Canadians take pride in our identity as a peaceful nation that celebrates diversity. These are indeed wonderful ideals but to be authentic, they need to be lived.
In 1990, a community in Quebec wanted to expand its golf course and claimed the right to traditional Indigenous lands. The Mohawk people blocked this process and when the provincial police used force to seize their territory, the Oka Crisis began.
Living in Montreal at that time, I was shocked by what I saw because it shattered what I so deeply believed we were as a nation. What the Mohawk were asking for was perfectly reasonable from the start. How could anyone even think of taking their neighbour’s land to build a golf course?
The Mohawk people bravely and unflinchingly held their ground and the crisis ended several months later with no golf course being built.
As a people, Canadians looked at ourselves and realized we had to do better.
Then-prime minister Stephen Harper apologized in Parliament to residential school survivors in 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its report in 2015, the British Columbia government recognized the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2019, and we seemed to be moving forward as a country.
Thirty years after Oka, however, history is repeating itself in northern B.C.
The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are opposed to a natural gas pipeline being built by a company called Coastal GasLInk through their traditional territory. They have set up non-violent blockades, preventing construction, and Coastal GasLink has acquired court injunctions requiring them to leave. Footage from the American news program Democracy Now shows large numbers of heavily armed police forcing their way through blockades and arresting protesters.
Canadian media coverage has largely distorted Wet’suwet’en claims to their territory by stating that Indigenous groups have already given their approval of the project and the B.C. and Canadian governments have given assurance that the Coastal GasLink project will go through.
It’s necessary, however, to take a broader look at the issue. First, divide-and-conquer tactics have been used by colonial powers for hundreds of years to get Indigenous groups to succumb to their wishes.
Secondly, governments in Canada still use the Indian Act of 1867 as a basis for their dealings with Indigenous peoples. Though it has been revised, this piece of legislation was written with no regard for traditional Indigenous governance. This is not surprising since it was designed to facilitate the destruction of Indigenous culture and the assimilation of Indigenous people into Euro-centric Canadian society.
Thirdly, it’s important to note that there were very few treaties ever signed in B.C. and much Indigenous territory is rightly described as unceded, including the land where the Wet’suwet’en are protesting.
In an effort to resolve the issue, the B.C. government recently appointed former federal MP Nathan Cullen as a liaison. Speaking from the area of the protest, Cullen stated, “The (B.C.) parliament just a few months ago stood and voted and passed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If the current government thinks they can just do something in parliament but not actually enforce it on the land, then I don’t know what that vote means.”
Many people in northern B.C. will be angry if the Coastal GasLink pipeline doesn’t go through. As a homeowner in the area, I can certainly see the financial benefits.
At the same time, just like I knew it was wrong during the Oka Crisis to build a golf course on my neighbour’s land, I know it’s wrong to use force to build a natural gas pipeline through the territory of a people who are so good to me, allowing me to call northern British Columbia my home, too.
I know Canada isn’t perfect but I believe we can become the people we say we are. For this reason, my conscience requires that I stand with the Wet’suwet’en people in opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.