Jul 262016

Visiting Unist’ot’en Camp

bridge over the Wet'sen Kwa, where you wait to do Protocol before entering the territory

bridge over the Wet’sen Kwa, where you wait to do Protocol before entering the territory

by Karl Frost

On Monday July 11th, Jen Gobby and I arrived together at the bridge across Wet’sen Bin (known on white settler maps as the Morice River). On the other side is the traditional territory of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suet’en, and we were required by protocol to wait on this side of the bridge to ask for permission to enter the territory. For the last 7 years, the Unist’ot’en have been maintaining a permanent presence at the bridge to protect their land against unconsensual encroachment from surveyors for proposed oil and gas pipelines, including the Enbridge Northern Gateway, TransCanada, and Pacific Trails Pipeline projects.  Their territory is a bottleneck in the mountains, and the resistance of their traditional government, supported by non-indigenous allies, has been key to holding back these environmentally destructive projects.

This was my 6th time crossing the bridge onto the territory in the last few years. I’ve participated as a solidarity supporter, helping with building projects on the land, which include a bunk house for activists, a healing and counselling center, and a traditional pithouse all placed purposefully on proposed pipeline routes.

The protocol ritual is a traditional practice which acts as an embodied reinforcement of understood lines of territories and sovereignty, as well as the responsibilities of stewardship and respect for each other and the land that come with those.  As part of the cultural revival movement of the last 40 years in First Nations communities, protocol has been a key element of reestablishing a physical sense of empowerment of self and community and duties to the land.  It also acts strategically as a format for communicating indigenous law to those who would violate it in the hire of oil and gas companies.

Logging is a big component of employment and livelihood in the Wet’suet’en community. The current Knedebeas, the hereditary chief of the Unist’ot’en, is a logger who negotiates with logging companies to work on Unist’ot’en territories in a way that benefits the Unist’ot’en.  As such, they are not strictly against industry or jobs, but instead want employment in a way that is sustainable for the environment.  The destruction that comes with oil and gas is too much and to allow it would not for them be living in a good way. As such, they have for the last 7 years been turning away oil and gas workers who try to enter the territory, sometimes resulting in tense conflicts, but always holding the line, based on their rights as a First Nation and supported by the determination and unwillingness to compromise core values amongst the Unist’ot’en and their supporters.

The Healing and COunselling Center at Unist'ot'en Camp, buiilt with solidarity support and placed on the proposed pipeline routes

The Healing and Counselling Center at Unist’ot’en Camp, built with solidarity support and placed on the proposed pipeline routes

July 13-18 was the 7th annual Action Camp, a gathering of activists to offer physical help to the Unist’ot’en in building projects and to network and information share with each other on issues of First Nations sovereignty, environmental protection, de-colonization and anti-racism work, and struggles with the fossil fuel industries.  This year’s gathering was smaller and more relaxed than in years past, reflective of the relative victories achieved in the last year.  There is much to be happy about with camp.  The last time I was there, we were involved with tense confrontations with industry workers attempting to coax us into making statements that could legally be used against the Unist’ot’en.  The RCMP (Canadian police) were regularly harassing people coming into camp, setting up road blocks and taking down names as people travelled to the camp. These encounters eventually escalated into the RCMP coming to the check points themselves to be turned away by the Unist’ot’en leadership.

Since then, Canada has had a shift in government from the heavily oil and gas driven Conservative Harper government to the more centrist Liberal government under Trudeau, unwilling to so far to revoke pipeline permits, but also less willing to directly risk large environmental confrontations that would ensue with trying to clear resistance camps.  Also, as the oil and gas economy has fallen, investors have been pulling out of some of the pipeline and export facility projects and slowing down on others.  Finally, the ridiculously poorly planned Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project just lost in the courts, which upheld a ruling that they had not sufficiently consulted with First Nations, which means that they now need to go back to negotiate with indigenous leaders who have stated that any attempt to build the pipeline would be seen as an act of war. The dedicated work of the Unist’ot’en has been key to these victories.

The Camp has achieved a lot in its 7 years. It has successfully blocked pipeline development until society was able to catch up. It has inspired other blockades including the pipeline blockade on Luutkudziiwus territory at Madii Lii and the ongoing (and currently more tense) blocking of the Petronas LNG export facility on Lelu Island by Lax Kwa’laams. It has also developed the physical infrastructure for a much needed community gathering space and healing center. The work of the camp was also crucial to the changes in the local Moricetown Wet’suet’en Band Council with the resent election, which saw Freda Huson elected to the band council and the council adopting a firm and clear ‘no pipeline’ stance.  This was reflected in the band council’s recent rejection of both the Coastal Gaslinks and Pacific Trails Pipeline Projects. (as a side note, where hereditary governance structures still exist, as is the case with the Unist’ot’en, band councils do not traditionally or by Canadian law have the right to make decisions on terittories, but they are often encouraged by large financial contributions from industry to overstep their authority and sign on to contracts they do not have the right to sign.  This is a complicated issue and should not necessarily be taken as a cue to demonize such band councils who are often dealing with poverty in their communities and a history of colonialism that they are wrestling with.  More in a future blog post, but go here for a brief background.)

The opportunity for a bit of relaxation is much appreciated.

While, the atmosphere is relaxed in comparison to years previously, it’s almost inevitable when doing cross-cultural work for there to be some tensions and misunderstandings.  A primary purpose of the Action Camp is work on de-colonization and solidarity between First Nations and non-indigenous/settler communities. Early on, an incident where one First Nations supporter felt uncomfortable being in a gathering that was mostly of non-indigenous supporters led to reminders of creating space for different ways of communicating and for people with more active and forceful communication styles to take less space and allow space for other voices to be heard.  Relatedly, decolonization workshops focused on indigenous activist burn-out and issues in working with settler communities while others focused on sensitivity and issues of colonization for those from ‘settler’ community… the white-European dominated community descended from colonial settlers.  We also had workshops on how to address communication and getting the word out about indigenous and environmental issues in a marketing environment heavily occupied by money-backed industrial messaging working against us. We had an update from the front line of resistance at Site C, a massive environmentally destructive hydro-electric project being forced through against the opposition of the First Nations whose lands it would submerge… a depressing story of illegal activity not blocked by the courts since it runs on native lands.  We also heard about nefarious laws that subvert the intentions of ‘carbon-offsets’. As an example, part of the intentions of the pipeline companies in continuing to push for pipeline permits despite the market being so low is that once they have permission to do the project, they can sell ‘not doing the project’ as a ‘carbon offset’ to companies around the world who want to continue spewing carbon.  Yes, it’s as messed up as it sounds. (thanks Mel for that update)

One of the themes of the ‘marketing’ workshop was countering the exaggerated messaging that industry has been promoting of the camp as a site for “armed and dangerous militant radicals”.  Of course, some of the early messaging of the camp, attempting to promote an image of a strong and willful resistance that was not going to compromise their values nor submit to a simple token protest of letting themselves be arrested in passive civil disobedience, played into this industry propaganda.  As the camp is now transforming into its intended second phase as a place for community healing and cultural education, it became a significant focus of the workshops to brainstorm ways of countering this image.  This is a very practical and material issue, as Freda reported how industry representatives have pressured school boards to not allow children to come to the camp, despite a number of resoundingly positive and community supported visits to the land by youth groups.


Toghestiy works on the Nighthawk cob oven at the healing center.

Outside of the workshops, we mostly spent our time in building projects, doing some necessary upgrading of the bunkhouse and completion work on phase 2 of the healing center. The progress that they were able to achieve on the healing center in May is really impressive, adding a whole new 3 story wing to the building, which will be used for community gatherings and retreats for people to develop themselves and work on healing from the many issues that afflict rural First Nations communities. Toghesity did some amazing finishing work on the cob oven, turning it into a sculpture of the Nighthawk a mythical crest animal of the Unist’ot’en that constantly flies over the territories and alerts the Unist’ot’en of trouble in the territories in their dreams.

I spent most of my time at camp working with Dave and Richard hammering in nails, putting up rafters, and assembling Ikea furnishings for the healing center office. ‘much more relaxing than my last visit where I was filming encounters with pipeline workers to document their attempts at illegal entry of Unist’ot’en land and their being turned away.

Rafters for a roof extension to protect the activist bunk house from snow, built by Emma, Lindsay, Zoe, and I under the direction of Richard

Rafters for a roof extension to protect the activist bunk house from snow, built by Emma, Lindsay, Zoe, and I under the direction of Richard

In our down time, we also had lots of great conversations as grass roots activists from around Turtle Island got to chat and network about other projects. A number of these conversations focused on Lelu Island, where the ongoing blockade is more ‘hot’ with regular conflicts with people attempting to do exploratory work on Lelu Island and in the delicate and vital salmon ecosystem of Flores Ban (By the way, if you have time and want to come up to help at the camp, Lelu is currently very much in need of volunteer supporters to come up and help with the occupation, primarily with building and maintenance tasks.  Contact visitlelu@gmail.com for details on visiting).

We also ate spectacularly well, including at times salmon fished in the Wet’sen Kwa and moose and (very fresh) deer hunted on the territory and nearby Gitemdan territory.  I saw some beautiful sunsets, swam in the Wet’sen Kwa, Talbit Kwa, and Owen Lake, drank water straight out of the Wet’sen Kwa. It is an indescribable pleasure to be able to drink straight out of a river, and it is always a sad moment for me, when later in my travels I run out of water from the river there. This is one of the very physical experiences of being on the land that makes people feel so strongly about defending it.

Right now, there is a youth art camp happening on the land, where they are working on mural making using contemporary and First Nations artistic principles as well as work on comic book and graphic novel making and documentary film. Upcoming will be an elders camp as the camp continues its transition from continuous high alert front lines resistance camp into being a real center for community revival and healing. The work in opposition to oil and gas is certainly not over, but the camp is starting to shift in what that resistance means and is using it as a way to build community.  This continues a theme that I heard repeatedly in my interviews with First Nations as well as non-indigenous activists in the region, which is that a ‘gift’ of the conflict with Enbridge and the other pipeline companies has been a sense of communities coming together and healing old conflicts in their united struggle to protect the land they belong to.

PS the camp is still needing help with fundraising for the rest of phase two of the healing center as they need to finish the heating system before winter.  If you have a bit you can pitch in, it would be much appreciated and go both to helping the local First Nations community and at the same time contribute to real resistance to the pipeline projects in the region.  The fight is at an ebb, but hardly over.  check the link here.

sunset over Unist'ot'en territory

sunset over Unist’ot’en territory

Jul 222016

by Karl Frost

Map of northern BC First Nations

Map of northern BC First Nations (from BC Ministry of Education website)

(a very incomplete attempt to give a superficial view of some of the threads in the complex web of dynamics in northern BC in the context of environmental protection, First Nations sovereignty, and fights with oil and gas industry)

I’m in the beginning of a summer tour of northern British Columbia, looking into the current dynamics around the intersections of environmental protection, sustainable lifeways, First Nations sovereignty fights, and proposed oil and gas pipelines and export facilities.  It’s a really complex web of issues and dynamics which takes a long time to get a feel for.  I wonder if anyone has the whole picture up here, there is so much going on.  I’ve just emerged from a week at Unist’ot’en Camp, where I have been helping with building projects for a healing and counselling center placed on a bottleneck of a number of the proposed pipelines as part of an ongoing act of protection and monitoring of traditional Unist’ot’en territory.

This blog entry is an attempt to give a feel for some of the complex dynamics up here. It is inadequate and oversimplified, but is meant to orient those who have not spent time with the issues in the north of BC. I try to be sensitive and accurate, but apologize in advance if I don’t capture things accurately and for leaving out many other threads, here.

The next post will be about my experiences at Unist’ot’en Camp.

The area is very culturally complex with a history of colonial suppression of indigenous cultures and peoples, occupation of First Nations territories by white settler communities and taking of land resources from these communities, generating ongoing conflicts over logging and fishing. There has been in the last 30 years a strong resurgence of First Nations identity and solidarity actions, including successful blockade actions against industrial operations (especially against logging in Wet’suet’en and Gitxsan territories and mining in Tahltan territory).  The struggles of these groups have been supported by the findings of the Canadian Supreme Court in the  Delgamuukw (1992) and Tsil’qot’in (2014) rulings.  In the last decade, newer conflicts have arisen against proposed tar sands oil pipelines from Alberta and fracked gas pipelines from Alberta and Western BC, and oil and gas export facilities on the ecologically rich and very hard to navigate coast.  The politics have been dynamic and the solidarity movements based around First Nations identity have been strong, difficult yet often successful.

Enbridge path

map of the proposed Enbridge Nothern Gateway Pipeline route in relations to Wet’suet’en territory (from the Yinka Dene Alliance)

Figure 1 gives a rough map of the traditional territories of the First Nations of the region. While this map represents an improvement over the mess of codification of peoples that has been the case in the region in the past, it is still not a perfect representation of the actual traditional cultural and political units of the area. Figure 2 gives a map of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline route as well as many of the proposed fracked gas pipelines in the area. The Northern Gateway pipeline and many of the proposed fracked gas pipelines go through Unist’ot’en territory.  The Unist’ot’en, a Wet’suet’en clan, have taken a firm and principled stance against the gas pipelines and to that effect and with the solidarity of both indigenous and non-indigenous allies are maintaining a land occupation in their traditional territories to physically block pipeline construction.  The other pipelines all go through Luutkudziwuus territory.  Luutkudziwuus have similarly set up a year round territorial occupation to obstruct the other pipelines at Madii Lii. For both of these groups, resistance is motivated by a sense of traditional obligation not just to their own territories but to nature in general, and organization of and participation in resistance serves both to deepen these values and to build solidarity networks with other communities, including urban communities whose potential arrests would more likely be covered by race-biased media.

Map of proposed pipelines (from Common Sense Canadian)

Map of proposed pipelines (from Common Sense Canadian)

In the spring and summer of 2014, I conducted interviews in Wet’suet’en, Haisla, Tsimshian, and Heiltsuk communities in northern BC as well as surrounding non-indigenous communities in Prince Rupert. In the spring and summer of 2015, I returned and spent more time at Unist’ot’en Camp in Wet’suet’en territory as well as visited Lax Kwa’laams and Lelu Island (just before the occupation there), Iskut in Tahltan territory, Gitksan and Luutkudziiwis territories and the  Madii Lii occupation camp, as well as non-indigenous activist communities and groups in Hazelton, Smithers, Terrace, and Prince Rupert.

Interviews focused on community leaders, their motivations and issues, and how they came to personally find their sense of commitment to defending their values.  From here, other interviews were conducted with community members involved in various forms of resistance actions, from the blockades to street protest, community organizing, and environmental research.   The intention was to get a well rounded picture of the political and historical background as well the specific kinds of contexts that were drawing people into committed actions. The project is continuing through summer of 2016, conducting follow up interviews and filming of places being defended and potentially impacted by oil and gas development. I will be working through fall 2016 to complete the film.

Overview of the Interlocking issues

The issues are complex and interwoven.  Like trying to explain fiber by fiber why a fabric holds together, it’s hard to know where to start.  The order below is not necessarily meant to be one of significance, and the list of topics is by no means complete.  It’s just meant as a bit of background information for the blogs to follow in the next weeks, where I will try to go into more detail on some of these and other issues as well as give some regular reports on my trip.

Tar Sands oil and the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline(proposed 2006) – The Alberta tar sands is home to the world’s largest patches of oil impregnated sand.  The oil is extracted via an environmentally destructive mining and steaming process which creates toxic tailings ponds that can be seen with the naked eye from space. It is very energy intensive.  Where traditional Middle East oil requires about 1 barrel of oil to extract 40 barrels of oil, the tar sands operation requires about a barrel of oil per 2 barrels of oil extracted, and this is without considering the energy costs of environmental mitigation.  The oil that it produces is called bitumen.  As it is much more viscous than crude oil, it requires toxic and corrosive diluents to be added in order to allow it to move through pipelines, and such pipelines need to be twinned in order for the diluent to be pumped back to the source plant.  Its corrosive quality has caused an epidemic of pipeline ruptures in the last years and requires upgrading of equipment at refineries to allow the plant to handle it.  This has also caused an escalation of accidents at refineries processing bitumen.  As a further difference, bitumen, unlike crude oil, sinks in water.  Thus where containing a crude oil spills incredibly difficult, it is virtually impossible with bitumen. These costs of bitumen production have led to widespread protests against the tar sands oil projects.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was proposed in 2006 to carry bitumen from Alberta across incredibly rugged and complicated mountain terrain to the Pacific coast at Kitimat, BC. Enroute, it would hit the watersheds of the Fraser and Skeena Rivers, two of the largest salmon rivers on the planet.  Salmon are the core of livelihoods and tradition in the region. At Kitimat, it would be loaded onto extra large ‘panamax’ tankers to navigate one of the most complicated seaways in the world in order to get out to the Pacific and to market in China. While Enbridge claimed that tanker accidents would never happen with these state of the art tankers, in August 2014 a thankfully empty state of the art coal transport ship went aground and ruptured in much simpler to navigate waters nearby in Prince Rupert. Because of coastal upwellings and the anadromous fish of the region, the marine environment is one of the biologically richest on the planet.  For reference, while the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster nearby in Alaska had 1/10 the oil spill of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gul of Mexico, it had 10 times the documented wildlife kill-off.  A panamax tanker would dwarf the Exxon Valdez.  Enbridge, coincidentally, also was responsible for the disastrous bitumen pipeline breach in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2010.

For all of these reasons, opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline has been widespread and has been a strong unifying force amongst environmental and First Nations groups in the region.  The Canadian government was legally required to have public consultations, which took the form of the Joint Review Panel in 2013 in which over 1400 people gave testimony, with only a handful speaking in favor and the overwhelming majority against, including all First Nations testifiers.   Despite the overwhelming opposition to the pipeline and the copious documentation of negative impacts, the JRP  recommended approval of the pipeline, which the Conservative government gave (Bolongaro, 2014).

Colonialism – The First Nations of British Columbia are peculiar in North America, as the ravages of colonialism and contact hit these nations much more recently. Where most other nations had already been decimated by disease and conquest by the 1700s in North America, the nations of the Pacific Northwest were still strong and independent nations into the middle of the 1800s.  It was in the mid to late 1800s that these communities were devastated by disease, often inflicted deliberately, with death tolls ranging from 70% to 90%. By the late 1800s the lands had been thoroughly conquered by the white Canadian government and settlers who also took control of the fisheries.  The Canadian government outlawed traditional cultural practices with the Potlach Ban of 1875, destroying regalia and art and forcing those who would maintain their cultures underground and forcing cultural artifacts to be put into hiding.  This ban was not lifted until 1951.   After the passing of the Indian Act of 1875, the residential school system was established in which First Nations children were forcibly taken from their families to far away residential schools where they were horribly abused and forced to adopt European cultural practice and abandon their language.  Physical and sexual abuse was rampant.  They were trained to be a subservient class in a white dominated society. As a result, all First Nations people lost significant parts of their culture and most languages were eventually reduced down to a few fluent speakers (Suttles, 1990). When hired in newly established fishing industries, First Nations peoples had the worst jobs at the worst pay.  Intergenerational trauma is rampant in First Nations communities in Canada and to this day the relative life outcomes of First Nations peoples in Canada is relatively worse than that of African Americans in the US. The residential school system was just the tip of the iceberg of racism in Canada, but has come to symbolize a pervasive system of oppression that is still very much alive in Canada and the US. For a very readable overview of the history of relations between First Nations and the Canadian and US governments, read Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian. 

Thomas King's An Inconvenient Indian

Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indianive system of oppression of First nations in Canada that is very far from over. The last of these racist and sadistic residential schools was shut down in 1996. For a very readable overview of historical relations between First Nations and the government in both Canada and the US, read Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian (King, 2012).

In 2008-2015, The Canadian government held the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with public gatherings of testimony about cultural suppression, institutional racism, and the residential school system across Canada in 2014  for the first major public acknowledgement of Canada’s history of racism.  This was the first time there was such a widespread conversation about the moral corruption and racism of the Canadian government in the context of First Nations relations and has served as a context of First Nations empowerment and solidarity building, if not yet reconciliation.

First Nations cultural resurgence and growing sense of agency– The past decades have seen a slow shifting of white attitudes toward First Nations peoples in Canada.  At the same time, First Nations groups were reclaiming their sense of identity.  In many cases, practices that had been maintained underground for decades began to come out of hiding, and where traditions had been lost, they were recreated through borrowing from sister nations and memories of elders. By the late 80s, parts of this cultural revival started to get more militant.  The Oka crisis (1990), Ipperwash Crisis (1995), Gustafson Lake Standoff (1995), Burnt Church crisis (1999-2002) all involved armed resistance to the Canadian government in reassertion of First Nations rights (Shrubsole, 2011).  This is reflective of a growing sense of agency that also manifested in widespread blockades against uncontrolled and unconsensual logging in Gitksan and Wet’suet’en  territories as well as initiation of Supreme Court cases in the names of First Nations against the Canadian government and industry (Wild, 1993).

Clayoquot Sound (1980 -1994). In the 1980s, the old growth forests of Clayoquot Sound remained one the largest remaining contiguous stands of coastal old growth in the world and it was being logged at a prodigious rate against the will of the First Nations whose traditional territory it was on. The protests to protect the forests eventually escalated into an enormous coalition of First Nations activists and (mostly)white environmental activists coming together in the largest act of environmentally motivated civil disobedience in modern history. 900 were arrested in summer of 1993.  White environmentalists in collaboration with the Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations succeeded in stopping logging on a significant fraction of the forest and devolving control of most of the rest to First Nations owned logging operations (Tindall, 2013).  While the event was rightfully hailed as a major success in terms of building bridges between First Nations and white environmentalists and for slowing down the logging and bringing protections to some of the Sound, the success was asserted to be overblown by many grassroots participants on both sides of the coalition.  Many First Nations grassroots activists felt sidelined by white activists and those in power in the band councils who ended up controlling the logging.  Further, many grassroots environmental activists felt betrayed by institutional activists who compromised  at what were felt to many to be cosmetic protections that were perceived to result in excellent fundraising opportunities for the big environmental institutional actors that swept in for the recognition at the last minute but which generated little in the way of real protection for the forests (CBC, 2006).  The lesson of professional NGOs that are ‘more income oriented than outcome oriented’ is one that began to shape the attitudes, suspicions, and strategies of some of the next generation of both First Nations and non-indigenous environmental activists.

Delgamuukw Supreme Court Case (1997) – in 1992, the Supreme court reached conclusions in Delgamuukw v British Columbia that radically changed the acknowledged legal standing of First Nations in BC in the eyes of the Canadian government.  In its ruling, it formally acknowledged that Canada had never signed treaties with most of the Nations of the region and therefore they still maintained sovereignty and that vast amounts of British Columbia where First Nations historical residence could be established still belonged to these nations. It also set a precedent that oral tradition counted as legal documentation of such residence, radically changing the criteria for legal assertion of aboriginal land rights in Canadian courts. The court specified that this meant that government and industry needed to consult with First Nations before carrying out any activities on their land.  While this still left many important questions unanswered (including what exactly was meant by ‘consult with’), it gave First Nations tremendously greater legal leverage.  Further still, the court ruled that where traditional, ‘hereditary’ governments had been able to maintain continuity from pre-contact times to the present in the face of colonial cultural suppression, such governments were the legitimate sovereigns (Persky & David Suzuki Foundation, 1998). The Unist’ot’en and their hereditary chief, Kneadebes, was specifically named in this treaty.  This became relevant later as they decided to stand their ground against oil and gas companies.

Big groups vs small groups – Coming out of the experiences with the Clayoquot Sound protests and the Great Bear Rainforest Initiative  (finalized this year and which to many grassroots activists perceptions had similar results with less real forest protection than advertised (Hunter, 2016)) a theory has developed that guides many of the Direct Action oriented grassroots activists.  Put simply, while mass movements involving large NGOs may get many people involved and concerned at least superficially about an issue, in remote areas without constant media attention or witness by urban communities, small tightly knit groups are more effective at making change through actions that involve higher degrees of commitment, including risking arrest and confrontation.  Moreover, while building such small scale, high commitment solidarity networks is a slower process, the results it can achieve are far greater per person participating, and the level of commitment that is generated through participation in such intense actions is far greater, leading to a much lower chance of compromise of position.  This has two major parallels in the academic literature on group formation and ritual.  The first is Harvey Whitehouse’s dual mode hypothesis of ritual, which proposes that religions are generally organized around one of two modes of ritual action, imagistic and doctrinal (Whitehouse, 2000).  Imagistic rituals involve infrequent but high intensity dysphoric rituals which generate very high levels of bonding and solidarity amongst small groups of individuals.  Doctrinal mode religions are based around more frequent low intensity rituals and are characterized by less intense bonds amongst larger groups of individuals organized around a more abstract sense of identity.  Whitehouse’s network of collaborators have at this point  developed a great deal of empirical support for this theory.   The second reference is Scott Atran’s theory of the sacred (Atran, 2010).  In his prodigious study of extremist groups, he found a runaway process of small group bonding that led to extreme commitments to group values and to the formation of uncompromising positions.  While his research was in the context of extremist groups, it can be applied more broadly to many kinds of social and political groups. These theories match with anecdotal experiences shared in direct action environmental protection networks, theories that explicitly motivate some of the current wave of First Nations led land defense actions in BC.

May 2014 Volunteer work week builing a bunk house for the Unist'ot'en community and supporters to stay through the winter

May 2014 Volunteer work week building a bunk house for the Unist’ot’en community and supporters to stay through the winter

Unist’ot’en camp and land occupation – in 2010, Dene ze Toghestiy was asked by the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suet’en to review a proposal for a gas pipeline that was planned to come through Unist’ot’en territory.  At this point few people knew about fracking and simply had heard of natural gas as a clean alternative to other fossil fuels, which was a very attractive image for people fighting what was perceived as a very uphill battle against the Canadian government and the tar sands oil industry in relation to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.  However, in researching fracking in general and especially the devastations to community and land from fracking that were happening in Treaty 8 territory, Toghestiy was compelled to recommend to the hereditary chiefs that they reject the pipeline and he and his partner Freda Huson (the official representative of the hereditary chiefs on the territory) established year round residence on the land to keep an eye out for surveyors and to evict trespassing oil and gas company workers. As Unist’ot’en territory exists in a bottleneck in the mountains, most of the proposed pipelines need to pass their territory and so their resistance has been particularly significant and has drawn widespread support. In order to both get themselves trained in direct action resistance and to develop a solidarity network, they hosted a week of training with groups like Ruckus Society, and this gathering has now become an annual gathering for 100 to 200 First Nations and non-indigenous activists.  This was expanded in 2014 to a second annual gathering in May devoted to building construction. Part of their strategy has been to build buildings for a community center directly on the pipeline routes.

Traditional pithouse, exterior

Traditional pithouse, exterior

To date these have included a main cabin, a bunk house to house up to 20 visiting activists throughout the winter, a two story counselling and healing center with an industrial kitchen, and a traditional pithouse (Frost, 2016; Pablo, 2016).

Some links…

In the time since the start of the Unist’ot’en Camp, two more blockades have started against oil and gas projects: The Madii Lii camp of Luutkiziwus blocking gas pipelines and the Lelu Island camp protecting Lax Kwa’laams territory from Petronas’s proposed LNG export facility near Prince Rupert, which would destroy the salmon stocks of the Skeena, one of the biggest salmon runs of the world.

On words – Two aspects of vocabulary are repeatedly asserted to be important for this next generation of grass roots activist working on First Nations territories.  The first is the term ‘First Nation’.  In the US, the generally accepted and preferred term is “Native American” and the political unit is referred to as the “tribe”.  To most Canadian indigenous activists , “First Nation” is the preferred term for both, as it asserts the sovereignty of the indigenous people and challenges the idea that Canada has legal or ethical grounds to be occupying the territories that it does. The other important piece of vocabulary is more recent and is related. In the 90s, when activists would set up a camp obstructing industrial activity, it was often called a ‘blockade’.  “Occupation” is now the preferred term. As with “First Nation”, “occupation” refers to the fact that they are not setting out to block industrial activity, but to occupy their own territories and that as such industrial actors have no right to dislodge them and they have every right and duty as sovereigns to enforce their borders.

Protocol – In times past, when canoes from one nation would approach the territory of another nation, they would wait in their canoes to go through formal protocols before stepping ashore.  In these protocols, the potential guests would be required to state their intentions and give a justification of why they should be allowed ashore. It is parallel to the activities of any international border crossing, but much also more.  Even when the guests had been invited, going through protocol was seen as a vital ritual reassertion of order, rights, and obligations.  It is a mutual recognition of power and duty. While the suppression of traditional culture caused protocol practice to disappear from many indigenous communities, it has come back to become again a focal aspect of First Nations gatherings.  It is claimed to be a critical aspect of cultural revival and empowerment.  Before entering an occupation or blockade, all are expected to go through protocol.  Many (including myself) find it a little awkward at first, but in the end empowering to publicly declare one’s intentions, one’s values, one’s recognition of rights and duties of others.  The potlach ceremonies of the region’s first nations are acts of ritual declaration and witnessing of social situatedness, responsibilities, and values, and protocol is a vital part this enactment, in potlach and generally in formal activities of the nation.  For more on the importance of protocol, listen to Toghestiy explaining here (Frost, 2015b).

LNG vs tar sands oil – On everyone’s minds in 2014 was the Enbridge Northern gateway pipeline and the issue of tar sands oil.  The Joint Review Panel had recently finished.  The ignoring of so much protest during the hearings with the conditional approval of the pipeline was making people brace for a fight.  Multiple nations were stating that pushing through this pipeline would be an act of war.  In a post-Oka era in which Mi’qmac warriors had recently taken up arms against the government over fracking on their territories in New Brunswick, such statements were being made and received more seriously.  In this climate, fracking was being expanded under the radar and communities exhausted from the tar sands fight had little energy for investigating the realities behind Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), billed as a clean alternative to oil.  The BC provincial government under Christy Clark came into office under a banner of promotion of LNG and the expansion of (fracked) natural gas.  The Haisla Band Council in Kitimat approved the building of an LNG export facility on their territory.  After this approval, others started to get worried.  Reports were coming out from chief Liz Logan of Fort Nelson First Nation in Treaty 8 territory.  Multiple people that I interviewed reported how they started to realize what fracked gas was as the Enbridge fight was coming to a head, and some even expressed how there was widespread sentiment building that the Enbridge project was being pushed primarily as a smoke screen to allow for the development of fracked gas exports via LNG facilities outside of Prince Rupert and Kitimat. The developing fight against LNG had less force behind it than the tar sands fight, but still involved widespread support.  Despite fears that the people would be too weary after the Enbridge fight, Luutkudziiwus expanded on the Unist’ot’en occupation with an occupation blocking the remaining pipelines at Madii Lii.  Local environmental groups like the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition threw their weight behind the anti-LNG campaign under a banner of wanting sustainable, green development and jobs and not the environmentally destructive boom and bust of fracked gas and pipeline building.  Meanwhile Clark’s government consistently tried to represent having First Nations buy-in through approval from the Band Councils, without support from the hereditaries. This all came to a head when Petronas proposed to build an LNG export facility on Lelu Island in Lax Kwa’laams territory at the head of the Skeena River.  This was met with widespread and forceful opposition from communities up and down the Skeena, as the facility would mean the end of the salmon run on the Skeena, one of the 3 largest salmon runs in the world.  Petronas offered $1 billion to Lax Kwa’laams for permission to build, which was rejected by the small community of about 1000. The province decided to ignore Lax Kwa’laams and gave permission for preliminary work to begin.  To obstruct this Lax Kwa’laams initiated an occupation on Lelu, which is currently turning into a heated conflict with regular run-ins between port workers and First Nations occupiers.

The Canadian government – From 2006 to 2015, the Conservatives were in power in Canada under Stephen Harper.  Their positions were very right wing, very pro oil and gas development, anti-First Nations rights, anti-climate change and anti-science.  In 2015, the Liberals took power under Justin Trudeau, more of a complex “centrist” party riding a wave of opposition to the conservative party.  Trudeau’s minister appointments made many rapid surface level changes, and the Canadian war on science was reversed and scientists were unmuzzled, but to date Trudeau has not made any move against the pipelines or oil and gas development despite this being a primary theme that brought the Liberals into office.  They have not been pushing for them but have neither revoked various government approvals

War on Science – The Harper regime and Conservatives, paralleling the Republicans in the US were both climate change deniers and anti-science.  Newspapers ran constantly with reports on the ‘War on Science’.  Aside from a consistent policy of climate change denial, the Canadian War on Science took many forms, including the following. Publicly funded scientists were not allowed to discuss their research with the press and risked immediate loss of funds if they did.  Instead press was required to go to the government for interpretation of the studies. Canada used to have the best set of marine environmental records on the planet, but the Harper regime closed down many of these facilities and burned the data.  All government funded marine water quality monitoring was suspended.  Climate change science was defunded.  The government heavily leaned on policies of revoking the non-profit status of NGOs that carried out scientific research that was damaging to government positions on the grounds of it being ‘political content’, a law never applied to research that supported oil and gas industry claims.  The government past sweeping anti-terrorism laws (Bill C-51) and declared that environmental activists were the single greatest terrorist threat to Canada.  The chilling effect on both government and non-profit science was remarkable (Dupuis, 2015).  I was informed by police personally that I was being monitored while in Canada.  Trudeau has since reversed many of these laws and policies, but the anti-terrorism laws still stand.

Fishing  – the coastal First Nations of BC are well known in anthropological circles as the exception that proves the rule in that it is the only place where a hunter gatherer society  was able to reach high levels of complexity, art, and social stratification.  This is owing to the incredible abundance of the area, particularly due to salmon.  When the First Nations communities were devastated by disease, a white controlled fishing industry exploded in the area, supplying canned salmon to the world.  Owing to mismanagement of fishing stocks, the fishery has rapidly declined, but until recently was still abundant enough to support a vibrant commercial fishing community.  Currently, fishing happens via one of three routes: the commercial fishery, First Nations food fishing, and sports fishing.  These are regulated quite differently.  The most formally limited, but with quite a lot of room for cheating and difficulties in overall regulation is the sports fishing.  Commercial fishing, probably the largest of the three harvests, is the most strictly controlled with little room for cheating due to oversite at the point of purchase from the fishermen.  Finally, there is food fishing, where First Nations are given rights to unlimited fishing, so long as it is not sold.  Through food fishing, everyone in the community is able to get fed in fish distributed through varying systems from nation to nation, ranging from the very formal and organized sharing of catches in the Nisgaa to informal but thorough networks of fish distribution directed by women elders amongst the Heiltsuk. Every First Nations fisherman I encountered was exuberant and proud of their roles in their communities as providers and was delighted to volunteer their time.  Similar sharing networks have existed in the non-indigenous fishing community, but due to tightening of regulations on catches, this is becoming more limited.  Further, the local fishing industry has been devastated financially but the change to a tradable permit system which has allowed for the monopolization of fishing permits by Jimmie Pattison of Vancouver.  The result of the change in system has been that while profit per season has remained relatively level, most of the money now goes to Pattison for permit renting and all of the risk is taken on by the fishermen.  As a result the local commercial fishing community has been devastated, commercial fishing now dominated by high turn over, high risk fishing operations that are not local to the fishery and with little investment in its long term health.  This then feeds back into environmental protection as a community of people who traditionally had been supports for their community and heavily invested proponents of environmental protection are driven out of business and often to the cities for work (O’Donnell et al., 2014).

Issues of Band Council vs Hereditary Government  – The Canadian government, in a move similar to those of the US government, set up ‘Band Councils’ through which it intended to govern First Nations via a veneer of democratic process.  These band councils often became controlled by those who were more assimilated and generally (but not always) were amenable to approving government and industry proposals.  In many cases, they have asserted the right to make decisions over territory, setting them up in conflict with those claiming rights and duties via traditional hereditary names bestowed in potlach.  Often (but again, not always) these hereditary chiefs have sided more on the side of traditional values of environmental stewardship, contrary to the desires of various extraction industries. Until very recently, many First Nations communities have been very sensitive about revealing these internal conflicts, for fear that the information would be used to paint their communities in a bad light.  In the past, accusations of lack of capacity for self governance has been a popular government justification for land confiscation and industrial destruction.  However, as the BC and Canadian governments have had a practice of making agreements with whomever they could get to sign and claim the right to represent the nation, these internal conflicts have in the last years been made more public in order to elicit the support of the public against band councils illegally asserting authority and against the BC and Canadian government. This has been the case with the Gitksan and the Wet’suet’en, where there has been continuity of traditional governance in parallel to the band councils.   Of course, not all nations have fared as well, and in some cases, colonial suppression was more successful breaking the chain of traditional governance.  This has been the case with the Tahltan.  In their case, activists, instead of investing in a traditional governance system, invested in novel campaigning in their communities to take over the Band Councils from those who were more explicitly in the employ of industry.  In this way, they were able to take back control of their lands and re-establish leadership through elders via these novel governance structures imposed on their communities.

Tsil’qot’in Supreme Court ruling (2014) – in 2014, a 20 year court case involving the Tsil’qot’in First Nation came to a conclusion in the Supreme Court which again radically changed the Canadian legal arsenal of BC First Nations fighting the pipelines.  This surprise ruling in a case about logging activities clarified the Delgamuukw ruling in stating that the Canadian government and industry need to not just to consult with but to have free prior and informed consent of First Nations before carrying out any activities on their territories unless there is a ‘compelling and substantive’ public interest.  While this still leaves the ambiguity of this exception clause and claims overarching rights for Canada, it in many other ways strengthened the legal stance of First Nations.  Within weeks of the ruling, over two dozen new law suits were launched against the federal government by First Nations over territorial rights and oil, gas, and mining issues. In this context, land occupiers felt more legally supported in standing up against police intimidation, knowing that in the event of an arrest, a federal law suit in the vein of the Tsil’qot’in case was now part of their tool kit (MacCharles, 2014; The Canadian Press, 2014).


At the time of this writing, the federal appeals court has just ruled that the government failed in its obligations to First Nations in approving the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and rejected the approval.  This effectively forces it to go back for explicit approval from First Nations groups who have sworn that any attempt to build the pipeline would be seen as an act of war (Proctor, 2016).  The Unist’ot’en  are hosting their 7th annual summer Action Camp, and the Lelu Island occupation is building, both figuratively in terms of developing solidarity networks and literaly in terms of building construction on the proposed LNG facility site, in the model of the Unist’ot’en Camp.  I am heading up for one more summer of research, participating in the occupation camps and visiting nearby communities to interview supporters.


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