On Jan. 7 the RCMP, including members of the Tactical and Emergency Response Teams, attacked and dismantled the Gidimt’en checkpoint on Wet’suwet’en territory in Northern British Columbia, arresting 14 people. The Gidim’ten checkpoint was set up in December 2018 after the B.C. Supreme Court granted TransCanada Coastal GasLink an injunction to remove another camp, the Unist’ot’en checkpoint, which was established in 2009 to control and block access by pipeline corporations to Wet’suwet’en territory.
The Unist’ot’en camp website explained that while they expected “a large response, we did not expect a military level invasion where our unarmed women and elders were faced with automatic weapons and bulldozers”.
After the initial attack on the Gidimt’en checkpoint, the hereditary chiefs came to an agreement with the RCMP to allow the oil corporation access to do pre-construction work behind the Unist’ot’en checkpoint as specified in the injunction, while vowing that “this is not over”.
The Unist’ot’en have explained that “while the chiefs have a responsibility to protect the land, they also have a duty to protect our land defenders. Our people faced an incredible risk of injury or death and that is not a risk we are willing to take for an interim injunction. The agreement we made allows Coastal GasLink to temporarily work behind the Unist’ot’en gate. This will continue to be a waste of their time and resources as they will not be building a pipeline in our traditional territory.”
Hereditary chiefs and band councils
The Unist’ot’en checkpoint had effectively blocked the oil corporation’s plans for constructing the Coastal GasLink pipeline through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. The 670-kilometre pipeline is being built in order to transport fracked natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to a proposed LNG Canada facility in Kitimat where it will be processed for shipping. Overall investment in the project is estimated to be worth around $40 billion, making it the largest private sector investment in Canadian history.
Coastal GasLink and the right wing have tried to spin the attack on the checkpoint as the RCMP enforcing the “rule of law” against “individual”, “anti-pipeline” “protesters”. While the Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en checkpoints definitely reflect the position of the hereditary chiefs of the five Wet’suwet’en clans and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en against the construction of pipelines on their land, the real issue here is the question of Indigenous rights and the right of the Wet’suwet’en to control what happens on their unceded territory.
The Unist’ot’en have made this very clear:
“Our efforts over the past month made the RCMP, Coastal GasLink, and the colonial governments recognize that this is not an issue of individual ‘protestors’ but rather an issue of our house chiefs’ jurisdiction to make decisions on our own lands. We have fought for many years to make this point by politely telling it like it is.
“There can be no question now that this is an issue of Wet’suwet’en Rights and Title. We have demonstrated that this fight is about more than a pipeline; it is about the right of Indigenous peoples around the world to exercise Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.”
In this regard, Coastal GasLink has proudly announced that it has “signed community and project agreements with all of the elected Indigenous bands along its pipeline route in British Columbia.” These agreements, however, really have nothing to do with the situation and in fact mean very little because the band councils do not have jurisdiction outside the reserve areas.
The band councils are colonial institutions. They are imposed by the Indian Act and only have jurisdiction over reserve lands, which are very small, defined areas that are run similar to municipalities. The imposition of the band councils by the Canadian state was designed to destroy and replace the traditional governance systems of Indigenous people, to crush any Indigenous resistance to colonization and capitalism, and ensure colonial control.
The hereditary chiefs have argued that the agreements signed by the band councils have no validity on unceded traditional territories. Indeed, the Coastal GasLink pipeline is not passing through the reserves where the band councils have jurisdiction, but is in fact passing through traditional territory. The hereditary chiefs claim title to this land, traditionally have jurisdiction there, and have not granted consent to the building of the pipeline. The hereditary chiefs are in fact opposed to pipeline construction on their territory and have banned it.
The governance and jurisdiction of the hereditary chiefs over traditional territory is not formally recognized by the Canadian state, but the reality is that despite the imposition of the colonial band council system, this traditional system never disappeared in the Wet’suwet’en Nation and in fact predates the founding of Canada.
According to Canadian law, the Wet’suwet’en lands are unceded territory. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued to formally claim British territory in North America for the British Crown. It also clearly stated that the Crown must negotiate and sign treaties with Indigenous people before land could be ceded to the colonies, explicitly recognizing that Aboriginal title to the land existed and that all lands would be considered Indigenous lands until ceded by treaty.
To be sure, the proclamation was not written with the intention of guaranteeing or protecting Aboriginal title or rights. It was in fact designed to restrict the growing power and independence of the colonies. The proclamation was intended to guarantee the dominance of the British Crown over its North American colonies by maintaining the state monopoly on the land.
According to the Proclamation, only the Crown could acquire land from Indigenous peoples. The settlers were explicitly forbidden from claiming Indigenous land directly—it first had to be acquired by the Crown and then sold to the settlers. The whole idea was that the Crown was asserting its right to profit from and be the dominant force in the colonization and destruction of Indigenous peoples.
Over the centuries since the Proclamation of 1763, the government of British Columbia did not in fact negotiate many treaties, with the result being that much of the land in the province is not covered by treaty. This means that according to Canadian law, much of the traditional Indigenous territory in the province was in fact unceded, as it was never formally surrendered, sold, or lost in a war, etc. This situation eventually forced the implementation of the British Columbia Treaty Process, which started in the early 1990s to begin the treaty negotiations and resolve claims of Aboriginal title.
The hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations went to court in the 1980s claiming unextinguished Aboriginal title over their traditional territory in the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia case. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Wet’suwet’en people had not given up the rights and title to a large swathe of their traditional territory, which was never ceded by treaty, and recognized that Aboriginal title continues to exist where Indigenous nations had never signed a treaty with the Crown.
And this is really the issue. The traditional territories of many Indigenous peoples in British Columbia are claimed by the Crown, but were never paid for, conquered, or acquired by treaty. However, while recognizing that the Wet’suwet’en had never ceded their land or extinguished their rights and title to their traditional territory, in the Delgamuukw ruling the Supreme Court did not fully define these rights or title, leaving that definition up to a future case.
Naturally, this subsequent case never happened. This is by design. The question of Indigenous rights and Aboriginal title were ignored for centuries by the Canadian state. Canadian law was always used as a weapon to colonize and criminalize Indigenous people, such as through the residential school and reserve systems. Even when legal precedent eventually forced the state’s hand, provincial and federal governments either completely ignore legal precedent or simply tie things up in the courts endlessly.
The Wet’suwet’en have never had the financial resources to launch a claim and legally determine title to their lands due to the enormous costs of an Aboriginal title case. However, the oil corporations and provincial and federal governments are terrified at such a prospect because a ruling recognizing Wet’suwet’en title over their traditional territory would put an end to multiple pipeline projects. This explains the urgency on the part of the oil corporations and the provincial and federal governments to get injunctions issued against the Wet’suwet’en checkpoints, and to get the pipelines constructed as quickly as possible before the legal ground can shift.
The federal and provincial governments of Canada are simply ignoring the legal framework of the Delgamuukw case. This is nothing new. Bourgeois law is intended to protect bourgeois interests and the private ownership of the means of production. Instead, governments and corporations are consulting and signing agreements with band councils that do not have jurisdiction over these lands, and then turn around and claim these agreements are “proof” of the consent of Indigenous communities to the construction of these pipelines.
Some have argued that if the Wet’suwet’en were to go back to court they would have a strong claim to title over their territories, which is true. However, history itself has clearly demonstrated that the courts and the law cannot be relied upon by Indigenous peoples. Bourgeois law is designed to protect the interests and profits of the capitalists. The conflict between the interests and profits of the ruling class and the rights of Indigenous people will never be resolved through bourgeois law. As one First Nation chief recently said, “You cannot dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools.”
The law and the role of the RCMP
In preparation for the raid, the RCMP issued a statement that it later retracted. In the colonial tradition, the RCMP took it upon itself to interpret the Supreme Court’s Delgamuukw decision by saying “it is our understanding that there has been no declaration of aboriginal title”, and seeing as the Supreme Court had ordered a new trial to determine this title, and seeing as that trial has not been held, the RCMP argued that “Aboriginal title to this land, and which nation holds it, has not been determined.” The RCMP statement finished by saying, “Regardless of the outcome of any [court action] in the future, the RCMP is the police agency with jurisdiction.”
Here again we see the law being used against Indigenous people. In this case, the ruling that recognized the title of the Wet’suwet’en is now being used against them by the courts and the RCMP on the grounds that there was no subsequent definition of that title. The RCMP decided that it would settle the matter through the use of force.
The RCMP have been obsessed with the Unist’ot’en in particular, who have been the target of RCMP surveillance for a long time. Several “secret” government documents have been released demonstrating this surveillance and showing that the Canadian state considers Aboriginal opposition to resource extraction as a threat to national security.
For example, in a Government Operations Centre document the RCMP say that “the Unist’ot’en Blockade Camp is the ideological and physical focal point of Aboriginal resistance to resource extraction projects,” adding that, “Convergence can strengthen the arguments of these other groups, increasing the profile and possible effectiveness of their opposition”.
The attitude and actions of the RCMP and the provincial and federal states bring us to the heart of the matter. The above statement goes above and beyond anything that could be interpreted as a “security” issue, and instead is concerned that the Unist’ot’en will gain political support and solidarity (“convergence”). What must be understood is that bourgeois law, the law of the land, is ultimately intended to protect the interests and rule of the bourgeoisie and to maintain and defend private ownership of the means of production. Especially when it comes to Indigenous rights, if the logic of the law leads to anything that contradicts or threatens the interests of the ruling class, the law will simply be ignored or changed.
The provincial and federal governments are, in the final analysis, the executive committee for the ruling class, the capitalist class. The job of the government under capitalism is ultimately to represent and legally establish the interests of the ruling class and to protect their property and profits. The RCMP, the armed bodies of men of the federal Canadian state, defend and enforce these interests through use of force.
The bottom line is that the Canadian state, particularly when it comes to relations with Indigenous and other oppressed peoples, does not care about legal precedent, and never has. When it comes to questions of the oppressed peoples and exploited classes, the approach of the Canadian state has always been one of “might makes right”, not legal precedent. Besides, if a particular law gets in the way of the interests of the ruling class, then the law is simply changed to better reflect these interests.
We also cannot forget the history of the RCMP. One of the predecessors of the RCMP, the North-West Mounted Police, was modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary, which was created to crush resistance to British rule in Ireland. Similarly, the RCMP and its predecessors were created to crush Indigenous resistance to colonization and the spreading of capitalist relations across what is now Canada.
The actions of the state and the RCMP against the Wet’suwet’en on their unceded territory are not one-off incidents or some sort of historic anomaly—it is how Canada was founded and how the ruling class has operated since arriving in North America centuries ago.
From the point of view of the state and the ruling class, the RCMP, by attacking Indigenous lands and attempting to crush resistance to pipeline construction, are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing as the loyal enforcers of the ruling class. Indigenous people do not need to be told this, certainly not the Wet’suwet’en. As explained on the Unist’ot’en camp website prior to the attack on the checkpoint:
“In plain language, the threat made by RCMP to invade Wet’suwet’en territories is a violation of human rights, a siege, and an extension of the genocide that Wet’suwet’en have survived since contact.
“Canada knows that its own actions are illegal. The Wet’suwet’en fought for many years in the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa court case to have their sovereignty recognized and affirmed by Canadian law.
“In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Wet’suwet’en people, as represented by their hereditary leaders, had not given up rights and title to 22,000 square kilometres of Northern British Columbia.
“Knowing that further litigation would be prohibitively expensive to Indigenous plaintiffs (and that pipeline construction could be completed before any significant legal issues could be further resolved) TransCanada and the provincial and federal governments are openly violating this landmark ruling.
“The Wet’suwet’en have laid out a path toward the implementation of UNDRIP, and the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent requirement of international law. Canada has chosen to ignore this path toward reconciliation.”
Trudeau, UNDRIP, and the sham of reconciliation
The Harper government always took an aggressive and confrontational approach to the question of Indigenous rights. For example, in response to calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Harper government scandalously argued that the issue was not a “sociological phenomenon”, but simply “crimes best handled by the police”.
Another example was the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Declaration has its problems of course, but it is interesting to note that more than 140 states voted in favour of the document with four voting against: Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada. Given the history of these countries, the opposition of these states to UNDRIP really should not come as a surprise to anyone.
UNDRIP emphasizes the concept of free, prior and informed consent for activity on Indigenous territory, which is why it understandably was opposed by the four countries above and has considerable support amongst Indigenous peoples in Canada, the Wet’suwet’en especially.
One article in the declaration specifically states that “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”
The Harper government, reflecting the interests of the ruling class, openly stated that their opposition to the declaration was based on concerns about the requirement for free, prior and informed consent. The Harper government argued that it could be seen as granting Indigenous people the power to veto major resource extraction projects, an idea the capitalist class simply cannot stomach because it threatens their class rule over the nation.
From the point of view of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class and the state must have control over resource extraction and must be able to protect their profits. The idea that Indigenous people could interfere in this is precisely why the Unist’ot’en are considered a threat to national security by the RCMP and the state.
The Liberals under Justin Trudeau decided to adopt a different approach from the Harper Conservatives, at least superficially in words. Trudeau has talked a lot about “reconciliation”, but has in effect continued with the same approach and policies the Canadian state has always taken.
For example, the Trudeau government launched an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, but this has turned into a total farce. As part of this “reconciliation”, Trudeau also announced plans to overhaul relations between the Canadian state and Indigenous peoples, including new legislation in the form of the “Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework”, which predictably has been delayed.
As in all things, the Liberals have talked a lot about Indigenous rights but have done very little. Trudeau also dropped the Canadian government’s opposition to UNDRIP. Prior to coming to power, Trudeau seemed to indicate that his government would accept the UNDRIP requirements of free, prior, and informed consent from Indigenous peoples before certain projects would be approved. At one time he even said that a “no” from an Indigenous community with regard to a pipeline project would result in the cancellation of the project.
That has all changed now. The Canadian oil barons would not stand for such a position by the federal government. The oil barons are panicked by the rise of the United States as the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas. That growing dominance has made it more difficult for the oil barons to get Canadian oil and gas product to international markets. With limited access to infrastructure in the United States and discounted prices, the oil barons in Canada are desperate to develop their own infrastructure in the form of pipelines and processing facilities.
The oil barons and the right wing, particularly in Alberta, have launched a noisy campaign reflecting this panic—in favour of pipeline construction no matter what. According to them, any opposition to pipeline construction, whether it be from environmental groups, Indigenous peoples, or even provincial governments, must be mercilessly crushed. From promising to guarantee the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people for projects affecting their lands, reflecting this pressure from the oil barons the Trudeau government now says in relation to UNDRIP that it will only “aim at securing [Indigenous peoples’] free, prior, and informed consent” and can no longer guarantee it.
The oil barons and the right wing cannot suffer any opposition to their pipeline projects—regardless even of the economic viability of these projects. The reality is that there continues to be a glut of oil and gas products on international markets, and with the rise of the United States and the global economic slowdown, particularly in Asia, there is very little demand for Canadian oil and gas products.
The current pipeline projects are more than likely economically not viable. In reality, these pipeline projects are a last desperate attempt on the part of the Canadian oil barons to reclaim market share and recover profits.
The aim of the Coastal GasLink pipeline is to enable five multinational corporations based in Korea, Holland, Malaysia, China, and Japan to ship gas primarily to Asian markets. China is currently experiencing an economic slowdown. In fact, the Chinese economy is teetering on the brink of crisis which will drag all of Asia behind it. Just because the project represents the largest private investment in Canadian history does not mean that it is a good idea or that it will deliver the desired profits.
The Canadian state represents the aims and interests of the ruling class and has no real interest in the question of Indigenous rights or Aboriginal title. Trudeau may talk and talk about Indigenous rights, but when it comes down to the question of the interests and profits of the ruling class, for example in the form of a pipeline, the Canadian state will side with the capitalists and the corporations every single time.
Particularly in this case, the adage that “it’s not what you say but what you do that counts” holds very true. With a straight face, Trudeau is literally still going around and talking about “reconciliation” and Indigenous self-government as the RCMP is attacking Indigenous lands at the behest of oil corporations. All Trudeau’s talk is merely a delaying tactic to allow time for the construction of these projects to be pushed through.
Some have called for the Canadian government to finally implement UNDRIP as a solution to this question. However, some of the problems with UNDRIP have already been graphically revealed. The Canadian government has already promised to implement UNDRIP, but is changing the wording to take away guarantees of free, prior, and informed consent for Indigenous peoples.
One way or another, the ruling class and the Canadian state will never allow the question of Indigenous right and title to threaten resource extraction projects or any other projects of major economic importance. Bourgeois law will always be used to protect the interests of the capitalists and will always be used against the rights of Indigenous peoples.
Socialism and reconciliation
The whole concept of “reconciliation” under capitalism is a sham. Why should oppressed and subjugated peoples have to seek reconciliation with their oppressors in the first place? The whole idea is nonsense. Besides, how can one seriously talk of reconciliation when Indigenous peoples are still fighting for basic human rights, for recognition of title, etc.
As the Unist’ot’en camp website explained:
“This week, the Canadian state laid siege to our land behind the smokescreen of ‘reconciliation’. We see through their attempts to further colonial violence and remove us from our territories. We remain undeterred, unafraid, and unceded. This fight is far from over.”
There can never be reconciliation under capitalism. The very foundation of Canada is rooted in the oppression, subjugation, and exploitation of Indigenous people. The ruling class and the Canadian state cannot allow the question of Indigenous rights and title to interfere with pipelines and profits. In fact, the ruling class considers the prospect of Indigenous rights and title interfering with resource extraction to be a threat to national security.
The right wing has been terrified for years at the prospect of an Indigenous insurgency. Government documents reveal that the state and police are concerned about “convergence” and the role the Unist’ot’en could play in a mass movement against resource extraction projects.
Convergence and an insurgency are precisely what is needed. All Indigenous people across North America should stand in solidarity and struggle with the Wet’suwet’en to protect their unceded lands from the aggression of the Canadian state and oil corporations. However, more than that will also be needed. All the oppressed peoples and exploited classes, i.e. the entire working class of North America, must also stand and fight for an end to centuries of capitalist oppression and exploitation of Indigenous peoples and all oppressed peoples and exploited classes.
Indigenous rights are under attack with the assault on the Wet’suwet’en checkpoints at the same time that the working class is increasingly coming under attack. The common enemy is the ruling class and their Canadian state. Capitalism is the problem. Canada Post workers were recently legislated back to work, GM plants are closing leaving thousands out of work, and Doug Ford is hacking and slashing budgets in Ontario. The Canadian working class must stand with its Indigenous brothers and sisters and take up the struggle against capitalist exploitation in common.
The only solution is the complete overthrow of capitalism and the dismantling of the Canadian state and confederation. Socialism is the only answer. A socialist government, based on the broadest workers’ democracy and common ownership of the means of production, would have no interest in the continued subjugation of the oppressed peoples of Canada.
Karl Marx once said that “A nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations.” The reality is that there will never be any real solution to the question of Indigenous rights and title, to the national question in Quebec, or to the exploitation of the working class within Canadian Confederation. The working class of North America will never be free as long as the oppressed peoples of North America continue to be oppressed and subjugated.
Under capitalism, the question of Indigenous rights is entirely subservient to the interests of the ruling class. The rights of Indigenous people are sacrificed time and time again in order to secure the profits of the capitalists. Under socialism, with a democratically planned economy under workers’ control, production would be based on need and not profit. On this basis, a socialist government based on workers’ democracy and the rights of Indigenous peoples, as equals, could immediately begin to work in harmony to resolve the problems of Indigenous rights, title, and self-determination.