ON JANUARY 7, the RCMP arrested 14 Wet’suwet’en protestors and took down a barricade blocking access to Unist’ot’en camp on the Wedzin Kwah (or, to use its more recent colonial misname, the Morice River), about 130 km south of Smithers, B.C. Images of the arrests, made after a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to allow construction of the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline, created a sense of unease for many Canadians. This pipeline is intended to make its way to the coastal town of Kitimat, where the promise of a $40 billion processing plant to prepare natural gas for export to foreign markets awaits construction. Clearly, there is much at stake here, including an estimated 10,000 jobs over five years during the construction phase alone. For an economically struggling part of the province, this is obviously enticing.
We have also been assured by multiple sources that many First Nations groups have signed benefits agreements with the parent company, including this area’s local elected band council. So what exactly is going on here in north-western B.C.? Why this blockade by a group of hereditary Wet’suwet’en leaders?
As a starting point for making sense of all this, it is important to note that this is a complex issue. For Christ’s followers, it is also important to remind ourselves that we serve a risen Lord who served the marginalized and calls us to do the same. The Kingdom he is establishing is not defined by the world’s standards for it is not of this world. In God’s Kingdom the powerful are brought down, the captives are released, and the poor and the oppressed are set free.
We are used to having our Christian faith make us uncomfortable with the moral and social status quo of an increasingly secularized Canadian landscape.
However, it must also cause us to be uncomfortable with the economic and political status quo; if all our faith does is reinforce what we already believe to be true, then it is of no use to anyone and we will never be the salt and light this world desperately needs. As you might anticipate, there will be no easy answer on how to move forward on this particular issue.
A SHORT HISTORY
The Wet’suwet’en have fought against pipeline and industry intrusion into their territories for generations. These territories are governed through clan system in the feast hall – known as the balhats. Their five clans contain a total of 13 houses that all Wet’suwet’en are born into through their mother’s side. Each hereditary title that may be bestowed upon an individual with the approval of the clan and house (thereby becoming a chief) is attached to a corresponding house territory somewhere within the Wet’suwet’en’s vast expanse of 22,000 km2 of unceded territories in northwestern B.C. Not content to be marginalized by the powerful forces of industry, already in 1984 the Wet’suwet’en and their Gitsxan neighbours took the province of B.C. all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in the historic Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa case to press for title to these same territories. Among other things, this case ruled on the important issue of Aboriginal title – ruling that government must ensure First Nations’ interests are considered and accounted for when development affects them. More recently, the present Unist’ot’en blockade began already in 2009 when Enbridge was proposing to build an oil pipeline along the same route.
In contrast to the Wet’suwet’en hereditary system, a local band council derives its authority from the Indian Act, and along with reserves, and the infamous residential school system, is generally understood to be part of the assimilationist policies contained in that particular antiquated federal legislation. Herein lies the crux of the issue: when governing authorities and industry seek to make deals to gain social and legal license to access indigenous territories, they negotiate with cash-strapped elected band councils, and not the hereditary chiefs. One cannot really blame elected band councils for sitting down at the bargaining table either. After all, band councils have a near impossible mandate: the maintenance and running of the reserve’s roads, housing, education, sewers, water supply and snow removal, with far too few resources. A slow drive though a neighbouring reserve is visual testimony to the lack of financial resources that plague most reserves.
So where does this leave us, as followers of Jesus?
My daughter Kayla spent a portion of her summer last year in the company of Indigenous people as part of a World Renew initiative to build and facilitate reconciliation through honouring Indigenous people’s connection to traditional lands and their call for justice. When asked what she would urge people of Christian faith to do, she offered the following three steps.
First, start in a place of understanding, for without understanding the historical difficulties faced by Indigenous peoples, it is challenging to understand why these issues are important today.
Secondly, pray! Pray for the Indigenous people to be honoured, for wisdom for the authorities, for a peaceful and respectably reached resolution. Pray for change in the way Indigenous land claims are settled in this province so that this may be a way forward.
And finally, acknowledge that you are living on traditional land that was taken from Indigenous people without a treaty, without purchase, without war, and certainly without their consent. Listen to what they have to say about their traditions and territorial lands and respect both the people and their claims. Consider what you would want done if it was your leader, your house, and your clan’s identity and way of being that was threatened.
Recently, I stumbled into this prayer attributed to St. Francis. We would do well to adopt it as our own as we seek to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God in the context of Canada’s messy relationship with its Indigenous peoples. May it – more than the economy or any easy answer we try to grasp and hold onto – shape our words and actions when considering the house of Unis’tot’en of the Wet’suwet’en people and their desire to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to them: “May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships. […] And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world.”
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