Members of the indigenous Wet’suwet’en Nation and their supporters are locked in struggle over a planned pipeline to be built through their territory. As explained here, the full force of the Canadian state has been brought to bear against the protesters. The following article explores Wet’suwet’en struggle, the mood of anger it has tapped into, the protest movement it has provoked, and the way forward.
This year, after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) attacks we saw the spontaneous eruption of a marvelous solidarity movement across the country – a movement that has governments in a panic and the ruling class terrified.
There have been solidarity demonstrations and occupations across Canada. Railways have been blockaded in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Ports were shut down in Vancouver. MPs were unable to enter the provincial legislature in Victoria for several days, and roads and bridges, including the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island (PEI), were blocked around the country.
Faced with the rail blockades, and wanting to put pressure on the federal government, Canada National (CN) rail shut down the entire rail network east of Toronto, and Via Rail had to shut down most passenger trains across the country for the first time in its history. While some of these blockades have since been taken down and/or removed, others continue to spring up and more solidarity demonstrations are planned.
There are many reasons for the difference between last year and this year, but one key element is the continued accumulation of anger in society. People can no longer stomach the daily injustices of capitalism.
Despite all the talk of “reconciliation”, conditions in Indigenous communities continue to deteriorate, and nothing is done to alleviate them. The question of Indigenous rights and title continues to be ignored while the RCMP invade unceded Wet’suwet’en lands on behalf of an oil and gas corporation.
The world economic crisis continues to deepen. Inequality continues to grow unabated as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Austerity is rammed down our throats, unemployment is on the rise, wages are low, and rent is unaffordable. Governments promise action on climate change, but do nothing. It is not an accident that there has now been a qualitative change in the anger people feel towards the system, and that this has led people to take decisive action.
The struggle of the Wet’suwet’en and the solidarity actions must also be seen in the broader international context. In the past year we have seen mass movements erupt in country after country – in Hong Kong, France, Catalonia, Haiti, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, to mention a few. We also saw the mass climate change protests and movements that swept the world, including a large demonstration in Toronto and a truly massive one in Montreal.
The reasons behind the eruption of the anger of the masses was powerfully summed up by one of the slogans from the movement in Chile: “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”. The movement in Chile was sparked by a 30-peso hike in subway fares, but was really an expression of the accumulated anger after decades of privatization and austerity. The 30 pesos was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. This slogan expresses the situation in all countries around the world.
For the Wet’suwet’en, other Indigenous communities, and their allies it’s not just about questions of title and pipelines, but centuries of colonialism, subjugation, and genocide, as well as decades of austerity, growing poverty and inequality, the lack of jobs, unaffordable housing, and poor pay. Enough is enough – and after people saw the recent RCMP invasion of Wet’suwet’en lands, they had had enough.
The power of the people is on display across the world. There is a renewed sense of confidence in those fighting inequality and injustice and a growing realization that we are fighting against common enemies – the capitalist class and its state. The Wet’suwet’en are at the forefront of this struggle in Canada, literally on the front lines, and this is why many people – who face the same enemies – have come out to support them and join the fight.
While the Wet’suwet’en struggle and solidarity movement in Canada are not necessarily on the same mass scale as other places around the world, they have a level of militancy not seen in years in this country and for this reason are significant.
Baying for blood
If the response of those in support of the Wet’suwet’en has been more determined, the response of opponents has likewise been increasingly rabid and vile. There is not a lot of middle ground on the issue, and this reflects the deepening polarization of society.
The right wing has been baying for blood. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer have been at the forefront of this, appealing to the more politically backward layers of society in an effort to justify a heavy-handed police or military response to the blockades.
Kenney and Scheer have since been joined by Quebec Premier François Legault. Not a day after a Quebec Solidaire motion calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and adherence to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights on Indigenous Peoples was adopted unanimously in the National Assembly, Legault is now in talks with Quebec provincial police about taking down the barricades and is taking the lead on a coordinated police response on the part of the provincial governments.
Scheer, Kenney and others constantly argue that the solidarity actions are the work of “radical activists” who are “holding the country’s economy hostage”. Derek Burney, a former ambassador to the US and former CEO of Bell Canada, has openly called on the government to send in the police and “if necessary” the military to clear the blockades. He went on to call for the deportation of non-citizens joining protests. Murray Mullen, CEO of the Mullen Group, which provides trucking services in the oil patch, called the blockades a form of “eco-terrorism”. He later walked back slightly from those comments, but the idea that Indigenous protesters and their allies blocking roads and railways are “terrorists” stands behind everything right-wing politicians and corporate heads have been saying about the situation.
Similarly, it is also no accident that in relation to the police clearing a rail blockade earlier this year during the Co-op Refinery lockout in Regina, Police Chief Evan Bray recently called the tactic of blockades by striking workers “borderline terrorist work”. The message is clear: interfering with the economic interests of the ruling class and harming their profits, whether by strike action or protest, amounts to “terrorism” in the eyes of the ruling class.
Jason Kenney has been urging police action against the barricades and has explicitly stated that he believes these current blockades “are a dress rehearsal for illegal protests against pretty much any major project”. He later stated that while he understood that the police have their protocols and that immediately enforcing a court order might not be prudent, “to allow things like this to go on for weeks, I think, creates a licence for illegal protests and only emboldens those who are thumbing their nose at the rule of law, at the democratic decisions made by Canada, by First Nations and the legal decisions made by our courts.”
The actions of a relatively small number of people blockading the railroads has scared the ruling class and governments. It is notable that while the numbers taking direct action are small, their actions are widely supported. That these actions can have such huge economic and political ramifications concerns the ruling class deeply in and of itself, but what they are absolutely terrified of is the prospect that, when the class struggle really heats up and the working class moves decisively, the entire country could be totally shut down.
A few rail blockades around the country have shut down a major part of the rail network and seriously disrupted the economy, but what would happen in the event of a rail strike or a general strike? The prospect of such a movement by the working class has the bourgeoisie truly terrified.
These types of statements and the painting of civil disobedience as “terrorism” on the part of the bourgeoisie and its politicians show very clearly the approach a section of the ruling class would like to take in relation to the class struggle.
The class struggle is intensifying and the bourgeoisie are preparing to use the heavy hand of the state to crush working class and Indigenous struggle. Kenney, Scheer, and Legault are itching to send in the police to smash the railway barricades and to serve as a warning for any future strikes or protests that interfere seriously with the profits of the ruling class.
The rule of law
What about the NDP? Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has said that Trudeau must meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and appoint a mediator. But he is silent about BCNDP Premier John Horgan who refuses to meet with the chiefs and is arguing the raids and the building of the pipeline are the “rule of law”.
In fact, Singh also supports the pipeline and said he supported the “rule of law” when asked about RCMP action last year. The rule of colonial law is precisely what led to this situation in the first place, so what exactly does this mean anyway?
This failure of the NDP to take a clear stand is why there is no enthusiasm around the party. For a start, the party needs to clearly support the Wet’suwet’en, as many unions have done, and call for the withdrawal of the police, stopping pipeline construction, and commit to overturning oppressive state policy against Indigenous peoples – starting with ending boil water advisories on reserve.
Blocking critical infrastructure such as railways and ports is technically speaking an offence under Canadian law, but can hardly be considered “terrorism”. These types of actions are really a form of civil disobedience. It should not be forgotten that civil disobedience is a key tool in the hands of the working class in the class struggle.
Moreover, the struggle against unjust laws and other injustices, whether it be the invasion of unceded Wet’suwet’en lands or unjust anti-union laws, requires the defiance of the law. We cannot forget for example that it was only by defying unjust laws that trade unions came to exist in the first place.
How else can the Wet’suwet’en and their allies defend their rights and their land? The law in Canada recognizes that the title of the hereditary chiefs over traditional Wet’suwet’en lands has not been extinguished, yet the federal government refuses to recognize Wet’suwet’en “claims” to their land. The law in British Columbia now also formally includes the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is supposed to guarantee Indigenous people free, prior and informed consent with respect to the use of their lands, none of which have been granted to the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. In response to calls for their rights to be recognized they face RCMP invasions of their lands.
All things being equal, Canadian law should be on the side of the Wet’suwet’en. This is very clear from the 1997 Delgamuukw v British Columbia ruling. Legally speaking, Wet’suwet’en lands were never ceded and their title over their lands was never extinguished. The rule of law should mean that the rights of the Wet’suwet’en be respected on their own land.
However, the reality is that the law is being used against the Wet’suwet’en, to justify the invasion of Wet’suwet’en lands, and the arrest of the land defenders. Under capitalism, the rule of law has and will always mean the rule of law in the interests of the capitalist class. This was very clear when B.C. Premier John Horgan said, “the rule of law applies in British Columbia,” and that, “all the permits are in place for the project and the project will be proceeding.” The rule of law here means not the recognition Wet’suwet’en title, but court injunctions and RCMP raids on behalf of the TC Energy, the corporation that owns the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
The courts and the police are key pillars in the defence of capital and the interests of the ruling class. If the capitalists need to ignore or change laws to crush their enemies, they will. We’ve seen this for centuries in relation to Indigenous peoples, we are seeing this now in relation to the question of Wet’suwet’en title, and we’ve seen it over the past 20 years with the passing of unjust anti-union injunctions and back-to-work legislation, eroding the right to strike.
CN Rail and Via Rail have used the blockades as an excuse to attack rail workers. CN has issued 450 temporary layoffs and Via has issued 1000, blaming the blockades. The goal of the rail companies is to divide Indigenous peoples from the broader working class and pit them against one another. Backward political elements in the union and reactionaries have championed this divide, blaming the rail blockades for job losses.
The fact of the matter is that CN Rail was already planning to lay off 1,600 workers. This was announced last November and according to the company was due to a decline in freight volumes as a result of trade tensions and a weakening North American economy. It was CN Rail and Via Rail that decided to lay off workers in the context of the blockades, not the protesters.
Now we see the miserable spectacle of the leadership of the Teamsters, who represent CN workers, and the bosses coming together to blame the blockades for the layoffs. This is exactly what the bosses want – they want to divide so they can conquer. The real blame for the layoffs lies with CN Rail and with capitalism itself and the profit motive. CN Rail did not have to layoff workers, but chose to do so because it decided that protecting profits was more important than the well-being of the workers.
The Teamsters have publicly called on the federal government to intervene and resolve the crisis “to defend jobs”. Again we see the spectacle of the union siding with the bosses to “defend jobs”, when CN is already planning 1,600 layoffs anyway. These actions on the part of the union leadership will not save any jobs. Such conciliation will only leave the union in a weaker position in the defence of railway jobs.
The Teamsters put a statement on their Facebook page calling on the federal government to intervene against the blockades. Just a few posts above this was a post with an image that says “I am a union worker. That means I am part of an organization that fights not only for my benefit but for all workers. Unions set the standard.”
We of course entirely agree with the above statement, however it seems to be nothing but an empty platitude for the leadership of the rail union. The unions should be fighting for the benefit of all workers – for better pay and for better working and living conditions. But all workers means all workers, including oppressed and subjugated peoples. This struggle for the benefit of all must include Indigenous workers and the struggle for Indigenous rights or it is nothing but an empty slogan.
Working-class Canadians and Indigenous land defenders have the same enemy, who has the whole power of the state behind them. Our strongest weapon is solidarity. An attack against one is an attack against all. Rather than calling on the federal government to intervene, organized labour needs to take action and join the blockades in support of the Wet’suwet’en and struggle together against our common enemy. The railway workers should be joining blockades and shut down the rail network in defence of their jobs and Indigenous rights. This is the best way to defend ourselves and have our demands met.
The Ontario Federation of Labour, the BC Teachers’ Federation, CUPW, CUPE national, CUPE Ontario, UFCW and other unions have issued statements in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. This is an excellent step in the right direction. However, more needs to be done. The leadership of the unions could learn a thing or two from these blockades. More has been achieved in two weeks of blockades – breaking the unjust laws of Canadian capitalism – than 20 years of “reconciliation”.
The unions need to begin taking similar militant action when faced with picket line injunctions and back-to-work legislation. The involvement of organized labour with the solidarity blockades in the form of mass protests and solidarity strikes would be decisive in this situation, and would ensure that the demands of workers and land defenders are met.
The actions of the police and the state can in no way be considered impartial, neutral or apolitical. This can be seen both when the police decide to crack down and when they decide to back off. Both are perfectly in line with the political leadership of the state.
In British Columbia, the RCMP enforced the court injunction with a massive operation and raid against the blockades on Wet’suwet’en land because the provincial and federal governments and TC Energy are desperate to ensure the completion of the largest private investment project in Canadian history. Whether told directly or not to enforce the injunction and dismantle the Wet’suwet’en barricades, the entire political situation and the pressure from the government and ruling class meant that the RCMP were going to enforce the injunction with an overwhelming show of force.
It was a similar situation in Alberta in relation to a solidarity rail blockade set up in Edmonton. CN Rail immediately sought an injunction and Premier Kenney told the police in no uncertain terms that he expected them to act quickly to enforce the injunction. Doug Schweizter, the Alberta Minister of Justice, said on Twitter, “It is my expectation that law enforcement will take all appropriate action to enforce the law,” adding, “Albertans will not be economic hostages to law-breaking extremists.”
Once the injunction was granted he then tweeted, “With this province-wide Order to protect CN’s critical economic infrastructure, it is my expectation that law enforcement will act expeditiously against any future blockades during the 30-day injunction. To remove all doubt, Albertans will not be economic hostages while lawbreakers block critical infrastructure such as rail lines.”
With clear instructions from the Alberta government, the police indeed moved quickly to enforce the injunction. However, in the end the police didn’t have to enforce it – the blockade was eventually broken up by reactionaries under the protection of police.
This “vigilantism”, i.e. an attack by reactionary thugs, was cheered on by federal Conservative leadership candidate Peter Mackay when he tweeted, “Glad to see a couple Albertans with a pickup truck can do more for our economy in an afternoon than Justin Trudeau could do in four years.”
This has only emboldened the far right, which has been calling for violent action against the blockades. Similar actions by far-right thugs are now being organized elsewhere in the country. This also shows us that some sections of the ruling class want to use not only the police against protests and strikes, but also extra-legal means.
In Ontario and Quebec the situation has been slightly different. After a conference call Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier François Legault said that they considered the matter a federal problem, adding that it was not their responsibility and that it was “up to Justin Trudeau to solve the problem”.
The provincial governments had a sense that if they were to act without instruction from the federal government, they could find themselves in the middle of an explosion of anger and protest with a national crisis already spiralling out of control. The provincial police in Ontario and Quebec received the message, and while they delivered injunctions to the blockades, they did not move to enforce them or arrest protesters. This wasn’t out of the kindness of their hearts – they would love to move on the blockades. This lack of action on the part of the provincial police in Ontario and Quebec reflects the will of the state.
Once Trudeau returned to the country he signalled that his government wanted to negotiate and was committed to “dialogue”, understanding that an immediate, heavy-handed police or military response would result in a real explosion of anger and protest across the country. Trudeau was hoping that the rail blockades would peter out with the promise of “dialogue” alone and that his government would not have to do anything. The police thus acted accordingly.
The situation led to a mini revolt on the part of some of the provincial governments against the federal government. Legault, reflecting the economic pressure the blockades have caused and the prospect of shortages of essential goods such as propane and chlorine to treat tap water, has been the most hardline. He has refused to rule out the use of force, and wants Ottawa to send in the police sooner rather than later.
Legault has called on Trudeau to set a deadline for the end of negotiations and wants all provincial premiers to launch coordinated police action to remove all blockades across the country at the same time.
The Trudeau government has offered to meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs but these offers have gone unanswered. Some of the chiefs are currently in Tyendinaga meeting with protesters who have blockaded the railway there in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. The protesters in Tyendinaga have said they will not take down their blockade until the RCMP have left the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en. The Wet’suwet’en chiefs have themselves said they will not meet with the federal government until the RCMP have left their territory, along with Coastal GasLink workers.
The federal government was quick to announce that the RCMP were committed to leaving Wet’suwet’en lands. As if this would be enough to resolve the situation, and ignoring the demand for Coastal GasLink workers to also leave, Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair was quick to say that “I think now circumstances are such that those barricades should come down.” It was obvious from the beginning that this was nothing but a media stunt and it was accordingly ignored by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
It turned out that the RCMP had not left and had no intention of leaving. One of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs spoke to the RCMP watch commander there who said he had not heard of any directive to leave or pull out of the area, explaining that the news that they were leaving was untrue. In fact the Wet’suwet’en chiefs have explained that since the announced withdrawal, the RCMP has increased harassment, made illegal arrests and increased surveillance on Wet’suwet’en lands.
Reconciliation is dead – Revolution is alive
“Reconciliation” is well and truly dead. While many Indigenous people were willing to give it a chance in the hopes of winning real gains for their communities and a potential end to centuries of oppression, for the governments and ruling class of Canada it was nothing more than a smokescreen to allow them to continue the same policies of subjugation and colonialism they have always pursued.
As the land defenders, blockades, and protests have stubbornly refused to peter off, Trudeau has now given up any pretense of “dialogue”, saying that, “the barricades need to come down now”. Knowing full well that he has brought nothing to the table and is unwilling to meet the conditions of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Trudeau is now blaming them and says “we cannot have dialogue when only one party is coming to the table. For this reason, we have no choice but to stop making the same overtures.”
This in all likelihood means that the Trudeau government will be planning some sort of police or military response in order to dismantle the blockades. In fact, Trudeau will send in the police precisely because he never had any interest in negotiation or dialogue.
The defeat and dismantling of the Tyendinaga outpost, at the forefront of the movement, would be a serious blow to oppressed people everywhere. The labour movement and allies of the Wet’suwet’en cannot leave Tyendinaga to face this fight alone. A defeat for them is a defeat for the entire working class.
If and when the police or military move against the rail blockades, there will also likely be a general crackdown on all actions of protest and civil disobedience in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. Now, more than ever, unity and solidarity are our strength in this fight. All those who stand in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, including the trade unions, must be prepared to take decisive, militant solidarity action in order to defend Indigenous rights, defend the blockades, and to continue the fight for Indigenous rights and the interests of all working people.
A recent article on the Unist’ot’en camp website says the following:
“Canada invades. Invades on behalf of industry. Invades during ceremony. Canada tears us from our land. Tears us from our families, from our homes. Takes our drums away. Takes our women away. Jails us for protecting the land, for being in ceremony, for honouring our ancestors.
“On February 10, RCMP invaded unceded Unist’ot’en territory, arresting and forcibly removing Freda Huson (Chief Howilhkat), Brenda Michell (Chief Geltiy), Dr. Karla Tait, and four Indigenous land defenders from our yintah. They were arrested in the middle of a ceremony to honour their ancestors. Police tore down the red dresses that were hung to hold the spirits of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two spirit people. They extinguished our sacred fire.
“We have had enough. Enough dialogue, discussion, negotiation at the barrel of a gun. Canada comes to colonize. Reconciliation is dead. It is time to fight for our land, our lives, our children, our future. Revolution lives.”
We couldn’t agree more. Reconciliation is dead. Revolution is alive. The railways have been shut down. Now it’s the time to shut down the country, shut down the colonial legacy of Canada, and shut down capitalism.