed. The police were there, but stood by doing nothing to stop the violence.
In February of this year, Indigenous youth were arrested while occupying the Chubb Insurance office in Vancouver. One young woman reported a head injury and other youth, who go by the Braided Warriors, reported injuries as well. Kai Nagata, communications director of Dogwood, was quick to point out on Twitter that by comparison no arrests or injuries were reported at an anti-mask rally the next day. In fact, the rally “got a police escort,” he said.
“It’s very clear who the police consider a threat,” he concluded.
Since May, more than 1,000 people have been arrested in the Fairy Creek blockades, where land defenders and activists have set up camps to block old-growth logging. Settler activists, like Mike Graeme, said they’ve noticed RCMP targeting Indigenous land defenders.
But trying to choose among these violent incidents felt wrong. I re-considered my approach: maybe I should start with something else depicting Indigenous joy instead? I thought of Molly Wickham, or Sleydo’, spokesperson for the Gidimt’en checkpoint on Wet’suwet’en territory, bouncing her one-year-old in her lap on a Zoom call interview, smiling as the infant cooed in her arms. Sun was pouring through the window and Molly’s sister, Jennifer Wickham, made faces at the baby.
But then I stopped and wondered if spotlighting her child could make Molly feel unsafe, could subject her and her child to online harassment or worse, and maybe I shouldn’t mention the infant at all.
And I got a sinking feeling in my gut. That thought — worrying for the safety of an Indigenous child and mother just for being mentioned in the media — illustrated exactly what I was trying to get at. The laboured energy that Indigenous land defenders put into trying to protect their personal safety as they fight to assert their rights. The threats they face, the precautions they have to take and the deeply entrenched double standards for violence in this country.
The trauma and the consequences of a violent incident don’t end when the fire goes out.
“Every time there’s a raid, everything kind of quiets down afterwards, and we’re recovering from it. We’re in the aftermath of this extreme violence against our people,” Molly said.
While they are in recovery mode, they remain focused on their mission, she said.
“I always say: this is the time to keep pushing,” she explained. “We’ve just got to keep pushing hard, because now is the time we have the attention of the world.”
I keep stopping and thinking about who this story is for. I try to write for Indigenous readers, but in this case it’s the non-Indigenous readers I’m trying to navigate in my head. I want to expand on Indigenous people’s stories in a way that informs that person’s community and provides a public service. But I’m also always aware of the colonial gaze. Even if I try not to write for it.
I think this story is a practice of remembering. Not getting swept up and letting events swirl into a vague past of Indigenous “protests.” Recognizing the long-lasting impacts of each exercise of violence against Indigenous land defenders. The significance of the experiences. Imagining your own family having flares shot at them and how an individual and a community lives with that. The people involved are remembering, tying it all together in their people’s history.
How much of settler Canada is spending time remembering, too?
The Sipekne’katik First Nation’s rights-based lobster fishery didn’t just launch last fall, Chief Mike Sack said. They have always fished there. Individual fishermen have harvested according to their Treaty Rights over the years, sometimes facing charges and trap seizures for failing to comply with commercial regulations. Sack himself has done so since the 1990s.
“We thought it was just like any other year,” he told me over the phone. He was on the go, moving around and eventually getting in his car. “But it was the first year that our band really stood behind our fishers and established our own fishery, opposed to years prior where we were individuals out exercising our rights here and there.”
Sipekne’katik is the second largest Mi’kmaq band in Nova Scotia. In Mi’kmaq, Sipekne’katik means “where the wild potatoes grow.”
They had gotten some grief from non-Indigenous fishermen before, Sack said. But the violent attacks that eventually took place shocked him.
The Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its Treaty fishery 21 years after its Treaty Rights were affirmed by the Supreme Court. The 1760-61 treaties with the Mi’kmaq Nation recognized the right to hunt, fish and gather for sustenance and trade, as well as their inherent right to fish existed long before then.
But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans still won’t recognize Mi’kmaq rights to fish for a moderate livelihood outside the commercial season. Sack and the people of Sipekne’katik First Nation got tired of waiting. The nation launched their self-regulated fishery and in response, non-Indigenous fishermen launched their attacks. Mobs harassed the Mi’kmaw fishermen, throwing rocks and shouting threats. Boats swerved dangerously close to theirs and a lobster facility was eventually destroyed. The community was shaken by the violence and racism.
“It was horrible,” Sack said. “Our people took a hit.”
RCMP were criticized for standing by and watching the mob. Months later, “the lack of discipline that people faced doesn’t sit well with us,” Sack said. While 21 people were arrested by RCMP following the attacks, hundreds showed up and participated.
He saw parallels when a violent mob stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Does that mean mobs of people can get away with whatever they want?” he asked, sounding exasperated. “For them to get away with it just makes you wonder why Canada accepts that.”
As of September 2021, two men have been charged in relation to arson at the lobster facility.
The extreme violence Sack and his community faced was because of just 150 lobster traps. The non-Indigenous fishermen misleadingly cited conservation concerns. In fact, the commercial fishery allows for 390,000 traps when it’s in season.
Many were quick to point out the disproportion. Just 150 traps. The small number made the motivation behind the attacks starkly clear to Indigenous folk: it wasn’t about how many traps. It was about power. It was about entitlement. It was about the threat of Indigenous Peoples executing their rights to the fullest when Canada has been built on suppressing those rights.
The situation has never been about fish, Sack said. It’s about sovereignty and exercising their rights. It’s also about allowing prosperity in the community, and generating income to have basic needs met, like housing.
“We’re there to try to bring our community out of poverty,” he said. “We went there to fish and exercise our right. We weren’t there to mess with commercial fishermen. They’re inconsequential to us.”
“We’re not asking for a lot. We would like to be able to establish ourselves to fish and not be interfered with.”
Sack called off talks with the DFO in December, in which he said the government tried to negotiate the terms of Mi’kmaq fishing rights. In the following months, Sipekne’katik First Nation sued the Nova Scotia government for treaty infringement and a group of 43 Sipekne’katik harvesters sued Canada’s attorney general, the RCMP, DFO and 29 non-Indigenous fishers for causing or allowing the violence that took place last year.
Despite the racist attacks, Sack believes his community has come out stronger. The nation plans to expand their rights-based fishery to other species like mackerel, glass eel and snow crabs. They are building a trap factory to make traps more available to community members.
This summer the Sipekne’katik launched their treaty fishery again, and DFO officers arrested and questioned Chief Sack in August. DFO began seizing the First Nation’s traps, but stopped shortly after the Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald denounced DFO for “harassment and intimidation.”
Sack said the Nation will continue its fishery with or without cooperation from DFO.
“We’re not going to stop until [our rights] are recognized and upheld.”
Back before the start of 2021, I asked Jennifer Wickham what her goals are for the year ahead.
“You mean other than land back?” she joked.
It was on the same call that Molly Wickham bounced her one-year-old in her lap as sun poured through the window.
I asked how COVID-19 has impacted their lives and their work at the Wet’suwet’en checkpoints.
“We’ve had to do a lot of work to make sure that we keep our community safe, which is what we’re fighting for,” Molly said.
Safety remained top of mind for a long time since police continued to occupy Wet’suwet’en territory for over a year after the RCMP raided Wet’suwet’en camps along the Morice River forest road. But the RCMP presence toned down over the summer this year, according to Molly.
The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs oppose the construction of the $6.6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline, which will supply fracked gas from northeast B.C. for the LNG Canada project. While the band government signed onto the project, the hereditary chiefs never consented. The Unist’ot’en healing centre was established in 2009, and the Gidimt’en Checkpoint in 2018.
Last year, RCMP arrived armed with rifles, dogs and tactical gear to storm the camps and arrested 28 people almost exactly one year after the initial raid in 2019. This time, they didn’t leave. Molly said RCMP continue to patrol the territory on the premise of enforcing an injunction to prevent interference with Coastal GasLink workers, though she added that police presence stayed just as strong through the pandemic despite the fact work on the pipeline slowed down. She said when they have done ceremony without obstructing the road they have still been approached by police.
“Just because the news isn’t covering it doesn’t mean it stopped happening,” Jennifer said. This week the members of Gidimt’en Checkpoint constructed blockades in an effort to protect sacred Wet’suwet’en sites from pipeline construction. A Gidimt’en Checkpoint press release states Coastal GasLink destroyed an ancient village site earlier this week and company security guards “aggressively intimidated” representatives who attempted to “monitor the CGL archaeological team and contest the destruction of Wet’suwet’en cultural heritage.”
The RCMP didn’t reply to The Narwhal’s request for comment.
Much like the Mi’kmaq dispute, this fight goes back to contact. Wet’suwet’en hereditary governance didn’t cease to exist after colonization. Delgamuukw v. British Columbia recognized that Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan Aboriginal title had never been extinguished and the province had no authority to do so. But the province approved the Coastal GasLink pipeline without the consent of hereditary leadership and continues to support the project.
Canada has also faced external pressures to recognize Wet’suwet’en title and remove RCMP from the Yintah. In January 2020, the UN Committe on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Canada to suspend work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the Trans Mountain pipeline and the Site C dam until obtaning free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples. It also called on the government to withdraw RCMP from the Wet’suwet’en camps. It called out law enforcement’s “disproportionate use of force, harassment and intimidation” against Indigenous people.
The committee sent a letter to Canada’s UN representative in November to express regret that work continues at all of the sites without consent.
The United Nations has drawn international attention to Canada’s discrimination against Indigenous Peoples many times. In September 2020, the UN special rapporteur on toxins and human rights published a report that found Indigenous people in Canada are disproportionately affected by toxic waste. A 2019 report condemned systemic violence against Indigenous women. In 2013, then special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous people said substandard living situations for First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada had become a “crisis.”
Looking at all the events we’ve been reflecting on so far, journalism professor Candis Callison pointed out the problem of seeing them as “events.” She argued looking at isolated events like last year’s raid on Wet’suwet’en is not an effective way to understand any of the fights for Indigenous Rights taking place across First Nations, Inuit and Métis territories.
Understanding events like the attacks on Mi’kmaw fishermen or police raids on Wet’suwet’en territory “begs the question of how you think about time,” Callison said. She is a citizen of the Tahltan Nation and a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media and Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. (She is also a member of The Narwhal’s board of directors.)
She said it depends on how far back you go, and how far you look into the future. It depends on your concept of history, and whether your perception of time is linear or cyclical, as many Indigenous concepts of time are.
“Indigenous people have lived through multiple apocalypses before,” she said. “Indigenous people continue to struggle with the same things we’ve always struggled with.”
Namely, she said, that’s been dealing with violence and suppression in the name of upholding the colonial state. At the same time, she said there is the pattern of what she called Indigenous “continuance” and “persistence.”
Pivotal moments, like the Wet’suwet’en raid, “should be moments where we shed light on the cyclical nature” of colonialism and systemic issues, Callison said. If the media just zooms in on a moment of intense violence and fails to delve into the complexity, she said, it misses the opportunity to “provide accountability” on systemic issues rather than singular events.
Molly agreed the raid last year, while it grabbed headlines, was not an isolated incident.
“This is not a six-day raid that we’re dealing with. It’s not a two-year movement. This is a bigger movement, and it’s going to take years and years,” she said.
Issues around Indigenous Rights are often oversimplified in the media, Callison said. Media can fail to delve into the complexity, and can sometimes even contribute to more sinister narratives.
This reminded me of some news coverage of Wet’suwet’en. The nation was often portrayed as a nation divided: hereditary governance versus band council, pro-pipeline versus anti-pipeline, and little room for anyone in between. It’s normal for a community to have an array of opinions. For those of us watching from afar who are not part of that community, we can’t understand the private conversations happening within that community. But there was still a tone I picked up on in a lot of news coverage, an underlying message that because there was disagreement within the community, that somehow discredited them.
Most societies aren’t expected to hold a homogeneous opinion, but that often seems to be demanded of First Nations, Callison said.
“There has to be more spaces for dissent within Indigenous communities. In B.C. politics, there’s so much room for dissent within the NDP party, within the BC Liberals. And yet somehow, Indigenous people have to package themselves for mainstream narratives as if there’s no dissent within,” she said.
Jennifer Wickham said she noticed this message in some media coverage as well. She emphasized that including all opinions is central to Wet’suwet’en hereditary governance.
“Not everybody has status that is recognized by the government. But everybody is a clan member and a house member,” she said. “I don’t ever want to speak poorly of people that are participating within that [Indian Act] structure, I just really encourage people to participate in our governance system that has existed for millenia, because they have a place in it and they’re welcome in it.”
Callison said she sees Canada prioritize the timeline an industry proponent wants, rather than Indigenous Peoples’ timelines.
“There’s such a vast gap there,” she said. “You have the B.C. government signing UNDRIP and then you see the government moving for Coastal GasLink, prioritizing those needs and concerns above a community’s timeframe to work things out within their community [and] come up with a plan that respected the needs, priorities and concerns and histories of that community.”
Molly Wickham said she sees the state’s response to Indigenous resistance has remained the same at its core since contact.
“The province and federal government just keep doing the same thing. It’s been the same since first contact: divide and conquer. Pay them off.”
“It’s not our first rodeo,” she joked.
Kim TallBear, associate professor in the University of Alberta Faculty of Native Studies, has been saying it for years: the American Empire is falling. How that will impact Canada remains to be seen, she told The Narwhal.
TallBear is a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in U.S.-occupied Dakota territory. She’s been teaching at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Native Studies since 2015. She focuses much of her research on decolonizing sexuality and race theory, and how DNA testing can undermine Indigenous claims to identity, land and sovereignty.
She has also said she studies settlers, and in 2020 she focused some of her efforts on analyzing the settler apocalypse.
TallBear often says there is opportunity for Indigenous collectivist worldviews to be empowered during the fall of the American empire. But she still dreads “the absolute violent response, especially by settler masculinity, on the way down.”
“I’m worried about how armed they are, how out of touch they are, how in denial they’re going to be that the world is changing,” she said.
Since moving to Canada, she said she noticed violence against Indigenous people is constantly in the news, and to her, “it’s a sign that Indigenous people are still here in visible enough numbers to be threatening” to the settler state.
But even with that visibility, she said she still sees two worlds: one where Indigenous people know the history, and one where settlers have created an “amnesiac society,” which was demonstrated as settlers expressed shock when radar exploration confirmed 215 children buried at Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Stealing the land from the children, stealing the children from the land, in intertwining and reinforcing acts of genocide.
“Those children were treated like resources,” she said. “They were trained to be workers for society. They were exploited physically and sexually. They were treated like objects … they were complete raw material to white people to do what they wanted to do, whether it was to build a nation [like Canada or the U.S.] or whether it was to work out their own psychological deviance.”
Hundreds of apocalypses have already taken place across Indigenous Peoples, TallBear said. For her family, their apocalypse happened in 1862, the year of the Dakota War, which led to the largest one-day mass execution in American history when 38 Dakota men were hung, and the Dakota were exiled from the occupier-state of Minnesota, which was just four years old.
Settlers stole bones from graves, stole blood to produce DNA analysis, stole land, stole children, stole government systems, replaced definitions of identity. She says DNA testing to “prove” Indigenous identity is the latest chapter.
“Now, they are using all of that together to get to make the last final claim, which is how to define ‘Indigenous,’ so they can be us,” she said.
“They are trying to replace us in every single way on this land.”
But TallBear said she also sees people pushing for a reckoning of genocide Indigenous Peoples have faced, and she sees reason to have “radical hope,” adding she finds hope in watching Indigenous land defenders constantly making waves.
“They are much more on the national radar [in Canada] in terms of being entities that must be reckoned with,” she said.
“Just the visibility of Indigenous resistance here is really heartening for me.”
People may remember the photo of then 28-year-old Amanda Polchies kneeling on the pavement with her back to the camera, holding a feather above her head, facing a wall of officers during an RCMP raid on 2013 at an anti-fracking Mi’kmaq Warrior Society camp.
Most know the photo of soldier Patrick Cloutier and land defender Brad Laroque looking each other in the eye during the 1990 siege on Kanehsatà:ke, known as the Oka Crisis.
Canada’s history is built on a series of images of violence against Indigenous Peoples. If images don’t exist, stories do. Looking at the history of land defence conflicts and violent outbreaks, Callison isn’t surprised by the violence we’ve seen lately. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to watch, but she sees it all together in a complex web of colonialism.
“This is where you get back to the cyclical aspect. We’ve seen this before. Despite all the new powerful tools [like UNDRIP], some of the same fundamental problems still persist.”
John Borrows, an Anishinaabe professor at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law, agreed. He co-founded the first Indigenous law degree in Canada, which is completed as a joint degree with Canadian common law. His voice was slow, deliberative and calming over the phone.
Borrows said decades of inaction are behind many prominent conflicts. He cited Delgamuukw.
“In 1997, you have the Delgamuukw case that says there is such a thing as Aboriginal title … it didn’t recognize that title in relationship to the Wet’suwet’en, but it seemed to set the stage for that recognition,” Borrows said.
But then, years went on, and “nothing really happened in that regard.” The issue never disappeared.
Likewise, the Supreme Court’s 1999 Marshall decision recognized the Mik’maq have a constitutionally protected right to fish for a moderate livelihood. The decision seemed to “set the table for broader [rights] recognition,” Borrows said.
“In both those instances, you have the high court some 20 years ago saying you should be in the game of having titles recognized, you should be in this game of having rights to access resources for commercial purposes. Yet, they are not recognized.”
Indigenous Peoples can spend years of effort and millions of dollars fighting to have their rights acknowledged in court. The Tsilhqot’in Nation fought one of the longest and most expensive court cases in Canada’s history to win their precedent-setting title claim. The Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Alberta has been battling a treaty infringement case for 10 years. Indigenous Peoples often have to spend millions to see these cases through and sometimes they end up having to go back to court to battle the same fight again.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has the potential to create a new process to recognize Indigenous Rights out of the courts, Borrow said. But he also said it is a long and thorny road ahead.
“It does require people to knock heads together,” he said. He said the declaration is “not self-executing,” and that the declaration is fundamentally a “plan to make a plan.”
In the meantime, communities that have been on the receiving end of racialized violence are dealing with the long-term impacts. Indigenous land defenders have found they are not safe. It may be police enforcing an injunction, or it may be cars driving through supporter blockades. During Wet’suwet’en solidarity movements in early 2020, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network noted an uptick in Indigenous racism. During the pandemic, Indigenous people continued to experience systemic racism in health care, as well as racist comments falsely blaming Indigenous communities for transmitting the virus, or expressing anger at Indigenous People being given priority for vaccinations.
In many ways, it’s a harrowing moment for the colonial state, Canada. The global pandemic showed how precarious the capitalist system is at the hands of nature.
At the same time, the climate crisis is exacerbating forest fires, floods and storms. There is an increasing awareness of systemic racism but the same systemic issues remain in place. Some Canadians are staring wistfully into the past. Others — I hope more — are casting a realistic eye to the future.
As Callison and TallBear said, Indigenous Peoples have lived through apocalypses before. Now, amidst wave after wave of the pandemic, many people in settler society feel on the brink of their own.
TallBear said the stress is different for Indigenous Peoples.
“Indigenous people are better in crisis. We are, because we’ve lived for a couple hundred years in crisis,” she said.
“It’s not that we won’t suffer materially and emotionally in this moment of crisis in the settler world,” she clarified. “Poor people, and that includes Indigenous people, feel the material pain first and hardest.”
Editor’s note: Candis Callison is a member of The Narwhal’s board of directors. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, our news judgments are made independently of our board of directors, who are not involved in day-to-day news operations.
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