Teach-in and counter protest
Solutions are needed
By Janna Wood, Arts and Culture Writer
Beneath the sombre, urgent tone that lay across a single parking space and adjacent ribbon of prohibitively striped lot, attendees of Saturday’s Wet’suwet’en Solidarity Teach-In at Andrew Scheer’s Albert Street office greeted one another with warm smiles and encouraging words. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the unseasonable slush, protesters held homemade signs and waved flags as Elder Archie Weenie encouraged playing children to smudge in preparation for the speeches and prayers to come.
Immersing ten red bandanas in the smudging smoke, he called for ten males from the small crowd to wrap them around their necks, some covering their noses and mouths to inhale the lingering scent of burnt sage.
“Red represents anger,” he said, speaking softly into a megaphone, because everyone turns red when angered. Voice strengthening, he continued. “It’s not violence. No, they’re two different things. Here, I promote good stuff. There’s a way we can deal with stuff without violence. But we gotta stand up. We gotta stand up.”
After a prayer, speech, and song, the megaphone was passed among those who were prepared to speak, then among volunteers who wished to share their stories and add to the message that Andrew Scheer recent “check your privilege” comments prove he is out of touch. That the ancestral homelands of societies like Wet’suwet’en are not only sacred, but also legally protected from unwanted development which may limit or destroy their ability to carry out traditional activities within the territory. That the need to act against climate change so urgent that compromise is no longer an option.
Individual motivations for defending the Coastal Gas Link pipeline are diverse – among them, workers from steel, gas, and oil industries whose incomes rely on the successful expansion of petroleum infrastructure; Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups alike who are compelled by the potential economic benefits to be reaped by assenting First Nations communities, the government, and industry alike; those who simply don’t recognize the right of First Nations communities – whether governed by bands and councils (which retain some leadership traditions but must abide by government regulations as imposed by the Indian Act) or sovereign hereditary leadership – to maintain control of their ancestral lands, which have been held in trust by the Crown since the signing of treaties during the mid-to-late 1800’s.
“Putting our bodies on the line for our Earth is not a privilege, it’s our obligation,” remarked Kale MacLellan, who organized the Facebook page for this event. She invited participants to join her in silk-screening artful messages of solidarity provided by Indigenous artist Christi Belcourt onto t-shirts and bandanas. “Consultation is not consent,” one read.
Later, a member of the Treaty 4 Thunderbird clan, Thunderbird Thunderwoman, reminded the crowd to “do everything with love” before being briefly drowned out by the roar of a truck, loudly accelerating away after driving through a lane at the edge of the crowd occupied mainly by media reporters and camera operators.
Not long after, a woman who identified herself as the owner of Vapexcape stood in front of her store, yelling at protestors for inhabiting an unmarked parking spot she claimed ownership of, paying for it as part of her lease. She produced a Métis card, anticipating accusations of racism as she chastised the group for blocking the entrance to her store, though the police officer tasked with overseeing the event confirmed to demonstrators that this accusation was not accurate. As the owner left to speak with the officer, multiple witnesses claimed she had threatened to drive her car through a table bearing food and water.
Shortly after the peace was restored, it was time to leave – a small counter-protest had been organized by members of the People’s Party of Canada at City Hall for 2:00 that afternoon, and several members of the group planned to make an appearance. Naomi Hunter of the Saskatchewan Green Party declined to share the location of the protest with this correspondent, she said, out of a desire to prevent counter protesters from garnering attention, apologetically adding, “I know that’s terribly partisan of me”. Luckily, several other attendees volunteered the information before themselves heading to City Hall.
Thirty minutes into the counter-protest, most attendees were immersed in discussions with members of their respective opposing groups. Some conversations ended in handshakes, others in finger-wagging, disgruntled muttering, and raised voices.
Trevor Wowk of the People’s Party of Canada claimed responsibility for organizing the event.
“It’s exceeded my wildest expectations”, he said. “People are sharing their points of view. I feel that’s what we need to do, as – shall I say I’m a little more mature than a lot of the people who are passionate and emotional on this issue? Just to bring the rhetoric down, bring the hyperbole down, and let’s talk to each other eye-to-eye, face-to-face, share our opinions and reach a consensus”. Calling the hereditary governance of Wet’suwet’en clans “hereditary democracy,” Wowk asserted his belief that their process was “probably a stronger democratic approach than what we have in electing officials in Canada”.
However, he went on to criticize Wet’suwet’en’s hereditary chiefs for “dragging in influence from the United Nations, from First Nations across the country, from supportive non- First Nations folks, to blockade the economy and the economic infrastructure of Canada.” Beginning with a disclaimer that he is “not a fan” of the UN and particularly takes issue with UN decisions influencing Canadian law, Wowk’s proposal for solving the pipeline dispute generally lines up with those outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: First Nations have the right to self- determination through traditional governance processes. He suggests that all communities affected by pipeline construction “come together, in their potlach, under the Wet’suwet’en democratic, hereditary traditions, of getting together as a community to hash it out for themselves, and let all these white people, all these First Nations bands, all the environmental NGO’s that are funding the dissent get the hell out and let the Wet’suwet’en deal with it first and foremost.”
Unfortunately, crucial gaps in legal precedent trouble the efficacy of simple solutions such as these. Though the landmark Supreme Court case of Delgamuukw vs. the Province of British Columbia in 1997 affirmed that Wet’suwet’en and the other Nations involved had adequately proven aboriginal title ownership of their land, no decision was reached regarding how land use disputes among the government and First Nations could be resolved. Canada was encouraged to renegotiate in good faith and compensate communities for any use of or damage to their lands as a result of land-use agreements, and all parties were directed to resolve future conflicts mainly through good faith discussions, turning to the courts for specific decisions only where necessary. Since then, the Canadian government has largely failed to move forward in collaborating with Indigenous groups to create pathways for handling such disputes. In short, no decision-making processes currently exist to construct compromises in cases like the current standstill between Coastal Gas Link, the Canadian government, and the clans of Wet’suwet’en. As the creation of such definitive processes would likely require years of productive talks and many more lawsuits, it seems that we are no closer to a solution today than we were 23 years ago.