Political Corner: You can’t understand the Wet’suwet’en protests without knowing their history

Indigenous laws and sovereignty must be respected for reconciliation to have any meaning

The RCMP perpetuate a legacy of colonial aggression against Indigenous communities. Photo: Jesse Winter/VICE

By: Miriam Abel and Weichun Kua, SFU Students

Many Indigenous land defenders and their allies are outraged by the recent invasion of the Wet’suwet’en territory by the RCMP. Despite the fact that all protesters were unarmed and repeatedly said they were peaceful, the RCMP removed the land defenders at gunpoint during a ceremony for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. 

The Coastal GasLink pipeline — whose proposed construction would cross through Wet’suwet’en cultural and historical sites on their land — prompted protests against the construction. The use of RCMP force against the Wet’suwet’en protestors represents a continuation of history of the RCMP as tools to control and discipline Indigenous communities — one that needs to end immediately.

What most history books will not say is that the RCMP was created to forcibly remove Indigenous people from their traditional territories. Steve Hewitt, a history lecturer at the University of Birmingham, explained in a Global BC interview that the RCMP’s job “effectively, was to clear the plains, the Prairies, of Indigenous people [ . . . ] to displace Indigenous people, to move them onto reserves whether they were willing to go or not.” They were also involved in enforcing the forced removal of Indigenous children into residential schools that became part of the legacy of genocide and intergenerational trauma. With that history in mind, the use of force against the Wet’suwet’en is a colonial act of oppression. 

Instead of continuing the historical narrative of violence against Indigenous people, Premier John Horgan could have agreed to engage in dialogue on behalf of the BC government with the Wet’suwet’en Nation as they requested

What is needed in times like these is a respectful conversation that is informed by history and embedded in a moral system that considers everyone. This specifically includes respecting Indigenous laws. If the BC government had decided to approach the Wet’suwet’en and their concerns with the respect and peacefulness that the Wet’suwet’en brought forth, the principles of reconciliation would have been prioritized and truly acknowledged.

But the goal of the capitalist, settler-colonial government has always been to fracture and subordinate Indigenous people and their interests. Part of Canada’s efforts to control and marginalise Indigenous people have been to divide them into elected and hereditary chiefs. 

As a Tyee article explains, “Under the Indian Act, those who are recognized by the federal government as having First Nations ‘status’ are grouped into bands, led by a chief and council elected by the band members.” Elected chiefs and band councils have authorities, powers, and jurisdiction on the reserve land base itself. And where the border of the reserve ends, so ends their power and jurisdiction. Additionally, these did not extinguish or completely eliminate the legal systems that existed before contact.

Hereditary chiefs are appointed through traditional and family ties. Part of their role is to preserve the knowledge, traditions, and ways of life of their nations — which includes historical and vital connections to the land. The hereditary role is seen as focused on protecting the traditional territory. 

Since the Wet’suwet’en have never signed a treaty with Canada over their land, their territory is not a reserve. This causes disagreement about who consents to the pipeline on the Wet’suwet’en territory and for what reason. The escalation could have been avoided if provincial and federal leaders had been willing to meet with hereditary chiefs about the pipeline — but they refused. 

This is why the public, Indigenous people, and their allies have started standing up in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people. Throughout the last few weeks, several protests across Canada have taken place. Train track blockades, intersection access to ports, and occupation of BC’s legislature have been the main tactics used to disrupt Canada’s economic activity. Land defenders want to pressure the government to remove the RCMP and respect the Wet’suwet’en, which means respecting their laws, their sovereignty on their unceded territory, and their land rights.  

What is happening on Wet’suwet’en territory exemplifies how Canada has disregarded reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous people in the past and throughout the present. Reconciliation is prioritized when it is convenient and beneficial to the government, as during elections. Land rights are only respected if it suits the government’s economic needs. Indigenous existence is only acknowledged if it does not challenge the status quo.