“Do you think there will be another Oka Crisis?”
After the 1990 siege of Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake, commonly known as the “Oka Crisis,” I was asked this question over and over again by journalists.
I quickly grew tired of it. I hoped no other Indigenous people would have to live through what we had endured, because even though the physical barricades came down, the root causes remained. Canada was supposed to be a safe country, one that prided itself on human rights, but I knew the possibility of a parallel event was real. Canada has never repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery on which it has based its false and racist claims to Indigenous lands. We are still tethered to the Indian Act, the colonial chains that created the 1990 siege of Kanehsatà:ke.
Having survived the 1990 Kanehsatà:ke siege that attacked not just my community, but Kahnawake as well, I can honestly tell you that you do not want another so-called “Oka.”
During the siege, I felt like I was submerged in quicksand. Once the adrenaline wears off, you find yourself swimming in unfathomable depths of despair, uncertain of whether you will survive an armed attack by state paramilitary squads. This despair is not about your own safety, but the unthinkable possibility that someone you love and care for will be tragically hurt or killed. Or that all that you have been fighting for will be lost as the colonizer spits out words in a media it controls and in its history books. The “Indian problem” is repackaged, criminalizing you and your loved ones.
The post-traumatic stress caused by state violence grates against your peace of mind, causing bullet-like holes in your psyche and well-being. It is another level of multigenerational trauma on top of that which we have inherited from our ancestors. It isn’t our choice; it is our reality. All this pain because of the economic greed of the colonizer Canada and the corporations that control it.
Interference by government in the affairs of Indigenous Peoples remains part of the archaic strategy of divide and conquer used to overthrow traditional Indigenous laws. Since 1492, the colonial project has used Indigenous Peoples and our homelands for their profit and for their playground. It is genocide. And it’s not over. Despite the glossy sheen of the colonial project today, there is a need for fundamental social and economic transformation.
Canada shamefully repeats its empty promises and tells lies to its citizens when it says that reconciliation is happening. It is criminal to give false hope to generations of Indigenous Peoples who have never known peace, instead living with the constant hypervigilance needed to protect our homelands.
This has only gotten worse amid the pandemic. Remember pre-pandemic, the numerous blockades by Indigenous Peoples, the protests across Canada, and the unease caused to federal and provincial governments? This has been stifled by a world caught up in a deadly virus.
Like any family, Indigenous families want to protect our children and have a good life. When you are persistently up against a tyrant that does not care about protecting human rights — only corporate rights — you are up against a huge challenge.
While the world watches the brutality inflicted upon Wet’suwet’en land defenders by the paramilitary force of the RCMP, our anger grows and festers. It is yet another mental wound on top of the confirmation of Indigenous children’s bodies lying in unmarked graves at former residential school sites — young Indigenous souls ripped from the hearts of their families, all to be sacrificed by Canada for the removal of the “Indian problem.”
As someone who has felt, and continues to feel, the heavy-handed fist of oppression of the Canadian state, I ask: Where is the humanity of this democracy? Does it even exist? What about Indigenous Peoples’ human rights?
While Coastal GasLink was ticking off the boxes that it felt were necessary to forge ahead with plans to build a pipeline through the pristine lands of the Wet’suwet’en, the governments of B.C. and Canada walked the line they had carefully crafted to assure their constituents that Indigenous Peoples are the unreasonable ones, the real criminals. The Wet’suwet’en offered to discuss an alternative route for Coastal GasLink’s project, but this proposal was rejected. Too expensive, the company claimed. That decision has cost them — and Canadian society — even more money, time and energy. The anguish of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders could have been avoided in a healthy democracy.
The women whose authority this land is under have been all but forgotten by a colonial society that still believes that Indian Act–created band councils led by men are the real authorities. Like other Indigenous Peoples, my people, the Rotinonhseshá:ka (People of the Longhouse), are rooted in a matrilineal society, and our laws and centuries-old constitution have been subjugated by a patriarchy clinging to the last vestiges of its origins.
The consensus of government is that reserves are the only place where we belong and that we should be happy that the Crown allows us to live on these lands for “our use and benefit.” Our traditional land base is open for appropriation and exploitation condoned by Canada.
What the public is not told is that reserves are a place where corporate lawlessness is the norm and no environmental laws apply. Consultations are little more than a process of going through the motions. The goal is to coerce Indigenous leaders into accepting unsustainable resource extraction projects that will allegedly benefit them economically by offering some jobs and some royalties. Meanwhile, political leaders shut their eyes to the threats to Indigenous Peoples’ security and well-being, hiding behind laws designed to protect corporate interests, not human rights.
Indigenous land defenders are protecting Mother Earth so that all can enjoy her beauty and all that she gives. We are fighting the dystopic reality of a climate crisis fed by a myopic focus on capitalistic gains. The climate crisis is real, and Indigenous Peoples are risking their safety and welfare for the future generations.
As COP26 demonstrated, those in power are not interested in the rights of the average person, and certainly not in the rights of Indigenous Peoples. We continually hear misleading fuzzy targets about how we must decrease our CO2 emissions by such and such an amount by 2030 or 2050. Truth is, we are out of time.
In his last address to the United Nations in 1992, the late Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya warned the world for his fourth and last time that unless states stop abusing the land, Nature would react with extreme weather such as strong winds and volcanic eruptions. Time had run out: world leaders needed to help their people survive the coming change.
As we witness one climate crisis event after another, we can see the truth of these words. To those who believe that violence is the answer, Indigenous laws instruct us to make every effort to live in peace and to solve our problems through discussion. Unfortunately, instead of peaceful dialogue, the brute squads violently implement skewed court decisions, defining Indigenous land defenders as criminals standing in the way of Canada’s economic and energy security.
As the late poet and Santee Dakota activist John Trudell stated, “I’m not looking to overthrow the American government, the corporate state already has.” Apply this to Canada.
Indigenous Peoples are at an important juncture in our relationship with Canadian society. We cannot continue to be defined as an “Indian problem” to be resolved through brutality. This is a crucial moment to determine whether that brutality will be allowed to continue.
The violence against the Wet’suwet’en land defenders, the Tiny House Warriors, those at Fairy Creek and other Indigenous land defenders must stop. We must unite to make it so: the existence, the very idea, of human rights in Canada is at stake. Indigenous Peoples cannot shoulder alone the responsibility to stop state violence.
Video recently came out of a 2019 incident in which an Indigenous land defender had an RCMP officer’s knee on his neck. He cried out, “I can’t breathe!”
In 1990, Canadians asked in disbelief if this was still the country they thought they lived in or whether it was a bad dream. Thirty-one years later, I think this question is being asked again.
Everyone must speak out to ensure that no one else is hurt or killed by a paramilitary police force intervention. We cannot match their weaponry. But the prime minister and his cabinet have the power to end this kind of violence. Unfortunately, our fate is in their hands. And history has shown us that Indigenous Peoples’ efforts to remind Canada of its human rights obligations will result only in more public speeches by government leaders that they are the reasonable ones, the champions of reconciliation.
Unity and solidarity in the streets, on social media and in campaigns to denounce the brutality of Canada, B.C., Coastal GasLink, and the RCMP is the only way to resolve this colonial-created mess.
Some say that “burning down Canada” is the only way to resolve the perpetual land dispossession of Indigenous Peoples. Generally, these statements are made by armchair warriors who have never been on the front lines. I get it — nothing is working on any level to bring us closer to peace, to resolve historical land grievances and to change this colonial relationship. But this naive point of view that violence is the only way forward is disturbing.
We need dialogue, not a paramilitary force accompanied by snipers and dogs.
The notion of taking Canada to The Hague for crimes against humanity seems like a rational option considering they are not upholding their human rights obligations.
Reconciliation cannot happen as long as the colonial project, and the violence it inflicts, exists. Only through understanding human rights and the Indigenous laws that protect the environment and all our relations can we move forward.
Protection of the human rights of Wet’suwet’en land defenders, journalists and allies shouldn’t be a question. The RCMP act like robots: cruel, unfeeling, determined to injure Indigenous Land Defenders.
As for the Wet’suwet’en, it is up to them, and them alone, to decide how to protect their lands. Like so many Indigenous Peoples, we do not have the infinite amount of human and financial resources needed to stop the madness and crimes committed against us. Indigenous Peoples are on the front lines helping future generations deal with the impacts of the climate crisis. We always have been. Please help, and donate to the fund to help those arrested remain with their families and the land they love and care for.