In Canada, Indigenous Peoples

Photo: Amber Bracken / Narwhal

Editorials in high-circulation English language Canadian newspapers are omitting crucial information about the status of Wet‘suwet’en territory and United Nations positions on Indigenous self-determination, cherry-picking aspects of Canadian law that serve their arguments, and endorsing state repression of land defenders and their supporters irrespective of the violence this would entail.

Further reading:

Canada’s Trudeau Government Uses RCMP Officers To Stifle Dissent

Wet’suwet’en raids: Canada chooses colonialism again

By Gregory Shupak

Published on FAIR, Mar 25, 2020
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Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) began raids on the territory of the Wetsuwet’en Indigenous nation on February 6—arresting as many as 80 Indigenous land defenders in the first days of the incursion—to dismantle camps that the Wetsuwet’en had established on their land to prevent construction of a $6.6 billion liquid natural gas pipeline being built by Coastal GasLink, which is owned by TC Energy.

RCMP arresting Freda Huson, founder of the Unist’ot’en healing center, to clear the way for building a gas pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land (Narwhal, 2/10/20). (photo: Amber Bracken/Narwhal)

The police were enforcing an injunction from the British Columbia (BC) Supreme Court, though the Wetsuwet’en have never ceded control of their land to Canada. Under Wetsuwet’en law (Canadian Observer, 2/7/20), hereditary chiefs have authority over their territory. They opposed the pipeline, though it has support from the elected Wet’suwet’en band councils that were created under the Indian Act, which Canada unilaterally imposed on Indigenous peoples in 1876.

Coast-to-coast solidarity actions by Indigenous peoples and their supporters began in response to the RCMP raids, most notably in the form of road, highway and rail blockades, including a shut-down of the country’s principle east-west rail link. Blockades led to significant service halts by VIA Rail, Canada’s main rail passenger rail service, and disruptions in the operations of CN Rail, a major freight railway and the country’s only transcontinental railway.

A pickup truck with a Confederate flag on its dashboard drove through a highway blockade in BC (Global, 2/11/20). In Saskatchewan, a man drove into people blocking a highway (Global, 2/12/20). Indigenous peoples faced a deluge of racism (Al-Jazeera, 3/2/20), including death threats (Al-Jazeera, 3/1/20)

I looked at every editorial that the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, Canada’s two highest-circulation English-language newspapers published on the issue since the RCMP encroachment on February 6: The center-right Globe ran five, and the liberal Star published four.  The editorials omitted crucial information about the status of Wetsuwet’en territory and United Nations positions on Indigenous self-determination, cherry-picked aspects of Canadian law that serve their arguments, and endorsed state repression of land defenders and their supporters irrespective of the violence this would entail.

What’s missing

The Wetsuwet’en, like almost all Indigenous nations in BC, and many from across the lands that Canada claims for itself, have never ceded their territory to Canada. While Canada has failed to honor many of the treaties that it has signed with Indigenous peoples, and while these agreements don’t necessarily entail the latter giving Canada sovereignty over Indigenous land, at no point have the Wetsuwet’en signed away their territory to Canada (National Observer, 1/24/20).

“The Maritimes, nearly all of British Columbia and a large swath of eastern Ontario and Quebec, which includes Ottawa, sit on territories that were never signed away by the Indigenous people who inhabited them before Europeans settled in North America,” the National Observer (1/24/20) reported.

This fact is absolutely central to the Wetsuwet’en issue and the blockades resulting from it, because it undermines the notion that Canada has a right to send the RCMP into Wetsuwet’en to enforce a Canadian court order: It takes extraordinary intellectual contortions to imagine that one nation, Canada, has the right to enforce its will by sending police into another nation, the Wetʼsuwetʼen First Nation, when the Wetʼsuwetʼen have never surrendered their sovereignty to Canada (Now, 1/19/19).

Yet none of the Globe and Star editorials from the relevant period mention that Wetsuwet’en land has not been ceded to Canada. The publications’ editors are opting not to pass along this vital information to their audiences, large portions of whom are unlikely to be versed in the details of Canadian treaties. The papers’ editors simply take for granted that Canada has the right to enact its will on Indigenous people, thereby treating Canadian colonialism as a natural and thus unchangeable condition.

Nor do any of the pertinent Globe and Star editorials make any reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) that Canada became a party to in 2017—after 10 years of Canada being one of the few countries in the world to object to it—and which BC passed legislation to legally implement in October. To give only a small sample of the many provisions in the UNDRIP that speak to the Wetsuwet’en question:

  • Article 3 says: “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
  • Article 4 is: “Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”
  • Article 5 reads: “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.”
  • Article 32, Section 2 says:States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

Dispatching Canadian police into Wetsuwet’en territory to enforce Canadian court rulings clearly infringes on the Wetsuwet’en “right to self-determination,” to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic…development,” their right to “self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, and their right “to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal [and] economic . . . institutions.” It was the second consecutive year that Wetsuwet’en people set up a blockade to prevent construction of the pipeline, which makes it abundantly clear that a significant portion of the nation does not “consent” to a “project affecting their lands or territories.”

Yet the editors of the two most widely read newspapers in Canada declined to inform readers that the country in which they live was violating a United Nations resolution.

Less than three weeks before the police invasion of Wetsuwet’en territory, the Globe did run an editorial (1/16/20) on the UNDRIP, though it was to say that Canada should not incorporate the resolution into its legal system, criticizing the view that “free, prior and informed consent” amounts to “endors[ing] a veto for a single [Indigenous] opponent” of pipelines such as Coastal GasLink’s.

According to the editors, Canada does not need the UNDRIP, because it supposedly “already has a rigorous and well-developed Indigenous legal framework.” But the Calls to Action put forth in 2015 by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which focused on the genocide Canada carried out against Indigenous peoples through the residential school system—said that all levels of government in Canada should “fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation,” and called on corporations like Coastal GasLink to obtain “the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects.”

Similarly, in December the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination criticized Canada for proceeding with the pipeline without the “free, prior and informed consent of impacted Indigenous groups,” and recommended (CBC, 1/7/20) that

Canada establish a legal and institutional framework to ensure adequate consultation to obtain free, prior and informed consent, and freeze present and future approval of large-scale development projects that don’t meet that level of consent.

But none of the Globe or Star editorials in the relevant period mention this point, evidently concluding that the findings of a UN committee charged with eliminating racism are irrelevant to the discussion.

Law and order

The Globe and Mail (2/13/20) editorialized that “the rule of law must be enforced”—which did not include Wet’suwet’en law, or international law.

Two-thirds of the editorials under consideration—four of the Globe’s five and two of the Star’s four—applied a law-and-order frame to their coverage of the blockades. The one Globe(2/27/20) and two Star editorials (3/3/20, 2/24/20) that did not center around law and order were published when police had dismantled the most impactful rail blockades, or had begun doing so.

The Globe (2/13/20) said of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs that “a minority voice can’t be allowed to…use blockades to prevent a company from going about its lawful business.” Corporate interests, for the Globe and Mail’s editors, supersede Indigenous peoples’ right to govern their land.

As for the rail blockades, the paper wrote:

Patience is a virtue but, at some point, it becomes incumbent on the police to remove protesters who defy the court…. Given the fraught history of their relations with Indigenous people, the police in Ontario have been wise to tolerate illegal blockades while trying to negotiate a resolution, or waiting for the protests to peter out on their own. But at the end of the day, the rule of law must be enforced.

When a publication call for the rule of law to be “enforced”—only, of course, the laws that are convenient to the papers’ case—or for the police to “remove” land defenders and protesters, the paper is advocating violence: People are not “remove[d]” and the law is not “enforce[d]” against land defenders and their supporters without physical coercion. Alternatively, the editors could have stressed the need for negotiation, or—better yet—upholding the UNDRIP and building de-colonial relations for all who inhabit these lands.

The paper (2/19/20) also said that the Trudeau government cannot “allow Canadians to feel…that the rule of law is something they are overly willing to bend,” because an “indefinite rail blockade…involves legal questions not in dispute. There is nothing to negotiate.” When a vigilante group describing itself as “supporters of Alberta oil and gas,” which was “vowing to not stand idle for one day while our country is being taken over” dismantled a rail blockade in Edmonton, the Globe (2/20/20) described this  as a case where

an act outside the law was met with a response beyond the law. That is not how things are supposed to go in Canada, but peace, order and good government are never givens. They risk evaporation if the people responsible for them do not act to preserve them.

Another Globe editorial (2/21/20) decreed:

Barricades on minor roads can run indefinitely. Shutdowns of arterial rail lines cannot. The economy can’t take it, and neither can Canadians’ sense of law and order.

There’s a major problem with prioritizing the alleged need to treat the law as something that can only be minimally “ben[t],” to approach anti-colonial resistance in terms of there being “nothing to negotiate,” to have the laws that supposedly “ensure peace, order and good government” be “preserve[d]” by those “responsible for them” (i.e., the police), and to protect “the economy” and “Canadians’ sense of law and order”: As the editors of the Globe—and the Star—know, both long-term and recent historical precedents show that Canadian police use life-threatening violence in these scenarios, particularly against Indigenous land defenders.

In 1990, Quebec police launched concussion grenades and tear gas canisters in an attack on an encampment of 30 Mohawks resisting expansion of a golf course and construction of luxury condos on a Mohawk burial ground, initiating an exchange of gunfire that left one Quebec police officer dead and a 78-day confrontation during which Canada deployed 3,700 troops and racist mobs hurled rocks at unarmed Mohawks (Montreal Gazette, 7/10/15).

Amid a 1995 armed standoff, the RCMP blew up an Indigenous land defender’s truck and fired 7,000 bullets at them in a single day at Gustafsen Lake (The Tyee, 10/20/09). That same year, an Ontario Provincial Police sniper murdered Dudley George, an unarmed member of a group of people from the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation trying to get the Canadian military to return Indigenous land it expropriated in 1942 to build the Canadian military base Camp Ipperwash on territory that contains a cemetery with graves belonging to First Nations people (CBC, 9/20/15).

Like the Globe, the Star (2/13/20) wrote of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders that it’s not acceptable for “some groups [to] be allowed to ignore the courts indefinitely.” The editors went to assert that “in the end…the rule of law must prevail.”

There’s evidence of what not “allow[ing]” the Wet’suwet’en to exercise their right to self-determination, and of what ensuring that “the rule of law . . . prevail[s],” looks like in practice: In January 2019, RCMP officers carrying assault rifles and dressed in military attire conducted a militarized raid on Wetsuwet’en land defenders and were prepared to kill them, even as police intelligence indicated that there was “no single threat indicating that [land defenders] will use firearms” (Guardian, 12/20/19); the RCMP’s February 2020 attack on the Wet’suwet’en included a tactical squad equipped with rifles (The Tyee, 2/7/20).

Another Star editorial (2/18/20) warned that

the clock is ticking loudly on this crisis, and the government’s patience must not go unrewarded…. Those behind the protests must recognize that there are limits, and they should not expect to be allowed to continue indefinitely.

The editorial acknowledged that “any injury or death would further inflame an already poisoned relationship [between Canada and Indigenous peoples]. We’ve been down that road many times before, and it always ends badly.” But the editors quickly moved on from their apparent concern to endorsing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s position that “this situation must be resolved not only ‘peacefully’ but ‘quickly’ as well,” without acknowledging that there might be a conflict between those two aims.

The Star (2/18/20) declared that “the government’s patience must not go unrewarded.”

Such law-and-order framing is entirely unsuitable for the defense of Wet’suwet’en territory and the rail blockades. When land defenders and their non-Indigenous supporters are cast as criminals rather than as people struggling against colonialism, the message is that their actions are illegitimate and they must be stopped, forcefully if necessary. This method of coverage entails presenting Canadian police and governments as heroes ensuring that divinely ordained Canadian law goes unviolated, stopping the bad guys from inflicting further harm on their victims: corporations and Canadians citizens.

For the Star (2/13/20), the Wet’suwet’en seem to be operating under the rule of “heads I win, tails you lose.” I get to use the legal system when convenient, and ignore it when it doesn’t give the results I like…. No one has the right to hold the country’s vital transportation links hostage to make a political point.

To Star editors, “There is, understandably, a lot of anger across the country, and it would surely be more satisfying to talk tough and demand that protesters stand down immediately—or else”; for the Globe (2/19/20), Canadians are at risk of feeling “powerless.” These are obscene inversions of power dynamics where, this past summer, for the second time in five years, a feature of Canadian society—this time, the widespread murder and disappearance of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people—was found to constitute genocide (Maclean’s, 7/7/19).

Moreover, the law-and-order framing of building the pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory depends on a colonial framework wherein Canadian law counts but Wetsuwet’en law does not, which is convenient, since the latter says that the hereditary chiefs who oppose the pipeline have the authority to make that decision about their traditional territory (Globe, 2/27/20). The frame even depends on applying Canadian law selectively, considering that BC brought the UNDRIP into legal force, and considering that, in the 1997 case of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, Canada’s Supreme Court recognized Wet’suwet’en hereditary governance, and said that Indigenous title and rights exist even if they have not been established in Canadian court (Ricochet, 2/5/20).

For the editors of the Globe and the Star, however, Canadian colonialism and the right to violently enforce it are beyond question.

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Gregory Shupak teaches media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto. His book, The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media, is published by OR Books.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We remind our readers that publication of articles on our site does not mean that we agree with what is written. Our policy is to publish anything which we consider of interest, so as to assist our readers in forming their opinions. Sometimes we even publish articles with which we totally disagree, since we believe it is important for our readers to be informed on as wide a spectrum of views as possible.

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