A longtime Indigenous rights activist wants Wet’suwet’en land and water defenders to know they’re “not alone,” that their power is “in the Spirit,” and that it’s time for Canadians to start “upholding their share of democracy.”
Ellen Gabriel is a Onkwehón:we rights activist from the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) community of Kanesatake. She lived on the front lines of her people’s resistance to the construction of a golf course and townhouses on Kanienkehaka lands in 1990. The 78-day standoff became known as “the resistance at Kanesatake,” also known as ‘The Oka Crisis’ as images of Mohawk and First Nation warriors facing off against the Canadian military became memorialized in the country.
Gabriel, who has continued her activism over the last three decades, was the spokesperson for her community at the time. She lived through the brutalization and criminalization of her people at the hands of state-sanctioned police and military officers, patterns she sees repeated in Wet’suwet’en territory today, she tells IndigiNews.
Wet’suwet’en land and water defenders and supporters have been blocking access to Coastal Gaslink project sites and work camps as part of the latest in an ongoing conflict between members of the nation and the company that has spanned over a decade.
The construction would be devastating to Wet’suwet’en homelands and waters and any green lights given on behalf of the nation were signed outside of traditional governance practices by elected officials whose authority comes from the disputed Indian Act and holds no authority off of the reservation, defenders say.
Members of the nation served Coastal Gaslink — a subsidiary of Calgary-based energy company TransCanada which is attempting to build a 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline through Wet’suwet’en land — with a notice of eviction on Nov. 14, “but of the estimated 500 individuals housed at Coastal GasLink’s two remote work camps, only a handful left,” according to reporting by the Narwhal.
Days later, RCMP officers began arresting defenders and supporters, enforcing an injunction obtained by the company. Community members — including hereditary chiefs, matriarchs and clan spokespeople — and journalists have since been arrested as heavily armed RCMP officers continue to enforce the disputed injunction.
Defenders continue to demand that they are the only authority over their traditional territories, through a governance system that was recognized and upheld in the Supreme Court of Canada ‘Delgamuukw v. British Columbia.’
Indigenous supporters, including Mohawk land defenders, have joined those on the front lines protecting the yintah (Wet’suwet’en traditional territory), as solidarity marches take place across the country.
IndigiNews spoke with Gabriel about recent events. Here’s what she had to say:
Gilpin: What have you been seeing and thinking about the ongoing resistance in Wet’suwet’en territory?
Gabriel: I see police brutality. I see the unnecessary use of force. It's really indicative that Canada has not changed since its inception and since its monarchs decided to brutalize Indigenous Peoples. Nothing has changed in the century since contact. We’re forced into their courts with their laws and their criteria. And even if we have a small win, it's really never implemented.
I think that what’s going on is the same thing that was going on 500 years ago, which is you have mercenaries that work on behalf of the corporations to make the rich richer, Indigenous Peoples are disposable and there is no political will to actually view us and view our rights as human rights. I think that it's just deplorable.
I stand with the Wet’suwet’en and all the Indigenous land and water protectors, no matter where they are on Turtle Island. I think we have not really progressed. I think the people themselves, like the Canadian people themselves may have changed, but their government, this colonial relationship that we have, it really has not changed. They've just been able to find some of our own people to continue oppressing their own. It’s divide and conquer. Canada cares more about its reputation than doing the right thing.
Gilpin: What do you think needs to happen now?
Gabriel: I think that the police should be charged with a crime against humanity for doing the dirty work of Coastal Gaslink and the government of Canada and B.C. It's really horrible that no matter what we do, in very peaceful measures, they still push us to the brink where we have to defend ourselves. And I think that's inexcusable in this day and age.
What we really need to do is start getting Canadians to get up off their hands and work alongside us. Because the word reconciliation is a shallow word right now. It's very hollow, frankly, because there is no reconciliation right now. It doesn't matter how many times Justin Trudeau, Marc Miller, or Carolyn Bennett, cries it — reconciliation is not happening, because reconciliation goes far beyond just monetary compensation for the genocide that was inflicted upon and is still being inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples.
We want our land back so that we can restore and revitalize our languages, our cultures, our songs, because we are people of the land and that’s what's important and we're still fighting for our land. We cannot fight the bullets and the tanks and these paramilitary forces that do the bidding of corporations.
We need to tell Canada that they promised something and again, they broke it. And then we tell that to the world, because one of the things that I learned in 1990 was that the government is more concerned about its reputation than actually doing the right thing.
Gilpin: You have voiced your support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a tool for upholding Indigenous Peoples’ human and inherent rights. How would this international declaration come into use in the situation taking place in Wet’suwet’en territory and what other tools do you see as necessary in this time?
Gabriel: I think any tool that we can use against the colonial powers is a tool that we should be using. It's just words on paper. You can't just say, well, you have to respect it. We have to show that our Indigenous laws compliment these new laws. Indigenous people worked on this.
But I don't think it's the solution. I think there are other solutions that are there. And, you know, if we continually have to make those human rights complaints and continually have to demonstrate to the world that Canada is an authoritarian government, then those are the tools that we need to use. But I think that the strongest tool we have is our own mind and being able to process what's going on, and express it to the people who don't know what we're feeling and the suffering that we're going through.
We’re always crying out for unity. I think the people who are on the front lines are the ones who are unified. As our Elders say, it’s not about power, it's about upholding obligations to our own Indigenous laws. The UN declaration — that's for the state to really uphold and for us to use and to remind them that they have promised in their own way, when they respected and legislated it, that they have obligations and that they should take that seriously.
It's a repetition of things that we saw here. For us, our whole community was surrounded and as was Kahnawake. They learned how to continue to brutalize us. They were not interested in lessons learned, they were interested in how to continue to oppress us, which is what they're doing.
It's about them getting away again with a genocidal act and there seems to be no solution within the laws and politician’s will, so it's really up to the ordinary citizen. You claim to live in a democracy, you claim you want reconciliation, well this is what you have to do. It should not be shouldered alone by Indigenous Peoples, because the government doesn't care about us.
Gilpin: Climate change is an undeniable fact, and one you recently tweeted about saying, “It’s odd that people cry about the effects of the climate crisis, but do not draw the conclusion that Indigenous Peoples have been warning about this for decades.” Can you expand on that?
Gabriel: Well, you know, it's interesting, because all the Elders, the people whose shoulders we stand on as activists ... they were not listened to when they warned about things. They said that you can't treat the earth like this and expect no consequences.
People continually think that it's up to states like the government of Canada to stop greenhouse gases. To not support Indigenous Peoples who have been fighting for the protection of the lands and the waters is hypocritical. They can't make that connection and realize that what we've been doing is not just for our benefit.
Gilpin: What else would you like to share?
Gabriel: My final words are to the Wet'suwet'en water and land defenders: You're not alone. We felt alone during the first few weeks of the crisis and for most of it. We had lots of people praying and doing ceremony for us. And I think that they just need to know that people are there for them, doing those ceremonies and burning tobacco and thinking of them, that they are not alone and that their strength is in the Spirit.
The Spirit of our ancestors is watching us, watching over us, to protect us. And I think that's what they need to know — that they are loved and that people care about them. Editor's note: On Nov. 26, we issued two corrections to this story. We changed "images of Indigenous warriors facing off with heavily armed RCMP officers" to "images of Mohawk and First Nation warriors facing off against the Canadian military." We also removed the statement that "youth" were among those arrested because IndigiNews was not able to confirm that the person we assumed was a youth self-identifies as such.
Emilee Gilpin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse