The army can’t stop the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement

Neither the police nor the army can end rail blockades, even if they wanted to
Clay Nikiforuk
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The solidarity movement with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs is growing. We’re into a second week of rail blockades and mass protests, and new ones keep popping up in different parts of the country. In response, one Conservative Party leadership candidate has called for the army to be sent in, a suggestion echoed by commentators. Many others want the RCMP to start knocking heads at rail blockades.

Regardless of your position on the ongoing dispute, sending in the army or police to end rail blockades by force is both wrong and ill-advised. Here’s why.

A new poll out today from Ipsos confirms the results of an Angus Reid poll from last week: 39 per cent of Canadians support protests and blockades in support of the Wet’suwet’en that have shut down rail corridors and streets.

You may have seen that reported in reverse: 48 per cent oppose the protests in the Angus Reid poll, and 53 per cent want the police to end the blockades in the Ipsos poll.

But the number that really matters is the support. You can’t lock up four in ten Canadians, and any move to clear out blockades by force would most likely be met by a proliferation of new blockades or other forms of protest.

The truth about politics is that when the population is this divided on an issue, there is no resolution to be found in law enforcement. The only way out is to listen to the anger, and make real changes.

Echoes of the 2012 student strike

I would know. In 2012 I was one of the few journalists assigned to report full-time on the Quebec student strike. I was at most of the protests, interviewed most of the student leaders and watched the strike ultimately take down the Liberal government of premier Jean Charest. Public support for the students never went much above 40 per cent.

But it didn’t matter. After the Quebec government passed a draconian law that made most protests illegal, people in every corner of the province started flooding the streets outside their homes to bang pots and pans every night at 8 p.m. in defiance of the law. People across the country joined them, and then people in the U.S. and Europe. Our casseroles, as the protests were called, went international. Sound familiar?

A passionate minority of this size has taken down governments and ended careers before, and it can do so again.

The outcome was that a Liberal government in power for nine years was defeated in that fall’s election by the Parti Québécois, who promised to repeal the anti-protest law and freeze tuition fees at their previous level (meeting the demands of the strikers).

Charest was determined to put an end to Quebec’s history of successful student strikes. Instead, he put an end to his own career.

It should serve as a cautionary tale for today’s politicians. A passionate minority of this size has taken down governments and ended careers before, and it can do so again.

What if Canadians knew the full story?

One wonders what the poll numbers would show if one key element of this dispute were not consistently misreported. Angus Reid explained to respondents that 20 First Nations band councils support the project, and hereditary chiefs oppose it. That’s what we’ve seen in most mainstream coverage.

The detail so often left out is that Canada’s Supreme Court found in the 1997 Delgamuukw decision that the Wet’suwet’en people, as represented by their traditional form of governance, the hereditary chiefs, have authority over the nation’s territory.

The band councils were created by the Indian Act to administer the reserves, which cover only a small fraction of Wet’suwet’en territory. They function somewhat like municipal governments and their authority is limited to those reserves.

Asking their permission, or more accurately offering them bags of money and a promise the pipeline will be built whether they take the cash or not, is akin to asking the City of Vancouver for permission to build a pipeline while ignoring the provincial and federal government.

Vancouver doesn’t have the jurisdiction to approve such a project, and neither do the band councils.

As it happens, the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby, as well as many other municipalities in B.C. along the pipeline and tanker route, are staunchly opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

That’s not to mention the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which B.C. has recently passed legislation to implement and which forbids the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their territory, nor the fact that the hereditary chiefs offered an alternative route for the pipeline, which was rejected by Coastal GasLink for reasons including the increased costs of changing the route.

Those clamoring for the rule of law to be enforced are talking about a lower court injunction, and conveniently ignoring precedent established at the Supreme Court and enshrined in B.C. law.

And speaking of injunctions, a report by the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University that looked at over 100 injunctions issued over a 20-year period found that corporations are successful in 76 per cent of cases where they seek an injunction against First Nations opposition to a resource development project.

First Nations, conversely, are successful in only 19 per cent of cases where they seek an injunction to stop resource development projects on their territory.

At its lower levels, our legal system acts a lot like a rubber stamp for the demands of industry and government. Indigenous peoples usually have to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get a more thorough hearing, and when they do they often win.

But getting there takes years, sometimes decades, and millions of dollars that many First Nations don’t have.

And even when they go through all that, and win a precedent-setting case like Delgamuukw, lower courts, governments, industry, even the media, ignore it.

You can’t arrest your way out of a crisis

The waves of solidarity actions for the Wet’suwet’en is one of the closest things I’ve seen to that 2012 student strike in the years since. It’s what happens when a large minority of the population has absolutely had it with the powers that be.

Unsurprisingly, a majority of respondents under 35 in the Ipsos poll support the blockades and protests. Like 2012, there is an element of generational strife at play here.

Only listening and acting to address the legitimate grievances of the Wet’suwet’en will get us out of this crisis.

Older folks are more likely to want the police called in, younger people, perhaps thanks to a better education in Canada’s shameful history of colonialism, are more likely to want the RCMP off of Wet’suwet’en territory.

But the truth is that when 40 per cent of the people are mad as hell, and unwilling to take it anymore, there is nothing the police or the army can do.

When the RCMP went in and arrested Wet’suwet’en people who were blocking Coastal GasLink’s access to the area, it triggered a wave of occupations in solidarity.

If the RCMP, or the army, go in and start arresting everyone at those blockades, a larger number of new blockades will likely be erected.

You simply can’t arrest your way out of a crisis of this magnitude. Even if you want to, it just doesn’t work. More arrests trigger more protests, and the crisis grows.

Only listening and acting to address the legitimate grievances of the Wet’suwet’en will get us out of this crisis.

And given the questionable business case for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, and the over $7 billion in government subsidies required to make the project worthwhile for the company, we should probably be questioning whether this pipeline would make sense even if the Wet’suwet’en were on board.

‘Thugs and professional protesters’

On Tuesday, CPC leadership candidate Peter MacKay called the hereditary chiefs and their supporters a “small gang of professional protesters and thugs.”

He was so proud of that line he had it made into a meme and posted to his social channels. He’s calling for the government to get the trains running again, which implies sending in the army or police.

But it’s bullshit. Just categorically false. Four in ten Canadians support protests that are often illegal, because they are so outraged at the government's and RCMP’s actions.

That’s not a small gang of anything. In fact, it’s more Canadians than voted for any single party in our last federal election, won by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals with 33 per cent of the vote.

If everyone who supported the Wet’suwet’en were to vote for the same party in the next election, that party would win in a landslide.

No one ever suggested calling the army on Quebec students

No one called for sending in the army to break up the Quebec student strike. Part of that is due to the racism that colours every part of the debate over Indigenous rights, but it’s also because Quebec has a history with calling in the army.

During the October Crisis of 1970, another prime minister named Trudeau sent in the army to deal with FLQ terrorists by instituting a police state and rounding up innocent Quebecers. It was a catastrophe, and led to decades of anger and renewed support for sovereignty.

The federal government’s reputation still hasn’t recovered in the province, and that was 50 years ago.

There’s never been a case where calling in the army or police to respond to the unrest of a major part of the population has worked. Globally, such tactics typically only work if the army is willing to shoot people.

What do we want here?

So, if you’re part of the 48 to 53 per cent that opposes the protests and blockades, I think the question you have to ask yourself is, what outcome are you hoping for here?

You can’t ignore 40 per cent of the country, even if you want to ignore the legal rights of the Wet’suwet’en as affirmed by the Supreme Court.

You can’t lock up a majority of Canadians under the age of 35, even if all you want to shout at them is “get a job, hippie!”

The scale of this crisis, and of public support for the Wet’suwet’en, has passed the point where ignoring it is an option.

Part of why we’re in this mess is that the government’s idea of consultation with Indigenous nations is telling them what they plan to do and ignoring any objections.

None of our governments have actually listened to the Wet’suwet’en, and it might have something to do with the billions in public subsidies they have invested in this pipeline. Talk about a conflict of interest.

But now is the time for Justin Trudeau and John Horgan to put some water in their wine.

When the country is divided, you can’t steamroll one side of that divide. Because it’s wrong, but also because it doesn’t work.

The only option is to start negotiating in earnest, and accept that real negotiations mean you won’t get everything you want.

If I were them, I’d start by taking a long hard look at alternative routes for this pipeline.

Because four in ten Canadians have had enough. And the protests won’t stop until the RCMP are withdrawn from Wet’suwet’en territory and the governments, both of them, sit down for real negotiations with the hereditary chiefs whose consent they always needed.

It’s time for them to do the hard work they should have done in the beginning. And it’s time for all of us to seriously reckon with this country’s history of abusing Indigenous people, and accept that if we want reconciliation to mean anything at all we have to learn how to take no for an answer.

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