“You can’t drink oil, keep it in the soil.” “Water is life.” “We stand with Standing Rock.” These were just some of chants heard during Saturday’s march in Toronto that drew several thousand people to show solidarity and support for the water protectors in Standing Rock, North Dakota.
“What happens to the water happens to us. All of the water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth,” said Suzanne Smoke, one of the jingle dress dancers who led the march. “Canada has one of the largest [and] last fresh water sources in the world, and our water is being used as collateral in negotiations with politicians. Our prophecies state that the next wars to come will be over fresh, clean drinking water.”
Many traditional protocols were followed throughout the march, including an opening prayer and teaching by Cree Elder Pauline Shirt. She explained the connection between women and water, and how women are responsible as carriers of water because they have the ability to carry life.
“My responsibility as a great grandmother is to come and see, and come and be, and hold water wherever I am,” said Shirt. “I will always have water within me because water is us, it’s me.”
The march started at Queen’s Park, travelled down University Avenue and ended at Nathan Phillips Square.
Shirt led the procession down University Avenue accompanied by an assistant who burned sage along the way in ceremony and prayer. Drummers and jingle dress dancers followed. The march was mostly peaceful until police tried to reroute protesters to a different lane along University Avenue in order to create distance between them and the U.S. Consulate. There was a brief scuffle between some protesters and police before Cedar Smoke, another jingle dress dancer, broke away, defiantly leading the marchers down the original route.
Once the crowd arrived at Nathan Phillips Square, a large round dance was organized with all of the marchers that lasted for nearly 20 minutes.
This is about more than just Standing Rock
While the march was organized to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, there was another message that the organizers wanted to get across.
“I want the world to know violence against Indigenous people has to stop now. Unfortunately, it will continue until our allies and settlers insist that it stop,” explained Smoke. “It’s 2016. When does the racism and colonial oppression stop? Why is oil more valuable than the lives of the Red Nation people?”
The action was one of several solidarity events that happened this week in support of Standing Rock. On Thursday a protest was held at the intersection of King and Bay, outside a Toronto branch of TD Bank. The intersection was shut down for about 15 minutes before the protest moved to the sidewalk in front of the bank entrance, where protesters explained TD Bank’s role as one of the biggest investors in the Dakota Access pipeline to passersby.
Hurt, anger and frustration
On Thursday Smoke also led a vigil to pray for the water protectors in North Dakota, who have been facing an increasing amount of violence from pipeline security and local law enforcement. “There was so much hurt, anger and frustration at the level of violence perpetrated,” she said. “We wanted to pray together in a public space and hopefully have a circle of prayers from all the directions.”
While the solidarity march was judged by participants to have been a success in raising awareness of events happening in Standing Rock, they say there is still more work to be done.
One key concern for local Indigenous water protectors is the proposed Energy East pipeline, currently pending federal review. If approved, the pipeline will carry 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day along the St. Lawrence River.
“I plan on doing whatever it takes” to oppose the construction of Energy East, Smoke explained. “We are used to cold winters here and can sustain ourselves in a [protest] camp. If you can't respect our existence, expect our resistance.”