A standoff between Indigenous land defenders and a Canadian energy company has broader implications

November 23, 2021, 8:06 PM UTC

About 600 miles northwest of Vancouver, Canada lies the home of the Wet’suwet’en, a First Nations people who currently number about 3,000. 

In January 2020, the Gidimt’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation served an eviction notice to the workers of the Coastal GasLink project, a natural gas pipeline that’s currently under construction by Calgary-based TC Energy. The pipeline’s route traverses the Canadian Rockies through their land, and has been cited by the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office for numerous violations, including harm to indigenous species and contamination of watersheds. The violations have impacted some 68 protected wetland areas across the pipeline’s route.

Last week, Wet’suwet’en officials and Haudenosaunee allies executed on the notice by blockading the road and shutting down the project. “The Morice Forest Service Road has been destroyed and access to Coastal Gaslink is no longer possible,” they said in a Twitter post that included a video of their action. “Yesterday, we took our land back. With our Haudenosaunee allies, we enforced our ancient trespass laws and have permanently closed access to our territory.”

Some 500 Coastal GasLink employees were stranded by the action

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have begun enforcing a B.C. Supreme Court injunction that allows for construction to continue, arresting 29 protesters, along with some local journalists. 

Yesterday, actor Leonardo DiCaprio took to Twitter to comment. “After setting up a blockade to protect their land, community, and sacred headwaters Wedzin Kwa from Coastal GasLink’s planned fracked gas pipeline, the Wet’suwet’en Nation has faced militarized raids from the RCMP,” he posted. “We must protect the rights of land defenders.”

All of this is an important story, and it deserves wider coverage. But aside from the facts of this case, it prompted me to think about what happens when a government fails to negotiate in good faith with people who have clearly been harmed.

The Wet’suwet’en Nation has been actively engaged in negotiations with the governments of British Columbia and Canada, recently reflected in a memo of understanding dated on February 29, 2020. The document makes the Wet’suwet’en demands clear: That their unique system of governance be recognized as valid, their Aboriginal rights and title be respected, and that harm done to their, lands, health, and economic wellbeing continue to be addressed.

This has become, it seems, a pointless exercise.

Consider the two-day Frank LaMere Presidential Forum held in Sioux City during the height of the Democratic Presidential contest in 2019. It was the first serious political convening centering on Indigenous issues in more than a decade. Eight candidates showed up.

While a clear set of needs emerged, Vox asked six Indigenous leaders living in the U.S. to address the history of broken treaties. Their answers are long, but worth a read, especially during the Thanksgiving season. 

Two big themes emerge. One, that the negotiation process has been exhausting, and in some cases, deeply scarring.

“Our people had agreed to these treaties in the hopes of finding reprieve from the genocide that was being perpetrated against us by the California government and citizens. Some of my own family members signed these treaties, and later they would tell stories about how hard-fought these negotiations were and how they struggled to reconcile what they had to compromise in order to protect future generations and to protect our lands and more-than-human relatives,” says Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, Hoopa Valley Tribe/Yurok/Karuk, and department chair of Native American studies at Humboldt State University. “When tribes would come to the table to negotiate treaties, they weren’t thinking only about the present, they were thinking about many generations into the future. Their negotiations were about relationship, responsibility, respect, and reciprocity.”

The other is that there is a sufficient foundation to make a significant difference in the lives of tribal communities, but only if there is sufficient political will to do so.

“[I]nstead of trying to undo it, get out of it, or change it in a way that breaks it down, the US government must actually embrace [existing treaties] and do the most it can to uphold these obligations in a respectful government-to-government relationship — working with the tribes, not against them,” says Liz Medicine Crow, Haida/Tlingit, president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute.

“And on a personal level, to be a patriot and a citizen of the US means to back up the commitments of this country by upholding and honoring these in-perpetuity obligations to the Indigenous peoples of these lands. Teach it in pre-K-12th grade schools, universities, technical, and trade programs. Make it a basic tenet of your community engagement and best business practices to establish good relationships with local and nearby tribes and tribal citizens. Perform meaningful land acknowledgments at your gatherings and conferences. Educate yourself, your families, and your faith and community organizations about these American responsibilities.”

I’ll start.

I write this column from the occupied lands of the Kiikaapoi, Kaskaskia, and Osage people. Their stories ended badly, but it’s in our power to turn things around going forward.(You can use this map to find out whose land you are occupying.)

I’ll keep an eye on the pipeline issue, but more so, I promise to do a better job reporting on the intersection between Indigenous rights, government, and business.

While it’s nice to have a movie star tweet out your cause, it’s better not to need them to.

Ellen McGirt

Grateful for all of you. RaceAhead returns on November 30.

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.


Exploitation on indigenous land? A no-go. Speaking of, while you're seated around the turkey table this weekend, it's best that wherever you may be, do some research on what Indigenous land you're occupying—and what we've done to it. 
Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

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