The Facts: Indigenous Land Claims and the Wet'suwet'en Nation (The Why not the What)
I am not going to be so bold as to say that I support all that has transpired across Canada in regards to the Wet'suwet'en Nation land Claims with 100% certainty, because I have no idea what the people who are directly affected by rail shutdowns and protest blockades are struggling with while they try to navigate their personal and professional worlds to sustain their own. I also truly believe changes can be made without aggression and force and I fully support those who are peacefully addressing these issues without violence or perpetuating lateral abuse or oppression. What I would like to bring into awareness, and all people’s awareness, is to actively engage with how this makes them feel, or makes anyone directly or indirectly affected feel. Are you threatened, scared, violated, a victim or even angry over the events that are unfolding because they are directly affecting your social, economic and political worlds and challenging your rights as a human being and Canadian citizen? If so you are not alone. Many people in Canada are feeling the same way, but no-one in Canada has suffered the same level of human rights abuses and violations to the severity and extent that our Indigenous peoples have been suffering for centuries.
The difference is while non-Indigenous groups grapple with the effects the protests have over Indigenous land claims on their lives, Indigenous people of Canada have been struggling with similar but much more extreme human rights abuses for over a century with no resolve, no action, and only talk of reconciliation. Due to the policies and procedures that have been implemented by colonial Canada, Indigenous people have suffered some of the most egregious human rights abuses that trace back decades and through multiple generations of families, communities and nations.
So if you feel threatened by these protesters, perhaps this can be an opportunity to educate yourselves over how and why Indigenous people have been threatened culturally, socially, economically and politically through the racist policies of the Indian Act (1876) that have actively denied them rights and autonomy, and led to the almost complete eradication of their people, land, resources, culture, traditions, beliefs, language and way of living. While you are denied access due to a blockade, or your travel plans have been delayed causing you stress, anxiety, fear and anger, perhaps you can reflect on how it would have felt as an Indigenous person:
~To be isolated into a small, remote and sometimes foreign piece of land called reserves;
~To be denied the freedom to leave to congregate, travel, export, import, hunt, fish, forage;
~To be denied the right to gather on the lands that have been your families’ for centuries;
unless you received written permission by your oppressor (a letter from an official “Indian Agent”) granting you permission to leave (The “Pass” system was in place for over 40 years).
To the farmers or producers: I feel for you the most because I live in rural Alberta and understand how hard this industry already is for you and your families and this is yet another barrier or perfect storm of events that have exacerbated the already hard 2019 agriculture year and put a hold on sales and exports. But can you just take a minute to imagine how hard life would be if this export issue was never resolved and you were unable as producers to export your goods due to the rail shutdowns and blockades. Fear of this unknown could be absolutely debilitating for some to even imagine and it is all very frustrating, aggravating and unfair. How are you going to get the income needed from these sales if you can’t deliver to sustain your business, farm, feed your animals and provide for your families?
But did you know, due to the policies in the Indian Act, Indigenous people were not allowed to sell goods, services, resources, farmed produce, or animals without written permission from the Canadian government?
It was illegal for them to contribute to the market economy in Canada unless they were willing to abandon their families, reserve and nations and accept enfranchisement into Euro-Canadian culture; giving up their “Indian” status and life with their families on reserve forever!
Enfranchisement involves the termination from band lists, loss of Indian-status and the forced leave of Indigenous people from reserves. This was enforced without consent and notice by Indian agents at their discretion. If that agent perceived them to be of “good moral character” and/or living, dressing or acculturated to a more “white” Euro-Canadian lifestyle through education, language, culture, religious and/or industry pursuits they could also be enfranchised against their will.
Indigenous people were also denied the right to pursue education, career opportunities or land possession outside of the reserve without being immediately enfranchised without personal consent. What would you choose if put in this position, forced to choose between your family or hierarchical Euro-Canadian achievement goals? Add sixties scoop and residential schools. Could you imagine what this would have done to your self-worth and sense of identity, as well as the economic consequences this would have had on many Indigenous people’s families and communities? Is this not the definition of oppression, keeping others down to hold you up? However despite these policies, I find it admirable that most chose their families over Euro-Canadian concepts of “wealth” and/or “civilized” living. They chose oppression over assimilation.
On top of these assimilation policies many Indigenous people had already suffered extreme losses due to the isolation of their people. Forced to give up their “hereditary” lands, move to reserves, due to starvation as a result of the intensity of the fur trade and animal populations being drastically reduced. Food availability was scarce. Disease was also rampant and took many Indigenous peoples lives due to a lack of genetic immunity.
This was just a few of a list of many policies implemented to destroy an entire culture of people and assimilate them into Euro-Canadian society. Economic, social and political barriers were put in place by the Canadian Government to prevent Indigenous people from succeeding and contributing to greater society. The many effects of colonization slowly broke down the entire social, economic, political structures and the cultures of many different Indigenous peoples; which some have equated to cultural genocide. Can you imagine?
For those that are stranded, delayed or missed a flight for work, personal or leisure I feel for you too. We live in a busy world, one hour of delay can send our whole world into extreme imbalance and I can not imagine how difficult it is to cope with days of blockades and shutdowns in your already busy worlds. So I ask again, to those affected, how does this make you feel?
This political protest and display of freedom to exercise political expression (a constitutional right) in support of the Wet'suwet'en Nation by many people across Canada is affecting your personal rights and freedoms too. Through this many travellers and commuters must feel violated. Since you are probably stuck and not getting to where you need, want or have to be, perhaps take this time to pause, sit and/or think.
Bring the rights and freedoms of our Canadian Indigenous peoples into your thoughts (if you haven’t already) and instead of projecting and perpetuating negative energy, anger, hate and/or abuse back their way; blaming them for the delays, can you instead question the government system, our system. Ask yourselves what human rights and freedoms Indigenous peoples have been denied over the last two hundred years? How many of these abuses have contributed to the outbreak of protests by so many Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples?
Did you know that due to the policies of the Indian Act, many which are still in place today, Indigenous people did not have the right to congregate, practice or express their traditions, culture, spirituality, language, heritage, or way of life? It was illegal to meet in groups larger than three people (this did not change until 1951) out of suspicion that they might practice their traditions and convene politically to protest. This policy was in place for 60 years with many amendments and attempts to enforce it through government policy and authorities (RCMP). This directly abused their rights as people, but back then the government did not recognize them as people or Canadian Citizens. They were “just another Indian”, disposable through the eyes of the Canadian government and colonial lawmakers.
Perhaps now you can imagine how destructive, dehumanizing, and debilitating this would have been to generations of Indigenous people; to their rights, and communities. Be thankful that you have rights of “freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion” (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982) within all personal, political, social and economic spheres without the risk of being silenced or attacked by government leaders. By your very existence and through your colonial ancestors you were fortunate enough to be born into “dominant” society, a more “white” race, and therefore do not suffer from double, triple, or quadruple marginalization and oppression based on race, sex, gender, class, age, and ability. Be thankful you are Euro-Canadian and use that thankfulness and position of power to help those that do not have or have not had the same freedoms that you enjoy today.
These are a few of the human rights abuses that Indigenous people have faced in Canada over the last two centuries and is no means a complete list. This is truly just the tip of the iceberg. These abuses and discriminatory thought systems, policies and stereotypes are so ingrained in dominant society, that many non-Indigenous people confuse Indigenous rights and identity with anomie; fooled into believing they lack social and ethical standards as a result of their Indigeneity instead of thinking about the historical context of their situation and our involvement in it. We are ignorant to our own history and the truth behind Canada's continual oppression of Indigenous people.
As Euro-Canadians we have taken it upon ourselves to voice our support for Indigenous lands rights openly in many public spheres and freely engage in Indigenous land acknowledgements but at the same time so many of us, so many of you, are against these land claims and do not support Indigenous rights to their land.
I find this issue ironic in so many ways.
So why voice and openly declare land acknowledgements if you are unwilling to support what the acknowledgement means? This land is their land. Canada is “our home on “native” land”.
It is not ours to decide what to do with it.
So finally I ask for you to imagine. If you had a section of land or more (whatever size, shape, location you wish) that has been in your family for thousands of years and you were being forced (against your will and the will of your ancestors who reside on the land) would you allow a pipeline to tear up your sacred grounds and unceded territory?
Knowing the policies of Canadian government (as embodied in the colonial rule of the Indian Act) is using law enforcement (meant to serve and protect you and your fundamental rights as Canadians and outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) to enforce, control and maintain Indigenous nations as an internal colony of Canada, would you not fight for justice?
On top of the political implications of these oppressions and combined with the environmental risk of contaminating and/or destroying your land, would you not want your position to be heard in hope of finding allies that support you, and perhaps find allies that have suffered the same plight and band with them?
Would you not stand up for your rights?
Would your friends and neighbours not stand for you?
Would your extended families and communities not speak for you?
Would you trust these people to excavate the very soil that has supported you and your family for thousands of years?
Would you trust them if you had already experienced multiple oppressions (as described above) through the “forked” Canadian policies and procedures that have promised you one thing yet do another?
Would you risk your family, community, nationality, culture, beliefs to serve the economic agendas of a nation that has not even included you or accepted you into their structures and society and who continue to deny you, as Indigenous people, basic human rights?
Would you allow a Government that has worked for over a century to destroy the core of your being, people, and lands access to your hereditary territory, the one thing you have managed to hold onto in spite of the many policies that have been implemented to exploit you, your people, your land, the water and all its resources?
So instead of fuelling negative outcomes, one-sided views, uneducated assumptions and biased publications, let us publicly engage in a national pause to consider why things are the way they are.
Let us educate ourselves in this time and listen to the concerns of the people. Practice allyship, understanding, compassion, and love for all people and support the Wet'suwet'en Land claims and any Indigenous rights issues because Indigenous people in Canada have lived for too long without them. Become lifelong allies in this cause and rebuild trust and accountability for future generations.
Turn your frustrations towards advocating for change where change can be made. If we have time to spare, should we not be using our time to advocate that the Canadian Government address and execute effective and consistent changes to eliminate human rights violations as embodied in the Indian Act. This is how we will eliminate roadblocks and rail shutdowns and all the increasing civil unrest by supporters. Let us be accountable for our wrongdoings. As Canadians we are all responsible. Lets work to openly and vocally create trusting, inclusive, equitable, healthy, supported and balanced lives for all people within Canada across all social, economic, political, cultural and spiritual spheres.
So I ask that you listen not only to what these protesters are saying and doing, but why these protesters are saying and doing. The why is what links the Wet'suwet'en people to all and any people who have allied with them and are using their voice to amplify the human rights abuses they have suffered throughout Canadian history. We have had over fifty years of talk and it has gotten us nowhere. Now it is time for us to act; establish goals and act on them, make equitable and effective changes to policy, educate, advocate and demand change. Perhaps you can think of something you can do or say within your world and vast network of connections to help our people, to help our true Canadians? If not, I encourage you to at the very least educate yourselves and share the facts.
Lisette Neva McCracken
Links and Resources to Further your Knowledge
21 things you may not have known about the Indian Act
Indian Residential School Timeline
UBC: First Nations and Indigenous Studies- Marginalization of Aboriginal women
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
UBC: First Nations and Indigenous Studies- Constitution Act, 1982 Section 35