By: Gabrielle McLaren, Editor-in-Chief
Following a rally in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation at Convocation Mall, a group of Indigenous and settler students marched down Burnaby Mountain to block part of the intersection at Gaglardi Way and University Drive East. SFU students joined others across the province and the country in the March 4 National Student Walkout. The road was blocked for over 40 minutes.
Event organizers preceded the march down to Gaglardi by describing the itinerary to students and notifying the crowd that SFU Security was present. They were clear that students concerned for their safety should reach out to event organizers.
“Know that you protect each other [ . . . ] Just do what you think is right for yourself and make sure that you are with a group,” said Baby Lee-Young, one of the event’s organizers who identified during the rally as a second-generation settler.
SFSS President Giovanni HoSang and one of the rally speakers Kayah, a student of the Tulalip and Tsleil-Waututh nations, led the group in chants as they walked down the mountain. Students carried signs ranging from the SFSS’s “In Solidarity” banner to homemade signs reading “No Pipeline on Stolen Land,” “The Métis Nation stands in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en,” and “Reconciliation is Dead.” Chants and singing continued for as long as the line was held.
Traffic up and down Gaglardi Road was partially blocked. Some buses did stop and unload passengers (some of whom joined the line), and some vehicles coming up the mountain were redirected to University Drive. Masked protestors and students encouraged drivers to make U-turns back up the mountain and leave by following University Drive East down to the Burnaby Mountain Parkway.
SFU Security was on the scene, as were TransLink transit supervisors.
Student reactions at the intersection and on social media
Content note: the following section includes threats of violence issued against students. Readers may skip to the next header to read about the event’s closure, including thoughts from Indigenous participants.
Students were met with various reactions from passersby, including honks, bicycle bells ringing, heckling, and cheers. A masked protestor who helped students organize on the street and direct traffic away from the blocked street warned students that drivers may attempt to inch closer to them as a scare tactic.
They later informed The Peak that one driver who refused to go back up the mountain threatened to drive through protestors. A cement truck driver honked for over 10 minutes before turning around to the sound of cheering and applause.
In regards to the backlash, one leader reminded students that “Indigenous people do this every day!” before leading a chant: “What do we do when Indigenous rights are under attack?” / “Stand up, fight back!”
Students who weren’t in attendance took to social media to spread the news and share their thoughts. A post in the Facebook group Must Knows for Courses at SFU had a range of comments, including one comment with over 30 Likes reading “Lol what a fucking joke. Anyone participating in this is a degenerate.”
Another student, whose comment received over 100 Likes read: “Reminder that, just like the TransLink strike, the people who have the power to stop this are the government. If you are angry that infrastructure is being blocked, be angry at the government for not respecting the basic rights of [I]ndigenous peoples according to provincial, federal, and international law. The government is responsible for the inconvenience you’re incurring, not the protesters.”
Some students also reacted with humour, including one who wrote “lol if it weren’t for the protest, one would think the 145 broke down again . . .” to which someone else replied “pick your poison I suppose!”
Students on the SFU subreddit noted that the protest was an inconvenience to them. One user wrote: “I had to walk down the entire mountain to Burquitlam. Halfway through my trip I guess they started letting buses through so I watched around 10 pass me by on my journey. Great times.”
Other users called for protesters to be arrested. One student wished that “it was legal to run them off the road” and another asked “Is it your fault if you run them over?” Another student, who insisted that the nature of protests was to disrupt, wrote “I’m sorry you were minorly inconvenienced, I guess.”
In an email interview with The Peak, HoSang wrote that he was pleased with the turnout at both the rally and partial blockade. He noted that “The SFSS has received some complaints regarding some inconvenience that the partial blockade had caused and I appreciate their patience.”
He emphasized that an alternative pathway to exit the mountain was undisturbed by students, and added: “I would love to refer folks to our statement regarding actions in solidarity and why it is necessary for student unions to use our collective power to stand in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en.”
Two members of the RCMP arrived shortly after students walked off the street to reconvene on the grass on the side of the road.
Closing the event
Students gathered on a patch of grass off the road and an Indigenous student named April smudged the circle. She took the time to explain to The Peak what smudging was and why smudging the circle — something she had never done before — was important to her.
“I brought my medicines with me just in case,” April explained. “ . . . I smudged the circle with sage to allow space for positive energy because sage clears the negative air. These are my traditional teachings, they have been gifted to me, this eagle feather that I use, it was a gift to me, and it’s not something that’s done very casually. I thought that it was appropriate in this situation though.”
April also shared her view of the event, which she considers a demand of human rights more than anything else. She reminded students to be critical of media at this time, and encouraged them to always refer back to sources from the front lines.
“Being silent is being a bystander,” she said when encouraging students to be vocal on social media. “Make posts, put them on your story, and share correct information.”
Saskia, a Heiltsuk student who spoke at the rally, addressed the group before students returned to Burnaby Mountain to go home. She expressed how unique the wave of solidarity for the Wet’suwet’en was.
“I’m hearing it from people who have been on the front lines their whole lives, that this is different [ . . . ] because the settler population is taking interest in our lives and our livelihoods and our water and our health, the health of our Earth. And we as Indigenous people are the custodians of this land.”
Kayah called the experience beautiful.
“To stand shoulder to shoulder with each and every one of you was absolutely amazing,” she said. “Wet’suwet’en, and all the youth, and all the Indigenous people, and the future generations, and the land, and the water thank you all for being here, for standing up, and being strong.”