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pipeline protest in Canada
Credit: Office of the Wet'suwet'en

Fossil Fuels

Wet’suwet’en Pipeline Protest Shuts Down Rail Service In Canada

Indigenous people in British Columbia are standing firm in their protest against the Coastal GasLink pipeline despite being threatened with arrest by heavily armed police with attack dogs.

The struggle between Canada’s indigenous people and the central government has been going on since July 1, 1867, the day officially designated as the birth of America’s neighbor to the north. Most native tribes have signed treaties with the Canadian government but the Wet’suwet’en people of British Columbia never have, which makes their status fraught with complex legal questions that have no easy answers.

Today, there are 6 groups who can claim Wet’suwet’en heritage. Five of them have signed agreements with the developers of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, but the sixth has refused to do so. According to The Guardian, Wet’suwet’en chiefs say the authority of these groups only applies to reservations, not traditional territory. It just so happens the proposed pipeline is scheduled to cross 22,000 square kilometers of so-called “traditional territory.” And the people who live there are bound and determined to prevent that from happening despite a court order obtained last week that allows the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to clear them from the path of the pipeline. So far, 28 people have been arrested.

Molly Wickham, a spokesperson for the Wet’suwet’en, tells The Guardian, “Indigenous people see what’s happening to us and see what’s happening to our territory and our pristine waters — and to our people on the ground, having semiautomatic weapons aimed at us. People are responding to that in appropriate ways.”

Dr. Karla Tait, one of those arrested, is unbowed. “Ever since colonization, the aim has been to dispossess our people from our lands. To impoverish us. To assimilate us. To eliminate us. We know that our self-determination, our sovereignty, our very identity, is based on us having control over our lands. There were tactical teams walking around with semi-automatic weapons in my territory. Industry was allowed to come and go freely. White settlers were allowed to come and go freely. But if you were a Wet’suwet’en person, you are not permitted on your own territory.”

Contrary Views

Some are unimpressed with the outpouring of emotion by Wickham and Tait. Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta, has warned the standoff is a “dress rehearsal” for future opposition to fossil-fuel based projects. “This is not about Indigenous people,” he snarls. “It’s not about carbon emissions. It’s about a hard-left ideology that is, frankly, opposed to the entire modern industrial economy. It’s about time that our police services demonstrated that this is a country that respects the rule of law.” At least laws that protect the interests of companies that extract and transport the liquid death that threatens every living thing on the face of the Earth with extinction. Laws that protect the rights of indigenous people may be safely ignored as they always have been.

In British Columbia, protesters barricaded the entrance to the legislative assembly, prompting BC Premier John Horgan to label the demonstration a “shift from traditional protest — to something quite different.” Oddly enough, in November, British Columbia became the first province in Canada to pass legislation promising to uphold the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. Molly Wicham thinks the new law rings hollow considering police armed with assault rifles and attack dogs are now arresting her people.

The Protest Spreads

In Ontario, members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk tribe have blocked freight and commuter rail traffic in support of the Wet’suwet’en protest. Other protesters have blocked roads, barricaded access to shipping ports, and occupied the offices of elected officials in a wave of dissent throughout the country. In response, Canadian National Railway, Canada’s largest freight operator, suspended operations all across Canada last week and Via Rail, which operates the nation’s passenger trains, announced it is suspending train service until further notice. Meanwhile, environmental groups are joining the protest all across Canada.

Trudeau Twists & Turns

All of which leaves prime minister Justin Trudeau in a difficult position. He is desperate to curry favor with voters in Alberta and British Columbia while appeasing the more liberal voters in the eastern provinces. In 2017, in a speech to 1,200 oilmen in Texas, Trudeau brazenly stated, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” a reference to the oil deposits known as the Alberta oil sands. Nevertheless, he tries to present himself as someone who is serious about lowering Canada’s carbon emissions and makes impassioned speeches to the UN about the rights of indigenous people. He spends a lot of time talking out of both sides of his mouth and hoping no one is noticing.

“Trudeau has gone to the United Nations to shed tears about the history of Canada’s relationship with indigenous people,” says Karla Tait. “And on the other hand, he’s essentially authorizing the use of force against our unarmed people for upholding our rights.” This week, Trudeau has expressed support for peaceful protest while criticizing the rail blockades. He wants to be all things to all people but ends up satisfying no one.

A Tale Of Two Countries

Like its neighbor to the south, Canada is divided into warring camps with irreconcilable differences. The western provinces are utterly dependent on oil and gas revenues to keep their economies going. Their leaders see no reason why they should lead the transition away from fossil fuels when other countries are not doing the same. (In fact, many nations are doing their share and more.) People like Kenney and Horgan are scared to death by any suggestion the world needs to stop using fossil fuels and yet that is precisely what must happen if the Earth is to remain a place that can support life as we know it.

Change is hard but inevitable. People who dig in their heels to resist change are fighting a losing battle, one which threatens to drag us all down with it. The Wet’suwet’en people are doing the heavy lifting here, facing harsh weather and even harsher police behavior to stand up for what they believe is right. They deserve our gratitude and unwavering support.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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