Why I stand with the five traditional leaders of Wet’suwet’en—especially now

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The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, pictured here in 2018. Photo: Unist’ot’en Camp/Facebook

As I write this, the Ontario Provincial Police are acting to clear the Mohawk action of solidarity with the five Wet’suwet’en traditional leaders, the hereditary chiefs, on the rail lines of Tyendinaga.

I view this act of the Ontario and Canadian Government with great sadness, as it represents a victory for deeply embedded prejudice and misunderstanding, pushes reconciliation much farther away, and will certainly enflame harmful passions on all sides of this issue. It is an act that either represents a complete ignorance of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) or a deliberate violation of it.

Today, it is especially important to say that I and, I hope, many others will continue to stand with the five traditional leaders. This is done with a full and acute understanding of how very unpopular this is with many, and the reactions such a statement invites. There has been much anger and divisiveness generated by the avalanche of bias and misrepresentation regarding the complex issues involved. In this cross-cultural catastrophe, centuries in the making, it is next to impossible for people to listen or hear each other. From what I have seen, very few people are capable of disagreeing without suggesting crude motives, ill-intent, or deformed character.

It is dangerous and hard to speak in such conditions, but an urgent truth compels us to try. Here we hope that people of good will can take the time, develop the compassion, and gain the insight that will bring justice to this Land, and true conciliation and reconciliation.

Why is this so important an issue? Why are people willing to risk so much for what seems to be an obscure and relatively insignificant development project? The heart of the matter, for us and this Land, is in regards to the recognition of traditional Indigenous law and authority over the territory in question.

At the beginning of the colonization of Canada, government officials and missionaries alike—similar to some of their counterparts in the debate about Wet’suwet’en—denied and demonized the authority of Indigenous law and governance, primarily claiming they were defectively primitive. The colonizers only acknowledged the validity of their traditions of law and governance, which sprung from both pagan and Christian sources. They ignored their own Biblical and ethical teaching about the unity of humankind and the good and bad aspects of the development of specific human societies. Much of the wealth of this nation was built on the denial and demonization of Indigenous law and governance. All of the unique and pervasive poverty and misery of Indigenous Peoples over these years is also built on this denial and demonization.

Today, the consensus of international law, the vast agreement of ethical and moral thought, and the near complete agreement of Christian moral theology, identifies this denial and demonization of the authority of Indigenous law and governance as a grave evil. With this recognition, there is no assertion of Indigenous authority over other forms of law and life, nor is there a claim of superiority. There is a simple, just, and righteous claim to be given a seat at the table of all human society. For Christians, Indigenous societies are, like all other societies, under the rule and authority of God. They are, like all other human societies, places of good and bad, nurture and trouble, promise and problem. Though they are rightly recognized for preserving the ancient ecological wisdom that has been obscured by a global culture of money, Indigenous societies are simply acknowledged to have the same responsibility and right to life, justice, and peace that all human societies have under God. To deny this responsibility and right is a great evil. It is, as we have learned here and elsewhere, the prelude to genocide.

The five traditional Wet’suwet’en chiefs are making a claim that a pipeline scheduled for development through their traditional lands cannot be built without their free, prior, and informed consent. This claim is based, primarily, on their age-old traditional jurisdiction and the sacred use of the specific land proposed for development. It is also based on both UNDRIP and recent rulings of the Canadian courts. The courts have acknowledged the validity of traditional principles of leadership and jurisdiction, as well as Wet’suwet’en usage and claims on territory which goes beyond the land granted them under the Indian Act. Though there have been other outside groups that have, for particular political purposes, made broader assertions about the claim of the chiefs, this appears to be the heart of their concern and the source of their passion.

The claim of the five traditional chiefs contradicts the approval of the pipeline by locally elected leaders, elected under a system imposed by the Canadian government. This local government is only one of the 20 First Nations governments involved in the agreements for the pipeline. Along with the elected leaders, some Wet’suwet’en express disagreement with the five traditional leaders. This disagreement has been exploited by both those who support the pipeline and those who oppose Indigenous self-determination. The differences represented here and the question of what weight should be given to the different voices involved leave many, in the media and those that consume it, confused, dismayed, and, often, angry. Although all should attempt to understand the issues involved, it is a matter that the Wet’suwet’en must work out for themselves and, most likely, one that will only be understood well by those who understand the complexities of their law from inside. All those who disagree with the five chiefs should be respected, especially the elected officials. Certainly, all the parties involved, including the government and the corporate interests related to the pipeline, must be a part of the conversations moving ahead.

This does not, in any sense, cancel the importance and validity of the five traditional chiefs’ claim. It is a serious claim of Indigenous Rights. It is an essential claim of morality and justice. This is ultimately what the protests are about, whatever other interests may be involved. This is why traditional authority must be given a high seat at the table that determines justice, sovereignty, and jurisdiction, not only in the territory of the Wet’suwet’en, but across this entire land.

Opposition leader Andrew Scheer asked that those who have supported the Wet’suwet’en on the blockades “check their privilege.” This is an act of American-style “dog-whistle” politics— when a statement that appears not to be overtly and explicitly hostile to a particular group (usually a racial minority) is used to signal to another group (usually angry people of the majority) that the speaker supports their bias against this particular group. In this case, it is implied that people, presumably Indigenous, have time to spend on blockades, contrary to the hard-working people of the majority who were hurt by them. Further, he suggested that these actions were motivated by an anti-energy sector political agenda, as if that was all that mattered to those who protested, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. He clearly called for the use of force to break up the protests. He recognized the economic pain the protests have caused, but hardly a peep about the hundreds of years of pain that government policies have caused and continue to cause for Indigenous Peoples. His statements showed a rugged refusal to acknowledge the claim of Indigenous Rights.

In this way, the statements promote racial stereotypes, enflame divisions already painful in society, and advance a political agenda on the misery of Indigenous Peoples. I believe Mr. Scheer is a good person, so I do not wish to believe that he acted in full knowledge and understanding of the critical nature of the Indigenous issues involved. If he did this in full knowledge of their importance, it is an evil act.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “the barricades must now come down. The injunctions must be obeyed and the law must be upheld.” This statement ignores the vital question of the validity of Indigenous law in the Canadian system. It sanctions force in a way that ignores the central issues and hides under a definition of law that neither recognizes the pain of the past nor the only path to a good future for all: a Canada that reveres the justice and truth of Indigenous self-determination—something the Prime Minister professes to believe.

He recognized the economic pain the protests have caused, but hardly a peep about the hundreds of years of pain that government policies have caused and continue to cause for Indigenous Peoples. By his rugged refusal to acknowledge the claim of Indigenous Right, by his sanction of force—despite offers of negotiation—and by his pursuit of a political agenda in the face of a serious Indigenous claim of right, he did great and lasting damage to the relation of Indigenous Peoples to Canada. It will only enflame the divisions and make matters worse. I believe that Mr. Trudeau is a good person, so I do not wish to believe that he acted in full knowledge and understanding of the critical nature of the Indigenous issues involved. If he did this in full knowledge of their importance, it is an evil act.

Though I have my own opinions about matters related to the energy sector and other aspects that are on the periphery of the Wet’suwet’en conflict, I choose to pursue them through other forms of advocacy. Though I have my own opinions about them, I do not, with this piece, condemn or promote the various strategies adopted to stand with the Wet’suwet’en. I do want to say, with every bit of strength I have, that the question of Indigenous Rights in this matter is a compelling, essential, and defining moment for this Land. The quality of our future will be shaped by this issue, and there is a global aspect to this. A quarter of the world’s usable land is now under the authority and stewardship of Indigenous Peoples. This, for example, is an acute and consequential matter in the Amazon. Only by endorsing and promoting Indigenous Rights and authority will we protect a huge portion of our future.

The only healthy future for our planet is one that respects Indigenous Rights and authority. In the matter of the Wet’suwet’en we are beginning a conversation about the character and quality of our future. I believe that the five traditional chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en are standing on the right side of justice and the right side of a healthy global future. I will stand with them.

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Mark MacDonald
Archbishop Mark MacDonald is national Indigenous archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Comments are well supported by the Scientific findings of how this Earth’s Biosphere works to support life. The hereditary Chiefs have read those findings and found they support their long held practice of projecting present practices likely impact on future generations. Our present political elite don’t tend to consider seriously such consequences in spite of mounting evidence we are cutting short the Anthropocene Epoch , ending it with extinction of us (humans) as well as most if not all but primitive life forms. The UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is reporting for all to know what is at issue. The window of opportunity to adapt to what Nature requires for survival long term, is closing fast! The after life is going to need a lot of rooms and brimstone in a hurry if we do not heed their advice and leave carbon deposits at rest and take our foot off the pedal of other activities that are destroying the “God” given Biosphere!.

  2. Archbishop MacDonald I believe highlights a most serious point as well as a failure of our “political leaders” The P.M. huddled with his cabinet then came out to make his demands about the barricades. A wise leader would have gone to sit down personally with these five chiefs to discuss their concerns face to face. Perhaps we should see the problem as similar to a case where someone wanted to put a pipeline across our front lawn. All the neighbours agreed so it was a done deal but we were never consulted. There are indigenous people who want this pipeline, but who is in charge here ? Did the P.M. get both these parties together along with the pipeline people ? THAT would have made more sense and given respect to all parties !! In such a scenario we might never have had barricades on the railroads either !!

  3. I agree with all of this. Can the protestors commit to non-violence – like Ghandi and MLK? This would be so much better than the threat of shooting – both sides. I am uncomfortable about the presence of the Mohawk Warriors. I heard something about “peace keepers.”

  4. Lamenting the “act of the Ontario and Canadian Government” as “[representing] a complete ignorance of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) or a deliberate violation of it” rings hollow when, by supporting a small group from the Wet’suwet’en Nation, you are failing to uphold the rights of the members of the twenty bands who, exercising “their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them” (UNDRIP) voted to endorse the project.
    Whereas Delgamuukw v. British Columbia recognized Aboriginal title, the “Wet’suwet’en usage and claims on territory which goes beyond the land granted them under the Indian Act” has not been tested in court. Twenty bands along the route of the pipeline, for the betterment of their members, voted to endorse the project. Of those twenty bands, five are of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. Contrary to your statement that “some Wet’suwet’en express disagreement with the five traditional leaders”, the majority are in disagreement. As you say, “it is a matter that the Wet’suwet’en must work out for themselves” without the interference of organizations or individuals wishing to “advance a political agenda”.
    By denigrating the Prime Minister’s insistence that “injunctions must be obeyed and the law must be upheld” by using a straw man argument that his statement “ignores the vital question of the validity of Indigenous law in the Canadian system”, you are doing nothing to promote “a good future for all”. Your continuing criticism of Trudeau in your article begs the question “are [you] capable of disagreeing without suggesting crude motives, ill-intent, or deformed character”?
    As with the “Statement on Conflict on Wet’suwet’en Unceded Territory” from the Anglican Church of Canada, your article is unreasoned, uncalled-for, and unhelpful.

  5. Stop printing political, one- sided articles in a religious paper. This is not the proper forum for these #shutdowncanada views.

  6. I agree that this issue is, at heart, about Indigenous Law and Governance and that
    it is the Wet’suwet’in people who must decide the who, why and how of exercising the authority of decision-making for their community.
    I highly recommend Jody Wilson-Raybould’s collection of speeches, made during the past decade, which focus
    on Indigenous Goverance. FROM WHERE I STAND: Rebuilding Indigenous Nations for a Stronger Canada (2019).

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