On February 21, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press conference in Ottawa on the protest actions in Ontario and other provinces in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. There was florid language. There was equivocating. But, the underlying message was clear: all avenues for dialogue had been “exhausted.” Now, he said, it’s up to Indigenous people and their supporters to comply with court injunctions or face the consequences – which Trudeau washed his hands of by pointing out police independence from political direction.
Before this press conference, it was indeed possible to draw a real contrast between the government’s handling of the conflict and the bellicose and knee-jerk posturing of the Conservative Party. But the prime minister’s tone and rhetoric had taken an abrupt turn, further risking the cycle of violence, renewed protest and unpredictable political consequences.
Trudeau’s stated resolve to do things differently as part of reconciliation necessitates that the government unequivocally reject the use of force.
But Canada has a long history of using force to “clear” or “remove” Indigenous peoples from places where their presence was perceived as an impediment to settler-Canadians. It’s only our historical amnesia by design that allows us to perceive a temporary blockage of rail lines as the logical result of this history.
There’s a vague sense among most Canadians that Indigenous people have been marginalized. And they’re right. But, it’s important to note that at the root of this mistreatment is not some simple dislike of Indigenous peoples. It’s even too simple to speak of this mistreatment as simply resulting from racism.
There are large-scale examples of what former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin called “cultural genocide” tied to the need to clear the land. Historian James Daschuk has shown how a policy of starvation against Indigenous peoples was used to facilitate the settlement of the West by white Europeans. And then came residential schools.
Few people would connect the schools to removing people from the land, yet that was their intent and outcome. They were designed to assimilate Indigenous people into the larger polity. Stripping Indigenous people of their identity, language and culture was an attempt to remove their basis for historical claims to the land in the eyes of the colonizer, who clung to a rigid and superficial definition of what made someone “indigenous.”
There are lesser-known examples that speak to Canada’s persistent pattern of clearing Indigenous peoples from the land. Tied directly to Canada’s conflict with the Wet’suwet’en is British Columbia’s historical denial of Indigenous sovereignty and control over their territories.
In the late 19th century, the BC government decided to simply claim the entire mainland without negotiating any treaties. Dealing with an imposed regime of private property, from which they were excluded, Indigenous people were forced onto reserves.
There are similar examples from recent history. Conflicts at Ipperwash, Kanehsatà:ke and Gustafsen Lake are within living memory of many Canadians. All of these conflicts were, at root, about the need to clear Indigenous people from the land.
Whether in the distant or near past, whether the land is envisioned as an agrarian hinterland for a burgeoning nation-state, a golf course or a conduit for natural gas, Canada’s goal and method has always been the same.
A negotiated political solution is the only acceptable way to resolve this crisis and future ones like it.
While there are concerns about the economic and personal impacts of rail blockades, it’s important to remember that Canada is a rich country with plenty of material and financial resources to manage an emergency like this creatively.
Wet’suwet’en territory in northern BC.
Why have the Liberals or industry not talked about temporary financial support available to affected workers? And, if there are shortages of essential products imminent in certain regions, why hasn’t the government considered mobilizing to mitigate those shortages?
It’s telling that when a journalist at Friday’s press conference asked Trudeau if the army would be called in, it was simply assumed that this would be to clear Indigenous people out of the way. Why is it unthinkable that the army could be deployed to help prevent temporary supply shortages while a political solution is negotiated? Canada’s entire frame of mind about how to manage these conflicts is mired in bad historical habits and a lack of an imagination.
Some Canadians have had access to a historical education that permits them to understand the blockades as temporary inconveniences that pale in comparison to deeply rooted, systemic and ongoing historical injustices. But others have not, and they also vote. Worse, they might take matters into their own hands, as one did near Edmonton last week.
This crisis is driving home the importance of comprehensive decolonizing historical education about Indigenous and Canadian history in our country’s school systems.
Canada must imagine new ways to manage conflict with Indigenous peoples. Trudeau is wrong to suggest that the onus is now on Indigenous leadership to de-escalate the crisis. The onus is on us to demonstrate how Canada can do things differently than it always has.
As former residential schools claims manager Paulette Regan notes, reconciliation requires settlers to reframe their mindset away from the “Indigenous problem,” and turn the mirror back on themselves asking, “What is the settler problem?” The historical moment requires a radical break from old ways of thinking, speaking and acting. It’s not too late for this government to show leadership and do that.
Eric Wright is a multidisciplinary artist and writer. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of British Columbia.
Adam Scotti Adam Scotti – PMO/CPM
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in the Speech from the Throne ceremony at the Senate in Ottawa.