On February 10, matriarchs for the Unist'ot'en, part of the Wet'suwet'en Nation in western Canada, were holding a ceremony for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The Wet'suwet'en are one of the First Nations, the term for indigenous Canadians, and the high-profile leaders Freda Huson, Brenda Michell, and Karla Tait had hung red dresses around their camp in honor of the thousands of women and girls lost in just the past few decades. Suddenly, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) descended, in military gear and with helicopter support, and arrested the matriarchs so that employees for Coastal GasLink could clear out the camp—and pull down the red dresses.
This was the fifth day of raids by the RCMP, clearing out encampments and arresting more than 80 people along the proposed route of a 420-mile-long natural-gas pipeline. Coastal GasLink and TransCanada Energy are building the $6.6 billion pipeline to carry fracked gas through British Columbia to the coastal town of Kitimat, the site of a $40 billion liquefied-natural-gas plant.
The Wet'suwet'en arrests came four years after the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in South Dakota. A company named Energy Transfer wanted to build a pipeline through the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, against the wishes of the Native Americans who worried that it would contaminate water supplies. Protesters set up camp at the Standing Rock reservation for a year to prevent construction, and they faced militarized police working with mercenaries from TigerSwan, a private security firm hired by Energy Transfer, the company behind the pipeline. Standing Rock became a rallying cry internationally for indigenous rights and climate-change activism. President Barack Obama eventually caved to public opinion and agreed to have the Army Corps of Engineers divert the pipeline, but ultimately, Donald Trump overrode that decision. Since its construction, the Keystone Pipeline has already spilled repeatedly, leaking more than 600,000 gallons of crude oil into 4.8 acres of wetlands.
Like the Standing Rock protesters who faced grenades, fire hoses, rubber bullets, and attack dogs from both police and private security forces, activists all over the world are dealing with brutal violence as they try to fight climate change and defend indigenous rights. Náhuatl farmer and environmental activist Samir Flores was gunned down outside his central Mexico home in early 2019. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has proclaimed staunch opposition to indigenous rights, and logging and cattle companies have aggressively invaded protected lands in the Amazon. More than 1,500 environmental activists have been murdered in Brazil in the past 15 years, a disproportionate number of them indigenous. They include Emyra Waiãpi, a leader in the Waiãpi reserve, who was gunned down last July. Gold miners flooded into the area soon after his death.
The Wet'suwet'en are among many indigenous groups worldwide fighting for sovereign rights. According to the Canadian census, nearly 980,000 people in Canada identify as one of the 634 First Nations. More than a quarter of the pipeline crosses through Wet'suwet'en territory. A statement from the Wet'suwet'en reads, "Under ‘Anuc niwh’it’en (Wet’suwet’en law) all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en have unanimously opposed all pipeline proposals and have not provided free, prior, and informed consent to Coastal Gaslink/TransCanada to do work on Wet’suwet’en lands."
In December, a court ordered an injunction for the RCMP to clear the way for construction, but the arrest of the Unist'ot'en matriarchs set off fierce backlash. Across Canada, indigenous people and supporters strategically targeted railroads and highways, disrupting the country's economy by paralyzing shipping lines. Just to name a few: On Monday, police finally broke up a blockade that shut down a railroad in Ontario for two weeks—as the first train tried to move out, protesters threw a tire on the tracks and set it ablaze. In the port city of Hamilton, protesters shut down a commuter rail line. Another blockade in the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, has paralyzed freight and commuter trains for more than two weeks now.
But environmentalism isn't the whole picture. The crux of the issue is who, exactly, has authority to work with the Canadian government. The Unist'ot'en land is unceded territory, meaning that it's sovereign land and the Wet'suwet'en have ultimate control over it. Speaking to Democracy Now, lawyer Pamela Palmater, a member of the Mi'kmaq tribe on the East Coast of Canada and the U.S., said, "It’s often categorized as an anti-pipeline protest, but I don’t think that’s accurate. It is for some, but for most of us it’s about protecting our indigenous sovereignty and our land rights, which are the two issues that have never been resolved, and they’re always trumped, they’re always breached, despite how many court cases or how many international protections we have."
Like the U.S., Canada has a deeply fraught history of mistreatment of indigenous people. One of the most egregious abuses was the institution of "Indian residential schools," compulsory boarding schools where 150,000 First Nations children were eventually housed to forcibly "modernize" them. And in the early 1920s, when Cayuga Chief Deskaheh was in Europe to win international support for the Six Nations people in Canada, the Canadian government staged a coup, using the RCMP to force chiefs out by gunpoint and install a more sympathetic band council.
Despite the opposition from the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, there are some First Nations people in Canada who support the Coastal GasLink pipeline project. About 20 band councils elected by First Nations along the route have endorsed it. Speaking at the British Columbia Natural Resources Forum, Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith defended the construction, saying, "Our nation's goal is to be an independent, powerful and prosperous nation. We can't get there without powerful, prosperous, independent people." She added, "The focus for us is the long-term careers." And at an event hosted last week by pro-LNG group The North Matters in northern British Columbia, around 200 Wet'suwet'en members gathered to voice support for the pipeline. An 80-year-old Wet'suwet'en member named Russell Tiljoe said he backed the construction because it brought job opportunities, saying that historically, "First Nations people didn’t have much of a chance of getting a good job. We had to take the jobs that nobody else wanted."
The Wet'suwet'en protests are also coming at a terribly inconvenient time for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. For the past month, Trudeau has been campaigning for Canada to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council, and he was meeting with dignitaries in Africa and the Caribbean to drum up votes as the protests were paralyzing transit across Canada. He was forced to cancel the rest of his trip to return home, declaring that the protesters were unwilling to negotiate in good faith and that "the barricades need to come down now." But unlike Standing Rock, the Wet'suwet'en protests have inspired action throughout the country, and police crackdowns may not be the quick solution the prime minister is hoping for.
Photos from the front lines of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Originally Appeared on GQ