What’s at Stake at Unist’ot’en

Charlie Aleck interviewed by Rampant

Wet’suwet’en land is under constant invasion by the colonial Canadian government. The struggle for Indigenous sovereignty is currently reaching a height unseen in years.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your relation to what is happening with the Wet’suwet’en Nation?

My name is Charlie Aleck. I’m a member of Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. I’m a revolutionary socialist and activist here in Chicago, and I’ve been involved in various forms of Indigenous rights activism over the last decade. 

At the moment, I’m doing solidarity work in Chicago to support the Wet’suwet’en Nation in British Columbia, Canada, who are actively blocking the illegal construction of the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline in their territory. 

What makes CGL unique is that this private company was granted an injunction in court to remove Wet’suwet’en land defenders by force, with the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

Over the last weekend it was revealed that RCMP pensions are invested in CGL. On Sunday, hereditary chiefs concluded negotiations with Canadian cabinet ministers, and they are now returning home to deliver the information with their House groups for a decision. Though some in the media have called this a tentative agreement, none of the preconditions for meeting set out by the Wet’suwet’en Chiefs were met and the RCMP and CGL will continue operations on Monday, undoubtedly continuing to illegally arrest, harass and mock Wet’suwet’en people during this important deliberation period.

It’s important for us outside of Canada to know that the province of British Columbia is actually unceded territory, which means no treaties (aside from a smattering around Vancouver Island) were made between Indigenous nations and the Canadian government. After colonizing most of the continent, settlers moved into the west coast territories and simply seized them by occupation.

The Wet’suwet’en never signed a treaty and they never gave up their lands. Canada has no legal jurisdiction over the territory, and by forcing this pipeline through without consent they are in open violation of Wet’suwet’en, Canadian, and international law.

And yet, Indigenous people are the ones being arrested.

What’s at stake is the right of Indigenous people to live on their own land, to be seen as human beings with full human rights.

Can you describe the basic issues at stake, not only with the pipeline but also regarding the violent breach of Indigenous land rights?

What’s at stake is the right of Indigenous people to live on their own land, to be seen as human beings with full human rights. What’s at stake is the land, the water, and life as we know it as these energy corporations swoop in with disastrous projects for short-term profit for the few.

There’s been a rolling list of projects that have tried to build in Wet’suwet’en territory for years, many without consent, that have gone so far as to send helicopter crews into remote areas to do exploratory missions or construct staging areas. 

In 2010, Freda Huson, a Wet’suwet’en matriarch who is also known as Chief Howihkat, built a cabin in the direct path of the proposed pipelines. In doing so she founded Unist’ot’en Camp, a resistance camp that seeks to bring Wet’suwet’en people back to the land. Since its founding, the camp has expanded to a traditional pit house, a bunkhouse, trap lines, and a three-story healing center with a full kitchen and classrooms. 

At the time the camp was resisting an Enbridge pipeline. After that project collapsed in 2016, the camp continued to thrive, hosting summer art programs and gatherings that have brought thousands of Indigenous people from all over the continent. 

That has been the project of the camp since the beginning: to bring Indigenous people back onto the land, to revitalize traditional cultural practices. In their own words—to heal the people, heal the land. 

To get more to your question about what’s at stake, what it means to bring Indigenous people back to their land challenges everything about the settler-colonial state of Canada, and in its place builds solidarity and self-reliance among Indigenous people that forces an actual nation-to-nation relationship.

With the Unist’ot’en Camp, there’s actual power built to challenge police violence in a country where Indigenous people make up only 5 percent of the total population, but 30 percent of the prison population. There’s power that can force the police and the state to actually investigate missing and murdered Indigenous women, and create infrastructure to stop these losses. And beyond Wet’suwet’en, there’s room for all Indigenous nations to reclaim their title to the land and their full human rights. And that’s a huge threat to Canada.

A place like Unist’ot’en Camp challenges the idea of what’s possible, by simply reasserting Indigenous people’s relationship to the land, and our role in protecting the land, for generations to come. 

What’s at stake is Canada’s claim to rule, or our ability to drink clean water and breathe clean air and sustain life on this planet.

Artwork by Charlie Aleck (Nuu-chah-nulth) @_ayaamin

Canada went through a process of Truth and Reconciliation, wherein they were meant to make amends for the crimes of the residential school era and mend the relationship between Indigenous people and Canada. The rallying cry today is “Reconciliation is dead.” What comes after Reconciliation?

Decolonization. Active decolonization. That word has carried a lot of different interpretations. Some people use it to mean shifting to moral values or learning your language, returning to traditional foods, all of which are important and are part of a long process of Indigenous people revitalizing our nations.

But in this context, in Canada after Truth and Reconciliation, it means rejecting a forced settler-colonial government and uplifting sovereign Indigenous nations. At Unist’ot’en Camp it means returning people to the land. It means ending military occupation, ending the policing and arresting of Indigenous land defenders, and ending and reversing catastrophic resource extraction, finding solutions to climate and ecosystem collapse.

Wet’suwet’en law is the law of the land for Wet’suwet’en people. Decolonization is enacting sovereign Indigenous rights across the continent.

What has the support for the Wet’suwet’en land defenders been like among people in Canada?

Things have been happening very quickly in the last few months and even weeks, following the most recent raids of Unist’ot’en Camp and Gidimt’en Checkpoint in February. 

On New Year’s Eve, British Columbia Supreme Court granted an injunction that barred Wet’suwet’en Nation from blocking construction and authorized the RCMP to enforce it. 

When the raids started happening, February 6–10, first at the checkpoints then at the main Unist’ot’en camp, the RCMP pushed out all media crews and legal observers and came in with assault rifles, tactical and canine units, helicopters, and permission to use as much force as possible. They swept the camps, Indigenous people were pulled out of their homes at gunpoint. RCMP arrested elders and blocked hereditary chiefs from their territory. Freda Hudson and other matriarchs were arrested while in ceremony for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Media, food, and supplies were blocked by RCMP. 

The raids immediately sparked outrage all throughout Canada. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in rolling solidarity actions in Vancouver, Victoria, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Halifax, and on many more reserves and in smaller towns and cities. 

Indigenous youth have spearheaded occupations of the Ministry of Energy, the Port of Vancouver and the ferry systems, and an ongoing occupation on the steps of the BC legislative building has become a vibrant community of resistance.

The Mohawk Nation constructed a railroad blockade in Tyendinaga, Ontario, that inspired the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to travel across the country to meet and hold ceremony. 

The Mohawk, for those that aren’t aware, come from a long history of militant resistance and are known for their own blockade referred to as the Oka Crisis of 1990. When the city of Oka, Quebec, made plans to expand a nine-hole golf course onto their burial grounds, the Mohawk staged a blockade on a small dirt road leading to the site, which quickly turned into an armed resistance against forty-five hundred soldiers and a thousand RCMP that lasted seventy-eight days.

A Mohawk resistance member stares down an RCMP soldier in 1990. (Wikimedia Commons)

The blockades of major ports, railroads, and bridges have absolutely buckled the Canadian economy and resulted in the loss of millions of dollars a day, major layoffs, and supply delays. 

Prime Minister Trudeau and the Canadian media have called for the blockades to end, and have been toting a very concerned liberal line about “reaching the end of patience.” Yet time and time again, the government has refused to meet even the bare minimum conditions for a meeting with the Wet’suwet’en Chiefs. Instead, we have more arrests and more militarized units moving into the territory. Trudeau has tried nothing, and sighs wistfully to the public about how he’s tried everything to resolve this.

Again we hear this cast as an anti-pipeline protest, which strips Canada of its responsibility to follow through with Wet’suwet’en Nation’s right to consent as recognized by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We also see the tactic of trying to drive a wedge between hereditary chiefs and the elected chiefs of Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council. The elected chiefs did in fact give consent to building the pipeline, but the hereditary chiefs did not.

That is actually really important to understand, because they are two separate bodies. Elected government rose up out of the Canadian Indian Act of 1876, which in one fell swoop made illegal all traditional cultural practices and Indigenous languages, stripped Indigenous women of legal status, initiated the legal theft of Indigenous children for generations into the residential school system, and broke up traditional governance and replaced it with the elected government system that reflected the Crown. 

The Wet’suwet’en, like so many nations throughout Canada, were forced to take their traditional practices underground and out of sight of Indian agents and missions. The hereditary lines were unbroken and to this day the hereditary chiefs carry their traditional name passed down to them since time immemorial.

Today, elected chiefs oversee the reserves that Wet’suwet’en people live on, but their jurisdiction ends there. The hereditary chiefs oversee the entire traditional territory and thus their jurisdiction remains intact.

The rift between the chiefs is largely exaggerated. While certainly they disagree, the hereditary chiefs came out saying they understood the decisions elected officials took. Reserves need the money that energy companies offer, but the money never lasts and the jobs are much fewer than promised. In the long term, pipeline projects always cost more than they benefit. Rather than risk destroying the land they’ve lived on and that has provided for the Wet’suwet’en people for centuries, the hereditary chiefs voted unanimously alongside their House groups to protect their last two territories for generations to come.

What can people here in Chicago do to support the land defenders?

Unist’ot’en Camp has an excellent solidarity toolkit on their website, as well as ample media for understanding the history of Wet’suwet’en people and the current fight against Coastal GasLink pipeline. So wherever people are, if you have access to the internet, this is an excellent place to start.

People in Chicago can plug into the solidarity rally being called this Friday, March 6th, by the Chi-Nations Youth Council at the Canadian Consulate. The rally is calling on the government of Canada and Chase Bank, which has been a major funder behind CGL, to end the occupation of Wet’suwet’en territory and cease construction of the pipeline.

But the rally is just one day, and given how fast things are moving in Canada it’s hard to say what will happen between now and then. 

What is really needed is the groundwork of building a movement to support Indigenous resistance across borders. Which means building people’s knowledge base by holding teach-ins, community meetings, and figuring out how we can build solidarity across cities with other people. 

In talking about the Wet’suwet’en struggle with non-Native activists, I’ve found that many don’t feel confident making the connection between Indigenous sovereignty and climate catastrophe, yet Indigenous people protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Some don’t know how to make the connection between Indigenous sovereignty and police brutality and militarization, and yet Indigenous people have the highest rates of murder by police and the highest recruitment rate in the military. Military helicopters, weapons, and missions are named after Indigenous chiefs and nations. 

The connections are clear. Settler-colonialism is the foundation of all injustice on this continent. United States capitalism was born on free Indigenous land and required enslaved African labor to build. It continues to build on that to this very day. 

Settler-colonialism is an ongoing and unfinished project.

What does it mean to take up Indigenous resistance as a revolutionary priority? What does it mean to reclaim Indigenous title to land? It does not mean replicating the ways in which capitalism exploits and demeans all people on this planet; it means changing the relationship to each other and the land. It means deepening our commitment to a world where every single person has access to clean air, clean water, healthcare, nutritious food, and safety. 

We have much to learn from witnessing our Wet’suwet’en relatives up north.

Settler-colonialism is an ongoing and unfinished project. 

Indigenous people asserting their rights is a massive threat to resource extraction, settler-colonialism, and capitalism.

And what we do here and now matters.

Charlie Aleck is a member of Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, and a revolutionary socialist and activist in Chicago.