Wet'suwet'en privilege

With Our Bodies We Protect the Land by Kent Monkman. Image courtesy of the artist.

Wet’suwet’en crisis: Canada needs to check its privilege

Columnists and politicians fuel racist vitriol against the movement to stop the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Protests and rail blockades are multiplying across the country against the expansion of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory. Predictably, vitriol in the public arena — notably a war of words about privilege — has increased.

Columnists and politicians have decried the “lawlessness” of the civil disobedience, adding to the barrage of unsympathetic and often racist comments on social media. They typically demand that the government step in by police force (and even use violence if needed) to quash the peaceful protests and regain control of CN’s passenger and industry rail service.

Apparently the average Canadian is perfectly fine with land acknowledgments being uttered ad nauseum before every public event. We watch as our our government pays slow-moving, rudimentary lip service to reconciliation efforts. But the minute we good citizens are inconvenienced in the slightest, we demand martial law be declared.

Red Cleansing Mounted Police vs. the Wet’suwet’en

“They’ve gone too far now…” is the gist of what I keep hearing. Meanwhile, the RCMP are trespassing at Wet’suwet’en (which remains unceded territory), aiming high-powered rifles at unarmed defenders. These peaceful protesters are simply opposing a pipeline running through the lands and rivers they rely on for their survival.

Power — the law of the majority — always privileges its own discourse. We grow up being taught about settlers populating this great country. Pleasant myths abound about willing “savages” who helped us and who in turn were helped by us. We’re taught to believe in “the rule of law.” The RCMP is presented as a national service that “upholds the law.”

But whose law?

privilege Wet'suwet'en
The Scream by Kent Monkman. Image courtesy of the artist.

The RCMP was created to displace Indigenous people from the Northwestern Territories and the Prairies. They were essentially tasked with cleaning house so the cross-country railroad could move in. The same state-sponsored police unit forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes after the Indian Act passed to place them in residential schools. To Indigenous communities, the RCMP isn’t the benevolent and honourable image of the Canadian Mountie we’ve seen portrayed by Paul Gross in Due South. It’s the strong arm of colonialism and brutality, whose presence on their territory is menacing and almost never invited. How you see history so often depends on where you’re standing when it unfolds.

Scheer’s asinine take on privilege

Among all the questionable public reactions to Wet’suwet’en protests (and there have been many), two stand out. It’s the usual suspects: outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Journal de Montréal columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté.

Referring to the blockades as “illegal,” Scheer (who had no problem showing up at a Yellow Vest rally) called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to tell Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to use his authority under the RCMP Act to end them. “These protesters, these activists, may have the luxury of spending days at a time at a blockade, but they need to check their privilege,” he said with complete lack of self-awareness.

“Having privilege doesn’t mean that you are always wrong and people without privilege are always right,” says writer Ijeoma Oluo, in So You Want to Talk About Race. “It means that there is a good chance you are missing a few very important pieces of the puzzle.”

It’s safe to say that Scheer is missing more than a few pieces of the puzzle. Imagine the privilege you must be steeped in to unironically utter such a statement. Picture growing up in a middle-class family, being a well-paid public servant most of your working life, living in a mansion paid for by Canadian taxpayers, having Conservative party funds used to pay for your kids’ private school education and a generous pension to look forward to. Envision going home to a place with running water you can drink, where your kids are safe and somehow thinking Indigenous folks, many of whom live in squalid Third-World conditions, fighting for better treatment and the protection of their ancestral lands are the ones who are “privileged.”

What about white history?

Not to be outdone, Bock-Côté wrote about the Wet’suwet’en situation implying that white people are victims of discrimination. Indigenous people, meanwhile, are the beneficiaries of “complaisant treatment” and “tolerance” by authorities because of the government’s double standards. He then went on a tangent about Black History Month being racist and feminists becoming lesbians as a political choice.

The column perpetuated the notion that Indigenous communities are above the law somehow. And this while commissions and reports have repeatedly proven systemic racism, discrimination and mistreatment against them.

How is it possible to live in a country that is literally subsidized by the theft of Indigenous land — whose train infrastructure in large part has been built on lands illegally appropriated by the Canadian government and whose pipelines run through pristine forests and lakes that Indigenous communities are trying to safeguard for all of us under the threat of state violence — with no empathy or willingness to understand what the issues at stake are and pretend that the white majority is being “inconvenienced?” How blind does our collective privilege make us?

Blind enough to confuse legitimate protest and civil disobedience with hate crimes. “Lawbreaking is not political activism, anymore than it would be shattering the windows of a synagogue or firebombing a mosque,” wrote National Post columnist Kelly McPharland about the Wet’suwet’en blockades. This absurd, irresponsible comment will only incite more anti-Indigenous hate.

Laying down the law

The “rule of law” argument has historically been used to shut down dissent and moral outrage. If civil disobedience weren’t “law-breaking” it would neither affect change nor be required. Nazi resistors were illegal, slave abolitionists were illegal, civil rights activists fighting against segregation were illegal. The actions of activists currently attempting to save drowning refugees are illegal. Throughout history, the gap between law and moral justice has fluctuated. What is legal has not always been the barometer of what is right.

You know what used to be perfectly legal, though?

  • The RCMP invading First Nations communities to kidnap children to get “the Indian beaten out of them.”
  • The Canadian government banning Indigenous language, culture and spirituality, calling the process “aggressive civilization.”

These perfectly legal actions resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children. Generational trauma has resulted in obscenely high levels of suicide, incarceration, violence and substance abuse within their communities. But somehow they’re the ones being asked to “check their privilege.”

White panic

“Rail blockades could see cities run out of chlorine for water treatment” screamed a recent headline. For one thing, most chlorine is trucked into cities. But doesn’t the fact that 65 Canadian First Nations reserves haven’t had clean drinking water for decades merit panic, too? Why would a possible boil-water advisory incite so much anger in so many white folks? We as a country have been utterly complacent about the fact that so many Indigenous people live in Third-World conditions. Where’s our outrage for them?

The relationship between Indigenous people and colonizers (or settlers, if you prefer a less abrasive term) has never been an equal one for obvious reasons. Never does that become clearer than when you listen to the public discourse currently unfolding. Pay attention to the words being used to discredit Wet’suwet’en land defenders right now. And don’t be so quick to run to the defence of greedy corporations peddling dying industries, or CN Rail. CN made $4.2-billion in profits last year, and now they’ve announced immediate layoffs because the trains didn’t run for a week.

What would you do?

Yes, train blockades and layoffs are unfortunate, and I sincerely feel for the people personally affected. But non-violent disruption is a time-honoured and effective tool of political protest. It’s a democratic right. What other option do people without financial, political or legal power have in order to be heard when Indigenous land rights are rarely if ever respected in Canadian courts?

What would you do if you were ignored, placated, pandered to, taken advantage of, treated as a nuisance and a burden? If you were considered a threat on your own land, if your territory was illegally invaded and you were promptly arrested for defending it, what would you do? You would speak up in such a way that you can’t be ignored any longer. Respect, patience and understanding is required for true reconciliation to take place. We need to listen to the Wet’suwet’en people. Our privilege demands that we do. ■

See more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.