culturalvariant@gmail.com

Oct 092016
 

Raven Always Sets Things Right 

Raven dancers at "Raven Always Sets Things Right", Haida Feast, August 13, 2106

Raven dancers at “Raven Always Sets Things Right” Haida Feast, August 13, 2106

by Karl Frost

On August 13 of this year, I had the honor to witness and document an historic potlach on Haida Gwaii held by the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas clan, “Raven Always Sets Things Right”. In the feast, the clan disrobed (removed from their positions of leadership) two house chiefs who were found to have betrayed and lied to their clan in secretly supporting the destructive and heavily opposed Enbridge tar sands oil pipeline. In supporting the pipeline, they represented themselves in their roles as hereditary chiefs, thus bringing shame on the clan. After much processing and community meeting, the clan decided to disrobe the two using traditional practices that had not been used in living memory. In doing so, the clan set an example for other Haida clans and other First Nations in how to deal with the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of industry trying to make quick profits at the long term expense of the environment and community’s ability to support themselves. The feast was quickly picked up by media and has caused a major stir amongst First Nations communities and activists working to defend the environment.

Although the clan and others went into the feast nervous about such a serious action, the event itself was a joyous and well-supported celebration of doing things in a good way and standing together against short-sighted and greedy industrial interference. Dancers, singers, and drummers set the tone of the event, with carved Haida masks of raven, eagle, and many others. The business was carried out respectfully and clearly, as was witnessed and celebrated by visiting chiefs from around Haida Gwaii and the region who attested to its importance. Likewise, all of those assembled filled the halls with cheers and danced together to embody their felt experience of unity. The feast was a physical demonstration of the unity of the Haida.

invitation to the feast

invitation to the feast

Background: Oil, gas, and other issues

For the last several years, Enbridge has been trying to force through the Northern Gateway Pipeline to carry toxic tar sands oil (bitumen) from the Alberta oil patch to the north coast of British Columbia. Having bitumen supertankers moving through these waters is such a clear threat to the salmon and livelihoods of peoples in the region that many of the First Nations have declared that any act to construct such a pipeline would be seen as an act of war against their nations by Canada. The resistance to the pipeline has been outspoken and vibrant in communities, indigenous and non.

The threats to peoples throughout BC from any of these oil or gas pipelines is very real. As is often repeated, it is not about ‘if’ but ‘when’ an accident will occur if these tankers are allowed to move through the dangerous and hard to navigate waters of northern BC. There is a litany of risks throughout the process, from source through pipelines through tanker transport through end-use fuel consumption, but for the Haida a focus on tankers comes because of the inevitability of an accident in their waters and the inability to deal with it. As Haida carver and legal scholar Bernard Kerrigan explains, tankers are currently allowed off the west coast of Haida Gwaii, but there is a large buffer zone they are not allowed to move through. Last year, a tanker lost power and started drifting toward Haida Gwaii. It took 16 hours to mobilize the emergency response and get the tanker back under control. Tankers carrying tar sands oil from Kitimat would move within an hour of the Haida coast. A similar incident would spell unmitigated disaster for Haida Gwaii and the northern coast. Such a disaster is on top of a litany of other impacts, including the regular dumping of oil and ballast into coastal waters that these tankers would do as part of their regular operation. Speaking of the impacts of the movement of oil on the coast, Lisa White of the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas clan said, “We eat everything here… sea urchins, chitons, muscles, octopus, fish, crabs. It’s not worth any amount of money, that risk.” As Darin Swanson (Yahgulaanaas chief who put on and presided over the feast) said, they stand firm against all of these oil and gas projects, both for the impacts on their own waters and out of a sense of solidarity with other nations that could be affected in different parts of the pipeline and production chain.

Vern Williams opens the feast

Vern Williams opens the feast

Governance

The Haida are a matrilineal society, with clan identity coming from one’s mother. There are about 30 Haida clans divided into two ‘moeities’, Raven and Eagle. The Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas are of the Raven moiety. Clans are exogamous, meaning that one is expected to marry outside of one’s clan and moiety. Each clan is then divided into a number of houses (3 in the case of Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas), each with its own chief/spokesperson. As a new chief is identified, the role will usually go to the eldest son of the current chief’s eldest sister, unless it is decided somehow that this person would not be a good fit. The son of a chief will, of course, belong to a different clan, so it would not be appropriate for them to take on the role. This is one amongst many mechanisms that maintains women’s power amongst the Haida.

The one identified as next in line for chief is then nurtured from a young age into the role and is expected to shadow the current chief in clan business for many years before they assume the role themselves. The Haida name for the role referred to in English as ‘chief’ is ‘litl’xaaydaGa’. It doesn’t exactly mean what we might think of with the English word ‘chief’. Specifically, it is not a position of hereditary right to dominance or decision-making in a hierarchy. Instead, as Darin Swanson (litl’xaaydaGa Ginaawaan) explains, the role is better understood as spokesperson for a big family. It is a position of responsibility which obliges one to consult with and listen to the clan, particularly the matriarchs, and to act on their expressed desires.

Haida carver, Reggie Davidson: traditional mask and dance, "Removing the Mask"

Haida carver, Reggie Davidson: traditional mask and dance, “Removing the Mask”

As Kerrigan explains, “In Western Culture, people think of a chief as a king that dictates everything. In truth, a chief is a spokesperson for the clan, looks after the clan, and does whatever they can to make sure the clan is healthy and does well. The Chief should be the hardest working person, doing the most to protect the land, protect the people, make sure the people have food. Going along with an oil company who would destroy the environment would be a problem [inconsistent with the role of chief].” The role of litl’xaaydaGa is less about rights and more about duty… duty to listen to matriarchs and clan, and responsibility to transparent communication and dealings that reflect the will of the matriarchs.

The colonial process of overt and deliberate cultural suppression by the white Canadian government damaged the institutions of feasting and traditional governance. The previous Ginaawaan had to hold his potlach in secrecy in his home for fear of being arrested by the oppressive and abusive Canadian state. With so much of the population being stolen from their homes and forced into residential schools and foster homes, many grew up without the traditional guidance of elders in traditional ways and values. Despite all this, traditions and values were preserved and traditional culture has been seeing a steady resurgence. We are also entering a new era, where supreme court rulings have backed the political legitimacy and power of traditional governance through the hereditary chiefs, as opposed to the imposed Indian Act Band Councils[1]. In this context, clans are finding new power through traditional governance and, at the same time, industry is using new tactics to undermine these means to power.

Divide and Conquer: Lying to the clan and matriarchs

The Haida have established unity as a people in standing firm against the movement of oil through their waters. However, in early spring, there were rumors circulating within Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas that two of their litl’xaaydaGa, Carmen Goertzen and Francis Ingram, had been working on the sly in support of Enbridge and that they had been paid by Enbridge to do so. Goertzen and Ingram were called to a clan meeting and denied the rumors, committing to their responsibilities of transparency and following the lead of the clan matriarchs.

However, in June a letter to the National Energy Board supporting Enbridge’s permit review process was made public, signed by the two, along with 6 other Haida of other clans (including two other litl’xaaydaGa). The 8 had together formed a corporation called “The Hereditary Chiefs of North Haida Gwaii LLP”, under the name of which they signed the letter. The letter urged the National Energy Board to approve Enbridge’s request for an extension on their review process[2]. Simultaneously an unsigned term sheet was made public in which Enbridge promised $90,000 to each signer of such a letter and an additional $10,000 for the forming of such an LLP. The term sheet also required them to not say anything about the contract. As the chiefs at the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas potlach reiterated multiple times, these chiefs did not have a right to do this while holding the role of litl’xaaydaGa, being obliged in political engagements to support the will of the clan and matriarchs. In so doing, they violated their commitments to their clan and matriarchs and lied to them publicly.

litl’xaaydaGa Ginaawaan, Darin Swanson

litl’xaaydaGa Ginaawaan, Darin Swanson

This is a growing strategy of the oil and gas corporations, the setting up of what many are starting to call ‘rent-a-chief’ companies to give an illusion of legitimacy to the companies’ projects and to confuse the public through deceptive media announcements. They will say that they have First Nations leadership signing on to various environmentally and socially destructive agreements, when the real leadership is actually highly opposed. As another example, a similar organization was set up calling itself ‘the Nine Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams’, composed of non-chiefs and a few contentiously representing themselves as chiefs, in order to sign agreements with the Eagle Spirit oil company and as a vehicle for attacking the Tsimshian leadership occupying and defending Lelu Island against the Petronas LNG project (endangering the salmon of Skeena River). Another example is the Office of the Gitksan Hereditary Chiefs, representing themselves as an organization of all the Gitksan chiefs and getting paid by and signing on with pipeline companies with less than 7% of the Gitksan hereditary chiefs represented by the organization.

Once the NEB letter was discovered, a counter letter was sent from the Haida leadership to the NEB, reaffirming the Haida’s adamant opposition to oil and gas projects in the region and saying that these two chiefs do not speak for the collective of the Haida hereditary chiefs, as they represented themselves via their LLP. The two were also called in to clan meetings to explain themselves and so the clan could help them set things right for themselves. When confronted over lying to their own clan, there responses were reported to be aggressive and defensive. They declined to take part in any subsequent meetings of the clan over the issue. As reported by Swanson and others, their only response after initial aggressive and defensive denials was “I can’t talk”, one of the requirements of the term sheet for the money they were offered. While Goertzen initially claimed to have not received money from Enbridge or to have agreed to any payments from them for his choice, this was contradicted by Ingram (who was questioned separately). Dayaang (Donald Bell), one of the other Haida chiefs who attended and spoke at the feast, spoke to loud cheers of receiving one of these $90k offers himself and of throwing the letter out. As he and others pointed out, the Haida are a proud people and hold strong work ethics and principled commitment to defending the ability of their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s grandchildren to be able to live off the land and seas as they have done since time immemorial.

Guujaaw leads traditional Haida song

Guujaaw leads traditional Haida song

Goertzen and Ingram failed to take any of the opportunities offered by the clan to make amends for this breach of trust and violation of their duties as litl’xaaydaGa, and in fact failed to communicate at all with the rest of the clan after the initial confrontation with the letter. The clan decided to use traditional practices and hold an ‘emergency’ potlach, organized on 5 weeks’ notice to disrobe them. Such a feast has not been held since before the time when the Haida population was devastated by the ravages of disease and colonialism[3]. This action was not taken lightly and was the result of extensive community process. The two were invited by the clan up until the day of the feast itself to set things right themselves by rescinding the letter to the NEB and signing a letter as chiefs that they were against tankers moving through their waters.

The two had their positions and chiefly names taken from them as much for their betrayal of the clan in supporting Enbridge as for their lack of honesty in dealing with the clan, lack of willingness to listen to and take direction from the matriarchs and clan, especially when representing themselves as hereditary chiefs. As Kerrigan explained, it was done as non-aggressively as possible, but the clan had to remove the chiefs and replace them with people who would follow their culture, would look after their communities, resources, and environment and who would listen to the clan. This was difficult emotionally for the community. This distress in the end was also a repeated reason for their removal as chiefs. As Swanson spoke during his speech at the feast, expressing the sentiments of the clan, “This a blatant disrespect to our matriarchs, forcing them to make these emotionally difficult decisions.” It was emphasized repeatedly that it should never be the case that a member of the clan, especially litl’xaaydaGa, should cause such distress to their elders.

Ginaawaan dancing the copper

Ginaawaan dancing the copper

The two treated their positions more as ‘right holders’ than as ‘duty holders’. In disrobing these chiefs, the clan set things right. It was done respectfully and was a manifestation of a powerfully felt sense of unity.

As Kerrigan said, these divide and conquer tactics are frequently used by industry, paying off a few people to agree with the company and sign off on some papers. The company can then go to the courts and say ‘we have them agreeing with us’. It is then the onus of the people to prove in the courts that those signatures are not legitimate or representative of the nation. Thus, one gets ‘as much justice as one can afford’ in the courts. When the nations have budgets of thousands, court cases cost millions, and the companies can potentially make billions, the nations get bled of resources. This is also not just one industry, but instead dozens of companies with dozens of projects, depleting the community of its resources as it attempts to defend itself in the court system.

Potlaches are huge events, which require those holding the event to feed and offer substantial gifts to all those in attendance, so organizing a feast of this scale would usually be done with at least a year’s lead time. It is a statement to the sense of unity and purpose for the clan that they were able to pull the feast off so well with such short notice.  It is also a testament to how important this is to the people up and down the coast that so many were willing to travel to remote Haida Gwaii to bear witness to the business of the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas.

About 20 meetings were held by the clan once the NEB letter came to light. As multiple members of the clan said, everyone was invited to come and have their say and people worked to make sure of that, reaching out to the clan to make sure that everyone knew about the meetings and the proceedings. While discussions were often difficult, being about and amongst family members, the meetings were well attended and the decision to disrobe the two men was well supported.

With the backing of Enbridge and high priced lawyers, Goertzen and Ingram have threatened a libel lawsuit against litl’xaaydaGa Ginawaan (Darin Swanson) if the feast was held. Despite the threat of lawsuit, the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas went ahead with the feast. This feast was Haida business, not Canadian, and so Haida law stands first. (The men who signed the LLP NEB letter have not made themselves available to media for official comment).

litl’xaaydaGa Roy Collison rousing the crowd

litl’xaaydaGa Roy Collison rousing the crowd

What is a potlach

For First Nations of the region, a feast or potlach is a place of ceremony, a place of ‘doing business’. Based around the gifting of food by the hosts, it is far more than simply an apolitical cultural practice.  It is a place where meaningful political actions of the community are conducted, where community roles (as signified by ‘names’) are assigned and where this business is witnessed. It is the center of the traditional legal system, based on oral tradition. The assembled guests act as witness and through their participation, they affirm the business being conducted at the feast and carry the stories to their communities. Clan meetings leading up to a potlach set the ground, making sure that all is in order and that there is consensus on the rightfulness of all business to be conducted. A well-attended potlach, witnessed and affirmed by members of the house, clan, nation, and visiting nations, attests to the legitimacy of the business. Challenges to the business being conducted would come through organization of a sizeable contingent of opposition at a feast or in organizing a counter-feast of a larger scale, with more in attendance. A clan would ideally only hold a feast if they knew that such a challenge would be insufficient to block the feast. An individual or small group cannot through accusation alone challenge the legitimacy of feast business, but would have to materially demonstrate such through their own physical mobilization of clan or nation members. This is the power of the feast; how physical participation makes it so obvious whether there is or is not support in the community for the business attended to.

For many decades such feasts were illegal and suppressed violently by the Canadian government. Simultaneously, the Canadian government imposed the Indian Act Band Council system of governance to undermine traditional law and facilitate assimilation and cultural genocide. As the band council system came to dominate and traditional governance was disempowered by the Canadian military, this often meant that potlaches, held in secret, became relegated to ceremonial roles that have less political or economic impact. Still continuity has been maintained, as potlaches continued in secret. As the nations are growing stronger, more able to resist the colonial government, and as they are receiving acknowledgement and support from the Canadian Supreme Court, they are reasserting the political meaning of the feast and traditional law, which was never forgotten.

By bearing witness at a feast, one commits oneself to the truth of what one witnesses. As one participates physically in the songs and dances of the feast, one affirms with one’s body one’s commitment to the social order established through the feast, an order that centrally is about respecting the land and community and is about reciprocity and giving.

In the context of historical colonial suppression, there is also necessarily a movement to repair the system from the damage done, to learn how to protect the system from damage from new colonial strategies. This feast is part of that movement. In interview with Eugene Kung, Christine Martin spoke of how the nonnies had said that this had not happened in their days because men were taught from a very early age what their responsibilities were, how they were expected to listen to their clan and matriarchs. This kind of lack of upholding of chiefly responsibilities would have been less likely in a time when traditional practices were not so consistently suppressed. “Colonization has had an impact. A lot of our teachings have been lost. The role of the chief needs to be taught. We walked away with a better understanding of that.

chief Reuben George from the Tsleil waututh First Nation speaking of common fights

chief Reuben George from the Tsleil waututh First Nation speaking of common fights

The feast: Raven Always Sets Things Right

The feast, attended by over 600 hundred[4], was hosted by litl’xaaydaGa Ginaawaan (Darin Swanson) and the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas clan. While many within the clan do feel that Ingram and Goertzen brought shame upon themselves, it was articulated multiple times during the feast that it was not a ‘shaming feast’, but was strictly carrying out the business of making sure that those in the role of litl’xaaydaGa were willing to carry out the responsibilities of litl’xaaydaGa. It was emphasized that both Goertzen and Ingram are invited in their own time to go through the process of reconciliation with the clan and hold their own feasts to reestablish themselves honorably in relationship to the clan. It was a powerful ceremony attended and witnessed by chiefs from communities throughout BC also threatened by proposed oil and gas projects. Haida and visiting chiefs spoke to standing firm together against these projects, giving moving and powerful speeches that brought tears to the eyes of many who bore witness.

Many in the clan expressed how there was a lot of apprehension and tension going into the feast. This had not been done before in living memory and involved a radical and strong stance against the actions taken by some in the clan. The divide and conquer issues being confronted by the community were long standing problems, so mixed with the feeling of rightfulness in challenging it was the fear of what might happen. For me as a guest, however tensions were not apparent as Crystal Robinson made the rounds shaking hands with and welcoming every one of the 600 + guests in attendance. As guests flooded in, there was a sense of togetherness and shared purpose that was palpable and exciting. This sense of togetherness built rapidly as everyone arrived and saw how well the feast  had been prepared.

After a formal entering procession with local and visiting chiefs and the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas, the event opened with a song and grounding by community leader, Vern Williams, and with the spreading of eagle down by masked dancers of raven and eagle, as well as dances of frog, wolf, sun, hummingbird, and others. One particularly poignant traditional dance that set the tone for the evening was performed by local carver, Reggie Davidson, “Taking off the Mask”. With traditional rattler viscerally focusing attention and guiding Davidson, the revealing and removal of the carved mask symbolized and embodied removing pretense and secrecy and establishing honesty in relationships, a comment on the need for transparency, the stopping of secret dealings with destructive industries behind false social masks.

After the initial offerings of songs and dance, Ginaawaan clearly laid out the business of the clan, read the letter sent by Ingram and Goertzen and named clearly the justification and decision of the clan to no longer recognize the two as litl’xaaydaGa and to no longer recognize their names as chiefly names. He then explained the copper that was created for the feast, to mark this feast as an historic event.

A ‘copper’ is a shield, made out of copper. Coppers are considered amongst the most important and heavily ‘weighted’ objects held by a clan, symbol of wealth, history, and honor in living life in a good way according to Haida beliefs. In 2014, Haida broke a copper in Victoria and again in Ottawa as a ritual challenge to the province and federal government to act respectfully toward First Nations peoples and in a good way toward the environment and future generations, particularly around dealings with oil and gas.

For this feast, a copper was created that had engraved on it the expectations of someone who takes on the role of litl’xaaydaGa. These duties include transparency in all dealings, taking direction from the clan and matriarchs, and protection of the land and seas for future generations[5]. Those in attendance frequently interrupted Ginaawaan with cheers of approval as he announced the business of the clan in disrobing these men and again as he read out the expectations of litl’xaaydaGa. The copper was then danced through the hall by Ginaawaan, joined by the women of the clan. Quoting Darin Swanson from the feast, “This is dirty oil infiltrating our community and picking us off one by one. This is a modern day smallpox epidemic. There is an infected blanket in our community and it is time to burn that blanket.[6]

Though the event started for some with apprehension, tensions in the room dissolved as those assembled felt the sense of unity and the sense of rightfulness and respect in the carrying out of the clan business. A plentiful meal featuring salmon and halibut was served by the clan, and light and happy spirit filled the hall, recognizing this feast for the groundbreaking feast that it was, not just for the Haida, but for First Nations throughout BC.

Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation, speaking of the necessity to strengthen traditional non-colonial governance

Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation, speaking of the necessity to strengthen traditional non-colonial governance

After the meal, Chiefs from other Haida clans spoke to how well the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas conducted their business, finding inspiration in how they set things right. Renowned Haida carver, Iidansuu (Jim Hart) talked of looking forward to fighting together in defense of the lands, seas, and little ones. Wigaanad (Sid Crosby) spoke of how heartbreaking and sad it is that this needed to be done, but that it showed the strength of the Haida Nation, that what the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas did would be remembered forever. Skil Hiilans (Alan Davidson) talked about how these divide and conquer tactics and the paying off of chiefs is nothing new, that he was proud to be called a trouble maker for standing up against it. Taaw.ga Halaa’ Leeyga (May Russ) echoed sentiments of sorrow at the circumstances and that it was time to heal. Her fiery call for standing firm together with other First Nations in the face of threats from oil and LNG was met with resounding cheers in the hall. Gya awhlans (Roy Collison) echoed all in the necessity of everyone, especially chiefs, to follow their matriarchs. After naming the line of women whom he comes from and from whom he gets his clan identity, he spoke with a voice almost as loud as the assembled cheers of the crowd about how the Haida owe respect, owe their existence to their nonnies (aunties and matriarchs). Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation who spoke about the awkward position of being a representative for the colonial government, thanked the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas for acting as a role model in setting things right and spoke of how the other clans were watching, spoke clearly to the necessity for clans to exercise their traditional (non-colonial) governance.

doing it for "the little ones"

doing it for “the little ones”

Chiefs from around the province applauded the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas as well for how how they set things right and set their course in a good way. Simoyget Algumhkaa, (Murray Smith), visiting from Lax Kw’alaams, talked about how moving it was and how inspiring it was to the people of Lax Kw’alaams fighting against LNG on Lelu Island (Lax U’u’lu). Chief Namoks (John Risdale), visiting Wet’suet’en chief of the Tsayu clan, thanked the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas for allowing him to witness what he saw as an act of respect… respect for self, for clan, for each other, protecting the land, freedom, and culture for the little ones there to witness. Chief Nekt (George Muldoe), visiting from the Gitksan and named plaintiff in the Delgamukw Supreme Court case, talked about how in his own community, chiefs were being clandestinely paid off in back rooms with $100k signoffs and that he was happy to see what he saw at the feast and that the smoothness of the ceremony spoke to the unity of the clan. Skil Luce (Reuben George), Sundance Chief from the Tsleil waututh, particularly moved the assembly as he talked about his travels to other countries meeting with other indigenous people involved in the same struggles against abusive resource extraction industries and corrupt colonial governments. Many eyes teared up as he spoke of the violence and murder that indigenous people he met were facing, the cancers spread in the name of tar sands oil expansion, the way that colonial governments have worked so consistently to sever people’s connections to the land and waters. The walls of the hall vibrated with cheers as he put words to the shared sentiment that we cannot be the generation that stops fighting for the land, our peoples, our children and that even if we lost in the courts, that we would do whatever is necessary to stop these companies and govern these lands ‘as we see fit’. These fights connect across the country to fights against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and Woodfibre LNG facility in the south of the province, fights against fracking in Micmac territory and across the continent to fights against oil pipelines currently gathering thousands in the Dakotas.

At the end of the feast, the women and then the men came together to dance their affirmation of the rightfulness of the actions of the feast. This integration of the body into politics is striking as an outsider. As Ginaawaan describes it, “The singing and dancing is celebrating, it’s kind of an agreement. We are singing and dancing together, dancing our agreement.” I felt myself how the active involvement of the body in the expression of politics, absent from mainstream conceptions of political process, created a unique and strongly felt sense of commitment to the unified position of the clan and those assembled.

Also, for me as a witness from outside the community, I was struck and inspired by the emphasis on women’s roles. One of the regular refrains of the feast was reference to taking direction from the matriarchs, of men being pushed into doing the right thing by the ‘bossy Haida women’ (met with knowing laughs from the room). Men at the feast and in interviews talked reverently about listening to and learning from their nonnies (grandmothers and elder women relatives). As Lisa White explains, “The backbone of the nation is built by women. Traditionally our Haida women are really strong, business minded and industrious. Traditionally they would be involved in trading and the business end of things, making sure that things are done right. We learn from our aunties and our nonnies, learning how to behave. They are very important people in the community. A lot of our aunties lived through changing times, but they had older ways taught to them … If you have families with lots of women, you are rich. If you have lots of daughters, you are wealthy.” Christine Martin, in an interview with Eugene Kung, named it as a sign of the legitimacy of the feast, recognized with relief by all in attendance, the gestures of approval given by the matriarchs. It is a burden that the (mostly male) chiefs take on to do the politicking. They take their direction from the matriarchs and it is the fire of the matriarchs that inspires the community[7].

litl’xaaydaGa Allan Davidson... proud to be a trouble maker for standing up against divide and conquer politics

litl’xaaydaGa Allan Davidson… proud to be a trouble maker for standing up against divide and conquer politics

As declared at the feast under the approving eyes of matriarchs and assembled witnesses, Francis Ingram and Carmen Goertzen no longer hold names as litl’xaaydaGa, no longer represent their clan. The names they held are considered tarnished and no longer chiefly names. The clan is united against tankers moving through or near its waters, united against the dangers of oil and gas development in the region[8].

Immediate reactions and movement in community

Enbridge’s permit was revoked by the courts, subsequent to the letter these men wrote to the NEB. This feast was, then, less about the immediate threat of Enbridge, more about establishing better leadership as they move forward on other fights, including those against LNG and against the logging that is still ravaging Haida Gwaii. Despite previous victories against wildly destructive logging, helping establish some protected areas on Haida Gwaii (most notably Gwaii Haanas), less devastating logging practices, and limited Haida influence over logging, there is almost uniform dissatisfaction with current logging practices. As the old growth forest areas surrounding the traditional village sites of the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas clan are currently under immanent threat of logging, many talk about it being time to assert their rights with a new wave of blockades against illegal and destructive logging on their territories. The ongoing forest and salmon habitat destruction makes many Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas wonder why anyone other than the clan itself should have any say over logging on traditional clan territory[9].

Another thing that should also be understood by outsiders is how family is more important, even central, in many First Nations communities than it is for many of us raised more centrally in a colonial state. As such, there is a strong sense of family connection, even in these moments of conflict. Where we might jump to ‘otherizing’ and isolation, there is a sense that despite the wrongs done, these men are still family. Many in the community were in fact hesitant to talk to me in any official way because they did not want to make the fissures between these men and the community worse. Even some of those who held the most critical positions on the actions of Ingram and Goertzen expressed a desire for reconciliation and coming back together as family, as clan. As Crystal Robinson of Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas said, this is part of what made the work of holding this feast such difficult emotional work, juggling the desire to not alienate members of the clan with the clear responsibility to uphold Haida law responsibly, to maintain relationship to the earth in a good way. The feast was held respectfully, focusing positively on the unity of the community and movement forward, rather than dwelling on the missteps of the ex-chiefs. The respectfulness of the event was witnessed and affirmed by the Haida and visiting chiefs as well as all in attendance.

While the clan wanted to hold Goertzen and Ingram accountable, there was never a sense of ‘kicking them out of the community’. As Darin Swanson said, there was consistently a desire to ‘hold them up’ – to support them in doing the right thing. Everyone makes mistakes, and they were invited to publicly rescind the letter to the NEB. Even as they refused these opportunities and had their chiefly names taken from them, May Russ made clear at the feast that they were invited in their own time to do the right thing, make amends with the community and hold feasts to restore themselves in good standing with the community. This dividing of families is felt by many to be one of the more painful consequences of the divide and conquer tactics of industry.

During my time on Haida Gwaii, I talked to many clan members who filled me in on back details and shared concerns about mending hurt feelings in the family. There was a great relief and satisfaction in how well the event went off with such minimal resistance[10].

While a very small minority of the community more connected to Enbridge money has made some complaints about the feast and the process, claiming the feast is not legitimate, the sense of enthusiastic unity at the feast was strong and palpable, with frequent roaring cheers reverberating around the hall as the people gathered affirmed the righteousness of the business done at the feast. The matriarchs of the clan standing in support made this clear, and when I showed video footage of the feast to those who were unable to attend, they were impressed. It was clear to them that all was done correctly, powerfully, traditionally. This unity was likewise reflected in my own conversations around Massett and Old Massett in the weeks following the feast, where I found it hard to find any who did not support removing these two from their positions of leadership.

Representations in media: Divisions?

The event was quickly reported by regional media. This is reflective of how important and provocative this event was seen to be, as such a landmark action. However, many of the articles portrayed the event as a sign of deep division in the community. This was not my experience in the weeks I spent on Haida Gwaii after the feast. The actions of Goertzen, Ingram, and the 6 other Haida who signed the letter in support of Enbridge were seen by everyone I talked with as inappropriate and a betrayal of the Haida values and position.

Haida carver, Gwaii: “They [media] got it wrong to describe it as a sign of division. The results of the feast are a sign of unity. This is a small number of people after Enbridge has been making all kinds of promises, coming up here with bucket-loads of money trying to get any kind of sign [of agreement with their proposed pipeline] …

There is a habit in media to try to give multiple sides to a story. The problem with this is the portrayal of ‘false balance’. If media gives equal time and space to two positions, it gives the impression that the two positions are equally valid or that there is equal support for the two positions. This was famously lambasted by John Oliver around climate change, where 97/100 climate scientists found that the evidence for human caused climate change is irrefutable[11] and yet media kept giving equal time to both climate scientists and climate change deniers (usually funded directly by fossil fuel companies). Fossil fuel companies recognized this and so invested in keeping their own scientists to fuel this false impression of conflict within the climate science community, strategically fostering confusion on the issues to their benefit. This finally lead to media outfits, such as BBC, declaring an end to such ‘false balance’ reporting with regards to climate change. The reporting on First Nations politics in general and the feast in particular has followed a similar dynamic, with the Vancouver Sun reporting on this feast as a sign of deep division in the community. Media sells better when it reports on conflict and problems rather than solutions, so the pressure to steer an article in this direction is understandable. Even Discourse Media, mostly doing an excellent, well researched and responsible job of reporting on the feast (as well as on First Nations politics in general, which is much needed), uncritically repeated the claims of one of the chiefs that this is a sign of a ‘war within the community’. The war in this case is not between halves of the community but between the community and a very few being bought off or coopted by industry in order to fuel these stories of false balance. This is ‘divide and conquer’ tactics in action.

Namoks, visiting Wet'suet'en chief of the Tsuya clan: honored to be invited to witness this actof respect for self, clan, the environment, tradition.

Namoks, visiting Wet’suet’en chief of the Tsuya clan: honored to be invited to witness this actof respect for self, clan, the environment, tradition.

The feast hall was packed. This is the strength of the feast system; if community members do not support the positions and assertions of those holding the feast, then they do not show up and it is reflected in poor attendance. The clan demonstrated itself as united against Enbridge. Ingram and Goertzen showed that they lack community support, being unable to defend their own actions in clan meetings and unable to rally more than one or two percent of the community to support their stance. There is no support that I was able to see for the view that the community is deeply divided, but instead saw that there is a small contingent of the community supported by Enbridge money who have worked to portray false divisions.

While these few still try to claim that the feast was not legitimate, the clan is moving on with potlaches being scheduled for the next year to bring in the new house chiefs. If the objectors want to press their claims, the onus would be on them by Haida law to hold their own potlaches. Given the paucity of protest at the feast and the lack of support I observed in the community, this seems quite implausible. Again, this is the strength of the potlach system, the visible, transparent, embodied demonstration of support, now easily documented through film and video.

Taking this further, one thing that several people were quick to point out is that the positions of these men should not be seen as ‘enthusiasm for Enbridge’. Where there has been debate in the community, it has not been about whether to enthusiastically embrace the pipeline project and subsequent tankers as a boon or not. It has been more about whether it can be resisted or not. This must be understood in the context of the disenfranchisement of First Nations peoples, the theft of their resource bases, and the centuries of full assault on their cultures and social capital. For the Haida in particular, no one views this as ‘good for the Haida’. Some are tempted from a place of disenfranchisement to get what they can out of a system that appears out of their control. There is within the mix of voices in the community (as well as other First Nations communities) this defeatist voice which is overwhelmed by how severely oppressed First Nations people have consistently been in North American. From this perspective, there is a desire to give in and get whatever can be gotten to avoid being even more severely hurt. Gwaii: “Right from the start Haida Gwaii has been united and pretty much unanimous. There has not been any wavering on the front of how we as a community felt about having pipelines come to the coast and particularly tankers coming by our islands. They [Enbridge] needed to show some crack in this united front that is Haida Gwaii. I know all those guys that signed that letter. They are not evil or anything like that. Maybe greedy… they signed that letter by rationalizing to themselves that they could do that. I’m pretty sure they do not want oil tankers going by their coast. They wanted a piece of the pie or maybe they, believing in the inevitability, figured they might as well benefit … but it is not inevitable.

This is not the dominant voice of the community, but it is understandable. These men, while perhaps greedy in the moment, were not necessarily embracing oil tankers on the coast from a position of power, but are better seen as trying to get what they can out of a bad situation, where their community has had much of its resources and wealth stripped from them. Of course, the oil and gas companies play into this insecurity and exaggerate it by attempting to coopt and buy off these members of the community. Through short-term financial support oil and gas companies seek to inflate these coopted  individuals’ status within the community. It is understandable how out of desperation for their communities mixed with the enticements of quick money, there are usually a few who give in to these ‘divide and conquer’ tactics.

Repercussions and reflections: What this means for Haida and other communities

I stayed in Haida Gwaii for a week and a half after the feast, to explore the island and community, to interview those involved with the feast and to talk with people in the community about the feast. The quickly posted photo series and statement about the feast I put on Facebook were reshared widely, and gathered responses of support and inspiration from around the region.

In the Haida community, there is movement in other clans to ‘clean house’ within their hereditary leadership, with the other two hereditary chiefs who signed the NEB letter likely targets.  Roy Jones Jr., who was a Haida chief from another clan who signed the letter, has been put on notice by his clan matriarchs that he no longer represents the clan. This is not just about the hereditary system, however, as there is also a movement afoot in the town of Old Masset to hold community votes to change the Indian Act band council government[12]. Many are also dissatisfied with directions that the band council has gone and want it to reflect better the will of the community.

The issues faced by the Haida in trying to live their responsibilities to protect the land and sea in the face of divide and conquer strategies of industry are not at all unique but are faced by First Nations throughout Canada and by indigenous people all over the world. This feast follows recent elections in the Wet’suet’en community of Moricetown, where grassroots land defenders organized to elect people, including Unist’ot’en leader Freda Huson, who more clearly act on traditional values and the will of the community in fighting the expansion of fracked gas and who do not engage in the kind of legal overreach that is encouraged by oil and gas industries desperate for the image of having gotten First Nations buy-in. I heard from members of Tsimshian, Gitksan, and Wet’suet’en communities about similar processes either being organized or contemplated in their communities. This feast is likely to be one of many as Nations clean house within their leadership, both hereditary and colonial band council, bringing clan representation more in line with traditional values and law. Traditional governance is being reinvigorated. Other communities are likewise engaging in clarification of roles of spokesmen/chiefs and in some cases reassessing whether current name-holders are fulfilling their obligations.

Speaking as an outsider, this is something we all need to pay attention. Systems in which we are all complicit are directed by forces that are willing to destroy communities and our shared environmental base for their own short term profits. The governance issues of First Nations communities are something that affects us all. It is also something that we all influence as we are complicit with or resist these attempts to undermine and misrepresent First Nations law.

Of course, industry is not taking this lightly. The libel lawsuit funded by Enbridge against both Darin Swanson and Peter Lantin is a looming threat. The fight over representation and misrepresentation of First Nations is incredibly convoluted. Even though the lawsuit is likely to be found to have no merit, it is just one more strategy of industrial actors to weaken and drain opposition, an attempt to make others afraid to follow suit. From what I have heard, it is mostly just pissing the Haida off and motivating them further. The feast hall reverberated with cheers as Darin Swanson spoke there of how Canadian law has no place in First Nations governance, of how “Haida law doesn’t need lawyers, Haida law is the voice of the people!

There are more oil companies than just Enbridge that the Haida face, more fossil fuel issues than oil, and more industrial environmental threats than just fossil fuels. Speaking about the current outrage amongst the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas about the clear cutting that continues on the island, Lisa White said, “I would like to see these islands go back to the way Haida utilized these forests. Clear cut logging should be outlawed. We all feel strongly that it has to stop. Any opposition to that is very minor… We are going to have to make a stand here very soon … We want to keep our fish and tree populations healthy.

Engraved on the copper created for the feast, “Raven Always Sets Things Right” litl’xaaydaGa “The Chief” In taking the name to which they are entrusted as chief of the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas, our chief must strive to excel in moral and ethical standards. As litl’xaaydaGa I must not be offensive to others. I must not bring undue attention unto my name, nor put myself above another. As litl’xaaydaGa, I take this position for the love of my people and will nourish and protect our Clan, always guided by the principle of Yahgudaang. I will take direction from our Clan. I will represent the Clan in social, ceremonial and political business of the Haida Nation. I will seek and learn, share and protect the necessary knowledge to ensure that our traditions are upheld. As litl’xaaydaGa, I will maintain harmony within the Clan, and peace and unity within the Haida Nation. When necessity demands, I will take a position of strength if my Clan directs me. As litl’xaaydaGa, I WILL HOLD FOREMOST THE WELLBEING OF HAIDA GWAII, ITS AIR, LAND, WATERS, AND CREATURES FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS.

Engraved on the copper created for the feast, “Raven Always Sets Things Right”
litl’xaaydaGa “The Chief”
In taking the name to which they are entrusted as chief of the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas, our chief must strive to excel in moral and ethical standards.
As litl’xaaydaGa I must not be offensive to others. I must not bring undue attention unto my name, nor put myself above another. As litl’xaaydaGa, I take this position for the love of my people and will nourish and protect our Clan, always guided by the principle of Yahgudaang. I will take direction from our Clan. I will represent the Clan in social, ceremonial and political business of the Haida Nation. I will seek and learn, share and protect the necessary knowledge to ensure that our traditions are upheld. As litl’xaaydaGa, I will maintain harmony within the Clan, and peace and unity within the Haida Nation. When necessity demands, I will take a position of strength if my Clan directs me. As litl’xaaydaGa, I WILL HOLD FOREMOST THE WELLBEING OF HAIDA GWAII, ITS AIR, LAND, WATERS, AND CREATURES FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS.

While Gwaii talked of how the Lyle Island protests and subsequent blockades have brought much positive change, the Haida are not all the way there yet. The Haida have in some form taken over much of the logging on the island, improved how it is done and reduced its rate, but it is still industrial logging that, as a carver, hurts his soul. In discussing the many resource economy issues the Haida currently face, local carver Gwaii described how “At one point this island supported 40,000 people and it did that for millennia. Now it’s being asked to do that for the world… [wood, fish, clams] it’s all getting shipped out. We need to be careful of this bottomless hole of a mouth out there of the rest of the world trying to be fed… [these tankers are] forever dribbling their detritus into out waters. That’s already a problem… a spill will happen. If we accept these tankers, we are accepting a big spill. We are under no obligation to satisfy the appetite of the world for grinding the rest of their resources into dust.

As Eugene Kung writes, “The Haida [through this feast] were able to use their own laws and procedures to undermine the tactic that industries and governments have used forever: dividing and conquering communities by cherry-picking individuals to try and give the illusion of support and consent.” A big ‘Hawa’a’[13] to the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas clan for the political work you have done in setting things right and for taking the very emotionally difficult steps to act in a good way[14]! This event stands as an inspiration to other communities facing similar issues in their own communities, confronting the ‘divide and conquer’ strategies of these greedy companies.

For other references

For alternative write-ups on the feast, see Eugene Kung’s blog article from West Coast Environmental Law as well as Trevor Jang’s articles for Discourse Media on the feast and the background issues.

For a photo and video-still series from the feast, here’s my facething album.

I also can’t recommend enough Thomas King’s book, “The Inconvenient Indian” for a whirlwind primer on the barbarity of US and Canadian colonialism and genocidal actions and intentions against the first peoples of the Americas.

[1] The Supreme Court has been consistently opposed by federal and provincial executive authorities who continue to try to undermine First Nations governance.

[2] This request was in the end rejected by the Canadian courts, and Enbridge’s permit was revoked in June 2016 by the courts because of lack of real consultations with First Nations.

[3] This ceremony had not been carried out in living memory, though similar changes in leadership (if more violent) based on misconduct were part of oral histories of the Haida. A similar ceremony is documented by Franz Boas (Tsimshian Mythologies, 1916) amongst the Tsimshian, where a feast was organized to strip the chief name from someone who was found to not be holding it legitimately, and more recently such name stripping feasts have been reported amongst the Gitksan, though not yet over resource control issues.

[4] This estimate of attendance is based on video footage I took from the event at the peak of the feast. This is likely an underestimate of overall attendance, given how there were many who arrived late and many who could not stay for the whole event.

[5] Engraved on the copper created for the feast, “Raven Always Sets Things Right

litl’xaaydaGa “The Chief

In taking the name to which they are entrusted as chief of the Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas, our chief must strive to excel in moral and ethical standards.

As litl’xaaydaGa I must not be offensive to others. I must not bring undue attention unto my name, nor put myself above another. As litl’xaaydaGa, I take this position for the love of my people and will nourish and protect our Clan, always guided by the principle of Yahgudaang. I will take direction from our Clan. I will represent the Clan in social, ceremonial and political business of the Haida Nation. I will seek and learn, share and protect the necessary knowledge to ensure that our traditions are upheld. As litl’xaaydaGa, I will maintain harmony within the Clan, and peace and unity within the Haida Nation. When necessity demands, I will take a position of strength if my Clan directs me. As litl’xaaydaGa, I WILL HOLD FOREMOST THE WELLBEING OF HAIDA GWAII, ITS AIR, LAND, WATERS, AND CREATURES FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS.

[6] For those not familiar with the history of colonization, the last reference is to the recent historical use by English traders of blankets infected with smallpox as malicious ‘gifts’ to First Nations to murder them through what we would now call biological warfare in order to seize their lands and resources. The history of western capitalist abuse of First Nations communities runs long and deep, something that many in the dominant culture fail to entirely appreciate, except as superficial historical footnotes. For the Haida, this wound runs particularly deep as over the 1800s, 90% of the Haida populations was wiped out through successive waves of disease

[7] While the underlying traditional respect for and power of women is similar amongst the nations of the region, specific traditions vary.  Christie Brown (currently occupying Lelu Island as part of Gitwilgyoots territory defense against LNG) told me as I was heading to Haida Gwaii a tradition of some of the Tsimshian which captures this role for women.  While the men would usually have the chief role and do the political work, it is supposed to follow the will of the matriarch.  Symbolizing this, the chief would not put on his own robe or take it off at ceremonies, but would have this done for him by the women of the clan.  This action represents how the authority the chief carries into ceremony is not his, but is loaned to him by the women, and that it can always be taken back.

[8] The Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas, the largest of the Haida clans, is united against all fossil fuel expansion in the region, whether it be bitumen or fracked gas (LNG). The Haida, as all communities in the region (First Nations and not), are united against the movement of tar sands oil to the coast. The furor that arose over the issues of tar sands oil acted as a smoke screen however under the cover of which LNG (liquefied natural gas) was able to gain some acceptance and limited approvals. Resistance to LNG has been rising in the last years, with several adamant occupations arising to prevent the building of pipelines and export facilities. These include the Unist’ot’en and Luutkudziiwus (Madii Lii) camps obstructing pipelines and the Lelu Island occupation of Gitwilgyoots blocking the building of an LNG facility in essential salmon habitat of the Skeena. On the one hand people recognize the pollution and social destruction coming from fracking itself and the ensuing effects on climate change (worse than coal), but there is also the recognition that the building of any such pipeline would facilitate the fracking and pollution of the Skeena watershed itself (the third largest salmon run in the world) and would inevitably mean the movement of tar sands oil to the coast through these same pipelines within a decade. The Yahgulaanaas/Jaanas clan, as many others, stands united against both oil and gas.

[9] Canadian Supreme Court cases (Delgamukw (1997) and Tsil’qot’in (2014)) have supported this view, ruling that it is the traditional hereditary governance structure which has control over the land and that all activity on the land needs to get their prior informed consent before proceeding. This makes the logging in their territory illegal, but getting law enforced often only happens through show of force in First Nations communities.

[10] There were 4 people in total who showed up to the event and silently expressed objection to the proceedings. The contingent of objectors was actually so minimal that it had to be pointed out to me where they were in the video documentation I made of the event, lost as they were in the overwhelming sea of support for the clan shown by the enthusiastic hundreds in attendance. If they are actually representative of larger numbers who decided not to attend, this was not at all clear from my two weeks of hanging out and talking to people randomly on the streets of Massett and Old Massett. By Haida law, it would be up to them to demonstrate their support through a counter feast, but that seems extremely unlikely, to put it mildly.

[11] The numbers now are actually more like 99.5/100 climate scientists affirming human caused climate change.

[12] This is the same Old Masset band council chief who was involved in the scientifically laughable and politically questionable iron-oxide ocean dumping carbon offset scheme back in 2011.

[13] ‘Thank you’ in the Haida language

[14] A big thanks also to Crystal Robinson for helping me make more connections, offering me a place to shower, and for the awesome elk stew and other meals, to Patrika McEvoy for helping me make connections here (and for providing all the salmon we ate at the feast (wow!), to Goldie Swanson for quickly giving me the OK to film with 1 minute of explanation, to Christie Brown for encouraging me to come and for currently holding down the occupation at Lelu Island, and a big thanks to all the inspirational Haida I met and talked with while there!

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.

nighthawk

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.

References

Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the Enemy. New York: Harper Collins.

Bolongaro, K. (2014, January 14). North Gateway pipeline : Another notch in Canada ’ s poor environmental record. Al Jezeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/12/north-gateway-pipeline-another-notch-canada-poor-environmental-record-2013122975330184493.html

CBC. (2006, August 2). Environmentalists angry over new logging in Clayoquot Sound. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/environmentalists-angry-over-new-logging-in-clayoquot-sound-1.598604

Dupuis, Jo. (2015). The Canadian War on Science : A long , unexaggerated , devastating chronological indictment. Retrieved from http://scienceblogs.com/confessions/2013/05/20/the-canadian-war-on-science-a-long-unexaggerated-devastating-chronological-indictment/

Frost, K. (2015a). Blockades as Prosocial Rituals: Cultural evolution of sustainability in the interlocking politics of resource extraction industries, First Nations sovereignty, and environmental activism in BC, Canada. In International Association for the Study of the Commons. Edmonton.

Frost, K. (2015b). Protocol on First Nations Territory. We Eat Fish. Retrieved from http://www.weeatfish.org/protocol-on-first-nations-territory/

Frost, K. (2016). We Eat Fish (a film, travel blog, and web-based documentary on the interlocking issues of First Nations soveriegnty, fights against oil and gas development, and cross-cultural solidarity building in BC, Canada). Canada. Retrieved from www.weeatfish.org

Hunter, J. (2016, February 1). Final agreement reached to protect BC’ s Great Bear Rainforest. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/final-agreement-reached-to-protect-bcs-great-bear-rainforest/article28475362/

King, T. (2012). An Inconvenient Indian. University of Minnesota Press.

MacCharles, T. (2014, June 26). Supreme Court grants land title to B.C. First Nation in landmark case. The Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/06/26/supreme_court_grants_land_title_to_bc_first_nation_in_landmark_case.html

O’Donnell, K., Hesselgrave, T., Macdonald, E., McIsaac, J., Nobles, D., Sutcliffe, T., … Reid-Kuecks, B. (2014). Understanding Values in Canada’s North Pacific: Capturing Values from Commercial Fisheries. Prince Rupert, BC.

Pablo, C. (2016, March 4). Indigenous camp grows as resistance to oil and gas pipelines in B.C. remains strong. The Georgia Straight. Retrieved from http://www.straight.com/news/665846/indigenous-camp-grows-resistance-oil-and-gas-pipelines-bc-remains-strong

Persky, S., & David Suzuki Foundation. (1998). Delgamuukw: The Supreme Court of Canada Decision on Aboriginal Title. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books.

Proctor, J. (2016, June 30). Northern Gateway pipeline approval overturned. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/northern-gateway-pipeline-federal-court-of-appeal-1.3659561

Shrubsole, N. D. (2011). The Sun Dance and the Gustafsen Lake Standoff: Healing Through Resistance and the Danger of Dismissing Religion. The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 2(4). doi:10.18584/iipj.2011.2.4.3

Suttles, W. (Ed.). (1990). Handbook of North American Indians: Volume 7 Northwest Coast. Washington DC: Smithsonian INstitute.

The Canadian Press. (2014, July 10). Gitxsan First Nation evicting rail, logging, sport fishing interests. CBC News, pp. 2014–2016.

Tindall, D. (2013, August 12). Twenty years after the protest, what we learned from Clayoquot Sound. Globe and Mail.

Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and icons : divergent modes of religiosity. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press.

Wild, N. (1993). Blockade. Canada. Retrieved from http://www.canadawildproductions.com/film/blockade/

 

 

Oct 172015
 

Attached to this blog post is an excerpt from a video with Toghestiy and Freda Huson from my first visit to Unist’ot’en Camp in 2014.  It is of Toghestiy talking about the importance of going through ‘protocol’ when entering a First Nations traditional territory.

Friends and I were visiting the camp last year to help with the building of a bunk house that would allow community to live their year round to keep an eye on the land and prevent oil and gas industry workers from violating Wet’suet’en sovereignty.  There were several dozen people who came there to help work on the structure, as well as a traditional pithouse and permaculture garden, all put directly in the path of proposed pipelines.

photo from occupy.com, J. Jones

photo from occupy.com, J. Jones

Before being allowed entry to the territory, we were required to go through protocol procedures where we were asked who we were, what our intentions were, and to justify why the Unist’ot’en should allow us entry into their traditional territory.  It was at first simultaneously unnerving, confusing, and unexpectedly empowering. I felt strangely emotional afterward and it took me a bit to sort it out.  In doing protocol, we were asked  to publically acknowledge that we respected and supported the Unist’ot’en in what they were doing and what their ancestors had felt the responsibility to do for thousands of years. For the Unist’ot’en, it being ‘their land’ was, from what I came to understand, less about them ‘owning the land’ as their having an obligation to the land and belonging to the land. Doing protocol was also asking us to name publically that we felt like we were acting in a positive way in the world and to give a sense that we knew concretely how we were doing that and for what reasons.  It was asking us to take a stand and step into our power.

In North America, there is this deeply embedded feeling that it is OK for us to go anywhere in ‘public lands’ and ‘wilderness areas’.  The whole idea of wilderness areas in north America is a racist erasure of the memory that these lands are the territories of specific people and that these people have been the guardians and protectors of these lands for, in many cases, thousands of years.  The idea that these nature areas that we turn into park or industrial forest land are somehow ‘public access’ is part of the deliberate attempt to not just forget the past, but make invisible the present continuous existence of these people.  Being in solidarity with Wet’suet’en, Tsimshian, Gitksan, Haisla, Haida, Tahltan, Helitsuk and other First Nations means first deliberately and publicly remembering the past and acknowledging that there is not a discontinuity with the present. Colonialism is not something of the past, but something that is reenacted continuously, both against and within First Nations communities.  We have had victories against this disease of the social mind, colonialism, but it exists deeply in all of us.  Remembering and practicing protocol is a powerful tool on many levels for confronting colonialism as it still exists inside of us. By doing proper protocol when entering a nation’s territory, we practice a small important piece of individual and community healing for all of us and the land.

Freda and Toghestiy were gracious enough to spend a little time with me for an interview, the first interview I did in my trips up north. Clips from this interview and others from Unist’ot’en Camp can be found in the work-in progress video on the home page for this project.  I wanted to share this particular response from Toghestiy about protocol in its entirety, as i found it very moving to hear.

Doing Protocol is a core tradition of First Nations communities in the Northwest, part of the continual enactment of relations amongst nations and the continuous re-acknowledging of land stewardship and obligations to the land.  There is a parallel to what we all go through whenever we cross an international boundary, but there is something here more direct, intimate and personal.

It has been part of the Canadian (and US) assault on aboriginal culture and denial of history and sovereignty to suppress these ceremonies.  They survived through the brave and dedicated efforts of elders who risked imprisonment and many other forms of violence in order to keep their practice alive.  I have been moved on many occasions to watch protocol, especially as I understand it more, understand not just what it symbolizes, but what it actually does to participants. It is an important act of solidarity and of entering into respectful relationship to go through these ceremonies when visiting a nation’s territories. It is an act of mutual support in maintaining right relationship to the land.

Toghestiy explains…

PS. here is a link to the Unist’ot’en Camp page on Free Prior and Informed Consent and Protocol

Sep 022015
 
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 builing a bunk house for the Unist’ot’en community and supporters to stay through the winter

by Karl Frost

Over the past year and a half, I have spent about a month with the Unist’ot’en, helping with building projects and talking with people about oil and gas politics and First Nations sovereignty struggles. I keep having people ask me about camp, people sympathetic to the environmental and First Nations sovereignty concerns driving Unist’ot’en Camp, people who are interested in going, but who don’t know what to expect.  Police presence has escalated. Part of the camp is explicitly prepared to face arrest compelled by their felt obligations to protect the land as guided by ethics and First Nations law.  Arrests are quite a real threat. I am writing based on what I understand and am not in any way acting as a representative for the camp.  I am simply writing as someone who has spent some time with the camp and as someone who cares deeply about many of the same issues as the Unist’ot’en.

Freda Huson and Toghestiy speaking out against the dangers of fracked gas and tar sands oil

Freda Huson and Toghestiy speaking out against the dangers of fracked gas and tar sands oil

The Unist’ot’en are a clan of the Wet’suet’en First Nation in northern British Columbia.  Their traditional territory is a vast area near the town of Houston.  Like many others in the region, they never ceded their territories to Canada in the early days of Canadian colonialism, which gives them a unique legal standing and sovereignty on their territories, recognized through the Delgamuukw and Tsilhqot’in rulings of the Canadian Supreme Court.  As such, legally government and industry are not allowed to enter or do anything on their territories without their explicit prior informed consent.  They have considered the issues of oil and gas pipelines and have taken a firm principled stance against them.  This includes setting up a high profile camp on their traditional territory to monitor territorial borders and deny access to pipeline workers.  For more details, here is an excellent article on the Unist’ot’en, their work, the solidarity movement that has arisen around them, and industry and police response…

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/8/20/in-canada-police.html

Here are several links for more information on camp and getting involved …

If you are interested in going to camp in solidarity, to help in land defense, there is a standing invitation for people to come to camp to help out.  There are two main gatherings in the year: Action Camp in July (more geared toward networking and training in decolonization and direct action resistance) and Work Weeks in May (more centrally focused on building projects for infrastructure).  People are invited, however, to come year round to lend a hand and be there as support.  Guests are asked to come with the clear understanding that this is Unist’ot’en land, that The Unist’ot’en are the leaders of the action, and that the goal of the camp is to support the Unist’ot’en in their struggles.  We take direction from the Unist’ot’en at camp, supporting them in what they need.  We are their guests while there. There is a vetting process which would be initiated through contacting one of the solidarity groups above, who act to make sure all of this is clear.  This is not a horizontal ‘occupy’-style event.  We go to assist the Unist’ot’en and follow their lead.  When you come to camp, there is a protocol process that all are asked to go through, quite similar to the protocol that anyone would go through when entering a country of which they are not a citizen.

Police action, arrest, and avoiding arrest if you are not ready to be arrested

July 2015 police warning of intention to escort pipelines onto the territory

July 2015 police warning of intention to escort pipelines onto the territory

 

The history of land defence and First Nations sovereignty struggles has been fraught with police conflict and arrests. Many Unist’ot’en and their allies have publicly declared that they are not willing to let threats of arrest stop them from following their felt sense of duty to defend the land. It is a real part of regular conversations that police will eventually move in for arrests. Police have been massing in the area and the pipeline company, Coastal Gas Link have equipment and people in place to do work on the territory.  There is a significant chance of the police trying to forcibly escort pipeline workers onto Unist’ot’en territory.  This is not inevitable, but there is a strong possibility.

In talking about camp, I have been asked about what it might be like to go there, afraid of what confrontation with police might look like. Specifically, some want to support but are not ready to be arrested or of violent conflict.  If you want to help, but are not ready to stand in a way that could get you arrested, there is still much need for people on the land to stand in support in other ways. Risks of arrest for those who don’t want to be arrested are quite minimal. There is still very much a need for people in support roles, like cooking, helping with continued work on the healing center, or being there as supportive witnesses.  These non-arrest roles are vital to free up focus for others who are ready to be arrested, if necessary.

In particular, by bearing witness, people help keep the event peaceful.  It is in some ways especially important for non-indigenous allies to come as witnesses or as people also willing to face arrest.  Canada has an incredibly dark history of racism and a long, violent history of relationship to First Nations.  Police interactions in conflict with First Nations people can be brutal.  For reference, read on Oka Crisis, Gustafson Lake, Burned Church, Elsipogtog, etc..  Having non-indigenous (especially white) others there as concerned witnesses (and especially as those willing to stand up and risk arrest) is perceived to make violence significantly less likely to occur.

We do not know that the police will move on the camp right now.  If they do, what usually happens in these cases, as happened with the very recent Burnaby Mountain protests against the Kinder Morgan bitumen pipeline work, is that the police ask all to stand aside who do not want to be arrested and that those who do not stand aside will be arrested. It is more likely that this kind of less violent protocol will be followed in high visibility events like this, especially with white people there.

So, if you want to come in a spirit of support, you would be welcomed with open arms, your support is needed, and if you don’t want to risk arrest, this risk can be made to be negligible.  It is also an incredibly empowering experience to take a stand in solidarity.

Are arrests about to happen?

There are mixed opinions on this ranging from ‘possibly’ to ‘definitely’. No one is saying ‘definitely not’.

What is clear right now is that police have been massing in Houston.  There has been an increase in police harassment of camp since July, including setting up checkpoints to take down license plates of cars and numbers of people going in and out and names and IDs of drivers. Just this week, police have been seen in enormous numbers in the area and have made their presence quite clear on the road into Unist’ot’en territory. Grand Band Chief of BC, Stewart Phillips, has gotten reports of a very big increase in high level talks amongst police, military , government, and industry. It is very clear that Unist’ot’en Camp is a very big concern for the Harper government and big oil and gas, both in itself and as an example that others might replicate (See the Madii Lii Camp in Gitksan territory blocking  the rest of the proposed pipelines and the Lelu Island camp in Tsimshian territory which just got established days ago in order to prevent the building of Petronas’s LNG/fracked gas export facility, threatening the salmon of Skeena). Also, Coastal Gas Link has all of their equipment and people in place, their work camps constructed, and have filed a report with the police.  This last is a signal that they are going to try to get an injunction, a legal court order for people to be cleared out of the land so that they can do their work.

The police have come out with two conflicting statements.  The first is that contrary to rumors, they have no intention of taking down the camp.  However, in conversations with Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en spokesperson, the federal police have said that they have justification to make arrests as they have determined the road through their territory to be a public road and that they can arrest people for impeding people who want to move on the road.

This all seems to point to the police being ready to escort the pipeline workers onto the territory, arresting any who try to obstruct them.

However, there are a number of other things going on which make it less than inevitable that the police will move on camp.  The main one is the legal status of the land.

There is very firm legal ground for the Unist’ot’en to be within their rights, as established by the Candian Supreme Court in the Delgamuukw and Tsilqot’in rulings.  The Unist’ot’en chiefs are mentioned by name in Delgamuukw, so it is not even a matter of extending this case to them.  The Supreme Court recognized their territorial sovereignty directly by name, and last year’s Tsiilqot’in ruling spelled out that this means that they have the right to require prior and informed consent.  Even if there was a way around this, an injunction issued by a lower court would immediately be met by a legitimate appeal, which would take it to the Supreme Court, which would likely then be drawn out for years.  The government knows this, and this is likely why they have failed to move directly on the Unist’ot’en and start arrests.  There are many within the First Nations sovereignty movement who would actually look forward to the police trying to enforce an injunction or make arrests, knowing how the Canadian federal government would get thrashed in their own courts over it.

It is, of course, election season, and the Conservatives are looking likely to lose power.  This sets up a number of wild cards.  On the one hand, it may rally a lot of people against the Conservatives if they create a crisis through an illegal attack on the Unist’ot’en.  It could be an enormous embarrassment for them. On the other, they could use this to set people into a crisis mode and potentially give them an excuse to activate anti-democratic aspects of the new c-51 anti-terror bill. It’s hard to say exactly how this will be affecting government decision-makers.

Still, they may not move on camp.  Why would they be massing, then?  There are a number of possibilities and any combination of them might be true.

  • They may have been intending to move on the camp, but are hesitating.
  • They may be getting ready to move on the camp in case something shifts and it becomes slightly more legally justifiable.
  • They might be testing the waters to see what sort of support camp can muster on short notice.
  • They might be trying to wear on the nerves of camp supporters, getting people to rush to camp repeatedly from hours of driving away and wear themselves out in so doing.

It could go either way, and I think everyone is planning accordingly.  It also seems clear that people going to camp now in solidarity decreases the chances that the police will move on the camp, at least for the moment.  People have been streaming into camp in solidarity since the first reports of massing police.  A letter has also been distributed with many high profile signatories in support of the Unist’ot’en, calling on the federal government to back off and respect First Nations rights.

One final note on the possibility of arrests. Yes, it may happen, but if it does, it is not the end, but the beginning.  It will set in motion legal processes which could hang things up in the courts for years and which the Unist’ot’en are likely to win, setting even stronger legal standards in the future for First Nations sovereignty. It would also trigger an outpouring of solidarity actions in response, both on the territory and in a decentralized way around the province.  Support for camp has been spectacular and international.  It would of course be a struggle, but one that can be won.  It is a very long way from beginning survey work to completing a pipeline and a dizzying array of possibilities for disruption exist in that time.  While we most want the pipeline companies to simply drop their proposals and to have a new government in Canada without an escalating conflict, in a way it would be a very exciting new point in the struggle.  I say this in part to fend off the panic mentality that can potentially wear on the nerves of people involved in the struggle.  I think we should be ready and take actions, but also self-care and not give into panic.  This struggle is going to go on for a while.

In solidarity

Karl Frost

Jul 152015
 

by Karl Frostkutz

news from Lax Kw’alaams…

Recently the Tsimshian community of Lax Kw’alaams (Port Simpson, north of Prince Rupert) made headlines by voting almost unanimously to reject a $1 billion offer from Petronas to develop an LNG facility on Lelu Island for the export of fracked gas from BC to asia.  That was widely applauded.  The development, in addition to enabling land and water destruction of Treaty 8 territories via fracking, would have destroyed vital salmon habitat in the Flora Banks, potentially crippling salmon stocks in the Skeena River, one of the most important salmon rivers in the world.

Of course any fracked gas development on the coast will be short lived, given the paucity of Canadian reserves next to the capacity of even one LNG facility.  John Hughes, a prominent Canadian geologist, has estimated that Canada has about 10 years of gas reserves, for its own uses, and much less if they invest in export.  What this means is that within 5 to 10 years, any gas pipeline that is built will be converted to the transport of tar sands oil, and all of the pipelines that are being laid are being built with this capacity for switching in mind.

I recently visited Lax Kw’alaams. In addition to a beautiful 4 day kayaking trip to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, I spent some time interviewing people in the community about the Petronas offer and potentials of oil and gas development.  When i first stopped at the band council, i found that the band council employees have been ordered not to talk with anyone about it.  The band council is still apparently  in negotiation with Petronas through lawyers.

I wandered around the community and asked questions of others.  It seems that there is a lot of tension around oil and gas development in the community, but what seems to be a majority opposed.  Some people are upset at the lack on transparency from the band council. Apparently the head of the band council, Gary Reece, is not only trying to develop a new LNG proposal with Petronas, but has already negotiated the building of tug boats by a chinese firm to facilitate oil and gas export facilities in the territory. While any project approval is supposed to have a community vote, there are fears that he may try to sign a deal independently, replicating patterns in other First Nations communities through out Canada, where the government finds whomever it can get to sign papers of agreement and then declares the process legitimate in disregard of existing or traditional legal structures.

On a separate note, Eagle Spirit has also been flying members of the Lax Kw’alaams community down to Vancouver to wine and dine them and sell them on a separate tar sands oil processing facility on their territory.  I found this surprising that there is a part of the community that wants oil development, given the potential devastation from such a project and the wide spread resistance to the idea up and down the coast.

This is not good news for the Skeena and the marine ecosystems in the region.

malcolmMalcolm Sampson, whom i talked with there in Lax Kw’alaams, is a long time fisherman and a local hereditary chief. He has found that the band council has been generally pushing for oil and gas development and ignoring important issues of environmental impacts. He will be running in the October election for head of band council on a ‘no oil and gas’ platform, out of concern for fish and traditional ways of life.

Jul 132015
 

I’m currently sitting in Terrace at the home of some friends, Molly and Malcolm and am about to head north with some other friends to Iskut, in the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation.  This weekend is the 10th anniversary celebration for the blockades they have been running against mining operations in their territories.  While the Red Chris Mine is under construction and they were unsuccessful in being able to stop it, they have had some great victories against Shell and Fortune Minerals and succeeded in stopping those mining operations.

Last week, I was at the 6th annual Unist’ot’en Action Camp, a gathering of First Nations and non-aboriginal activists for networking around direct action resistance and to support the Unist’ot’en in their blockade against oil and gas pipelines.  We finished construction of a two story healing and counselling center in their traditional territory (placed on a proposed pipeline route), heard from some great speakers, and had a wonderful bunch of days networking and exchanging stories.  I particularly enjoyed conversations with Oscar Dennis of the Tahltan (speaking with me about their long term strategies) as well as many conversations with Kathy, Kai, Miriam, and Judy, a group of older women who had recently completed a walk across the United States as a way to instigate local gatherings to talk about climate change… wow, what a wonderful, smart, and inspiring group of women!  I also really appreciated the leadership of Freda Huson and the Unist’ot’en elders, holding space for this important gathering and holding the line in their territories against the pipelines.

The province last week gave approval for the building of a pipeline through heir territory, and a construction yard has been quickly built in nearby Houston.  Meanwhile, the RCMP (Canadian police) have stepped up surveillance and harassment, setting up check points going into and out of Unist’ot’en territory and taking names and id of people passing in and out.  As i was being asked to escort out the First Nations activists to reduce the risks of racist profiling, i was reminded of how in doing check point observation in the West Bank, the presence of us outside observers allowed Palestinians to pass through the check point in an hour or two instead of 4 hours.

I’ll write more about Unist’oten later, but they could use more help, especially people there on the ground in the next weeks.  check out the website if you would like to get involved.