Showdown over fossil fuels in Canada

A large crowd bearing signs and drums swarm down an avenue.
On Feb. 17, 2020, people in Toronto march in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and against the pipeline. PHOTO: Tijana Martin / The Canadian Press
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The forest peace was shattered on February 6 in northern British Columbia. An invading force of helicopters, bulldozers, dogs, and snipers descended upon native Wet’suwet’en (wet-SO-ih-ten) territory. The invaders proceeded to destroy checkpoints built to keep pipeline crews out.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested scores of indigenous land protectors, and demolished gates and buildings. The RCMP also escorted a 50-vehicle caravan of heavy equipment and construction workers onto the sovereign territory.

Fossil fuel battle. For years Coastal GasLink Pipeline Limited and fossil fuel giant TC Energy have desired access across Wet’suwet’en land to transport natural gas to a liquification terminal on the coast near the town of Kitimat. The area in contention is sovereign indigenous land, which has never been ceded by treaty.

By threatening to cut the tribes out of the deal completely, the Canadian government obtained the backing of the elected First Nations councils, including Wet’suwet’en municipal leadership. But it’s the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs — the stewards of the land — who have final title rights. And they refused consent.

The corporations rejected alternative routes as “too expensive” in 2012, planning to cross sovereign lands one way or the other. Many Wet’suwet’en people moved into cabins and hunting camps near the proposed route along the Morice River.

Three checkpoints were established on the only road leading to construction areas. Eventually work on the pipeline ground to a halt. So the RCMP moved in and removed the checkpoints. On Feb. 10 seven people, including three Unist’ot’en clan matriarchs, Freda Huson, Brenda Mitchell, and Dr. Karla Tait, were arrested and forcibly removed off the land.Hereditary chiefs demanded the cops leave.

Meanwhile, in mid-February the British Columbia provincial administration rejected the environmental assessment for the Coastal GasLink because it did not consider the effects on indigenous people’s lands, subsistence, and culture, including impacts of construction-worker man camps, which have been tied to increased sexual assaults and incidents of missing and murdered indigenous women.

A 30-day stop-work order was issued. A new environmental assessment was required. Yet pipeline construction continued and the RCMP still patrolled inside Wet’suwet’en lands.

Canada’s economy paralyzed. Defenders from the tribe and beyond fought back. They successfully blockaded trains, a key means of moving products and people. Mohawk and other First Nations members, along with supporters, barricaded tracks from Toronto to Vancouver. The major rail lines stood still for more than 20 days.

In addition, at least 66 ships were kept from docking at Vancouver and Halifax, Nova Scotia, for almost two weeks stranding $425 million dollars in goods every day. Scores of government offices, banks, and city intersections across Canada and the U.S. were shut down by sit-ins and round dances.

Wet’suwet’en youth and two-spirit people delayed opening proceedings at the British Columbia Parliament Building in Victoria.

Despite arrests, activists stand firm as they face down harassment by racist vigilantes. Recent polls show 39 percent of Canadians support the Wet’suwet’en cause, more than any party got in the last election.

Support poured in from across the U.S., New Zealand, Palestine, Ecuador and more. The 7,000 member Ontario Labor Federation, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, and the province’s 45,000 member Teachers Federation backed the Wet’suwet’en cause.

The economic pressure forced the Canadian government to meet with the hereditary chiefs in late February. After three days, a deal was struck between the federal and provincial governments and hereditary chiefs. The details remain private as the Wet’suwet’en people discuss and vote on it. It is believed to define the process for future negotiations between the two nations.

Whatever deal the Canadian government proposes, it will likely not be good for the environment or tribe. Election promises by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make a “green” administration have proven false. Instead, he is backing drilling and pipelines, turning Canada into a fossil fuel empire. Given the damage these practices are doing to the climate, basing the country’s future on these fuels is economically precarious and morally reprehensible.

Additionally, the pension funds of Canadian public workers have been invested in these projects without their approval, as have billions in taxpayer money. A petition to stop the use of public funds on fossil fuels garnered over 30,000 signatures. Retirees and workers will undoubtedly continue to fight back.

Model of collaboration. This uprising showcases how to shut down a national economy to demand justice! It is an example for the fights in many other countries where governments ignore their own laws, violate indigenous sovereignty, and make fake “green pledges” in order to abet oil and gas corporations in the destruction of the earth for profit.

The leadership of indigenous women and youth is crucial in the race to stop the deadly capitalist system and save life on this planet.

Stop Coastal GasLink! No more fossil fuels! Respect indigenous sovereignty!

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