A man carries an eagle feather as police prepare to enforce an injunction against protesters who were blocking a road used to access to the Port of Vancouver during a demonstration in support of Wet'suwet'en Nation hereditary chiefs on Feb. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Indigenous civil rights blockades should be met with a new diplomacy, not violence

Canada is at a critical crossroads. The Wet’suwet’en conflict brings us to a deciding moment in Canada, one that will shape the future of the nation. The divisive conflict is about land, Indigenous law, human rights and the nature of civil disobedience.

Many Canadians feel inconvenienced, some outraged, by protests and national blockades. Efforts to resolve the conflict have highlighted the longstanding tensions between Canadian law and Indigenous land rights.

The national support for the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs includes the support of an increasing number of First Nations and non-Indigenous Canadians from coast to coast to demand the removal of the RCMP presence on Wet’suwet’en territory.

Indigenous resistance to encroachment on their own lands is being viewed as unlawful rather than as a conscientious act of civil disobedience, similar to historical figures like Rosa Parks, M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Peaceful demonstrations by Indigenous Peoples and allies are acts of conscientious objection to laws that need to be re-examined if we are to move to peaceful co-existence, joint resource governance and wealth management.

Indigenous protesters and allies are standing up against unjust laws by making injustice visible to a larger public.

Increasing numbers of non-Indigenous people are demonstrating their support for the hereditary chiefs across Canada. Those people have been viewed by the premier of Alberta as creating “anarchy”, and by the leader of the Conservative Party as needing to “check their privilege” rather than as people of conscience engaging in the right to protest.

Drummers share a moment during a rally in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, in Ottawa on Feb. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Civil disobedience is a time-honoured practice: a public act to bring attention to injustice when all other legitimate means to communicate and address the issue have failed.

I am a non-Indigenous scholar whose research focuses on the impacts of colonial trauma and the internationalization of Indigenous rights. I am concerned about the way this conflict is being discussed, framed and handled by the Canadian government, mainstream media and everyday Canadians.

Canada not following UNDRIP

The landmark 1997 Supreme Court ruling Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia recognized the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs as the ones who affirm Wet’suwet’en territorial rights.

Therefore, the hereditary chiefs are the cultural and legal representatives of their nation. They have consistently protected their territory in the courts and on their land.

In this vein, they offered an alternative pipeline route to Coastal GasLink that the hereditary chiefs felt could have prevented conflict. The company did not accept the alternate route because of time delays, cost and environmental issues.

Since the hereditary chiefs did not sign the agreements signed by the band councils, Coastal GasLink did not meet the standards of Articles 18 and 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which affirms that “states shall consult and co-operate in good faith with Indigenous Peoples through their own representative institutions.”


Read more: The road to reconciliation starts with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples


Chief Alexander McKinnon from Nak'azdli First Nation, one of the elected band chiefs of the twenty band councils along the pipeline route, told CBC that in his community three councillors voted for the pipeline and three against it.

Chief McKinnon decided to vote in favour of the agreement despite a community referendum in which 70 per cent voted against the pipeline. He said his reasons for signing included both pressure from Coastal GasLink as well as his intention to ensure his community would have a voice on environmental decisions.

Echoes of Oka

This is not the first time Canadians have been divided by complex federal, provincial and Indigenous relations. Blockades were also set up in Oka, Québec in 1990, as well as in Ontario and British Columbia in support of the Mohawk resistance to a golf course being built over a burial site.

The 1990 conflict caused intense frustration resulting in Québec police storming the Mohawk barricade at Oka with tear gas and concussion grenades. The attack on the Mohawk barricade resulted in a gun battle and the death of Corp. Marcel Lemay.

The 78-day-standoff ended when the Canadian army forcefully removed Mohawks and their supporters from the land. Waneek Horn-Miller, a 14-year-old Mohawk girl, was critically injured by a soldier’s bayonet.

Following the extreme act of using the Canadian army against Canadian citizens, the federal government established the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) from 1991 to 1996 to improve national understanding of Indigenous issues.

Ellen Gabriel was a spokesperson in 1990 for the land defenders in Oka, Que. Here she is in 2020 joining protesters blocking the highway in Kanasatake Mohawk Territory, near Oka on Feb. 24, 2020, in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en Nation hereditary chiefs attempting to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline on their traditional territories. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

A lot has happened since Oka. We must ask how far have we come and what have we learned.

In 1990, few Canadians were aware of the residential school policies that sparked the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008-15), and UNDRIP had neither been signed, nor Bill 41 passed in the B.C. legislature..

As an increasing number of Canadians stand together with Indigenous peoples to support reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, we must look at this as a civil rights movement.

A path forward

Respectful dialogue with Indigenous leadership is essential for social and political stability.

It is also necessary for the Canadian resource industry. The failure of Canada to meet the requirements of the duty to consult and the international rights standards of the United Nations has created an unstable environment for companies that are looking to invest in development on Indigenous lands.

A number of large companies have even withdrawn from significant Canadian resource development projects.

Should the Canadian government decide to break down the barricades as they did at Oka, they would support the claim that “reconciliation is dead,” as recently asserted by Wet’suwet’en matriarch Molly Wickham.

Alternatively, the government can remove the RCMP presence on Wet’suwet’en territory and begin to engage in nation-to-nation dialogue as requested by the hereditary chiefs.

Canada’s civil rights movement is awakening the country. Our resource-dependent nation must begin a new relationship with Indigenous Peoples: one that honours Canadian common law, Indigenous law and the international Indigenous rights standards our country has agreed to implement.

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