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Unsettling the settler – sharing my learnings about Wet’suwet’en protests and Unist’ot’en camp

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

Part 1

Wet’suwet’en protests, Unist’ot’en camp, railroad blockades – these headlines made the Canadian news in the past few weeks. Yet until VIA Rail had to cancel its services, many Canadian residents didn’t pay or chose not to pay attention to what has been happening in the province of British Columbia on the unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. The protests across the country, including one in Teyendinaga in Ontario, have sprung up as acts of solidarity with a rail blockade in northern BC by members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation who oppose the plan to run the Coastal Gaslink pipeline through their land.

As a settler, who came to Canada in 2007, I am still learning about the complexity of Indigenous issues and the impact of colonial politics on Indigenous nations. Understanding what is happening in relation to Wet’suwet’en protests was another learning curve. I’d like to share some of my learnings here with you. A lot of these learnings will be unsettling. This is good. These lessons are meant to unsettle the settler inside each of us.

Learning #1 - What is Wet’suwet’en and Unist’ot’en?

The Unist’ot’en (or Big Frog Clan) are part of the Wet’suwet’en People. The Unist’ot’en camp is an Indigenous re-occupation of Wet’suwet’en land in northern BC.

Wet’suwet’en territory, including Unist’ot’en territory, is unceded Aboriginal territory in BC. The 22,000 square km of Wet’suwet’en Territory is divided into 5 clans and 13 house groups. This is a pristine territory where the forests still stand tall, wildlife prospers, and the water is still pure. The proposed pipelines are a threat to the watershed, plants, animals and communities that depend on them. The Unist’ot’en People are fighting for the future and health of this land, to ensure that its natural bounty and beauty stay preserved for the generations to come.

Here you can learn more from the firsthand source – people of the Unist’ot’en camp

Learning #2 - What is unceded territory?

Well, it literally means ‘not ceded or handed over’. In the colonial context ‘unceded territory’ means that these territories were never signed away by the Indigenous Peoples who had lived on them before being pushed from these lands by the European settlers. Some of the Canadian territories are covered by treaties but they were not necessarily ‘ceded’, the treaties were meant for a peaceful sharing of the territory, they did not mean relinquishing the rights to the land. But as you may already know, many treaties were broken, and the land was stolen.

Learning #3 - Hereditary Chiefs vs. Elected Band Chiefs (Band Councils) and who makes the decisions regarding the use of the land?

This issue is about two different governance systems, one traditional, and the other colonial, presented as a democratic form of government. Hereditary governance system predates colonization and has been preserved to these days. According to an Indigenous scholar Val Napoleon, hereditary chiefs come from specific families, and contrary to their name, they do not inherit, but earn their position and authority, through their ability to uphold the integrity of the land, peace and order (Penner, 2019).

In the case of Wet’suwet’en, it is the hereditary leaders who hold the authority under the Wet’suwet’en law to make the decisions about their territory. These leaders have said no to pipelines on their territory.

The Chief and Council system, on another hand, exists under the Indian Act, essentially a piece of colonial legislation, designed and introduced to weaken the traditional governance systems. Elected chiefs are responsible for the management of the affairs on the reserves, and their responsibility is to the reserve. The Indian Act does not provide authority for an elected Chief and Council to make decisions about the lands beyond the boundaries of the First Nations reserves. Band Councils, including those who signed the agreements with the Coastal Gazlink, have control over the reserve land, which presents only a portion of the Wet’suwet’en territory. Notice the difference here, one authority is responsible for the land as a whole, and the other is responsible for the affairs specific to the reserve. This is important for the next learning.

Here is a great podcast from Media Indigena on the Wet’suwet’en resistance, including the explanation of the legal intricacies around the issue.

First Peoples Law Barristers and Solicitors

Learning # 4 - Land vs. money

As in any conflict, there are at least two sides. On one side, there are pipeline supporters, presenting the pipeline project as beneficial to the Canadian economy and even to the First Nations themselves. The other side, pipeline protesters, led by Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and their supporters, citing concerns for environmental sustainability, cultural heritage and Indigenous sovereignty.

Over the past week, I’ve heard various comments and arguments coming from the two opposing sides, including pro-pipelines comments from members of the First Nations, and anti-pipeline comments from non-Indigenous people, or settlers. The core difference in these arguments is that pro-pipeline opinions appeal to exclusively economic interests, and anti-pipeline arguments cite something else – the importance of the environment and the land.

The elected Band Chiefs are pressured by the years of poverty and economic deprivation running rampant on the reserves to sign the agreement with oil and gas companies to allow the construction projects on the reserves. They hope that these projects may bring crumbs of payments and jobs to their people. Thus, economic imperative becomes the single rationale for their decisions.

In the case of Wet’suwet’en, the hereditary Chiefs enact their responsibility to the land, the land that goes beyond the reserve, the responsibility to its human and non-human inhabitants. Their imperative transcends the notion of ‘economy’ and this what the conflict is essentially about. In the settler mind, land is a property, real estate, it has no value until the value is extracted from it in the form of the resources, property built, or another development project. In Indigenous worldview, the land has intrinsic value, it is valued on its own, not for its potential economic value. It is much more than economy alone – it is everything – it is “identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our non-human kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground." (Kimmerer, 2013).

This is perhaps an unsettling lesson to learn but it is the most important one. To enact our civic and human responsibility, we need to change our relationship with the land and be responsible to the wellbeing of the land and its human and non-human inhabitants vs. the economic imperative alone. After all, “there are no jobs on a dead planet!”

Learn more from Unist’ot’en protesters here, and from Thomas King on the question of land, an excerpt from King’s The Inconvenient Indian here and from Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass.

By Julia Fursova, PhD, Environmental Studies, York University

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