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Racism, resources, and the ‘rule of law’ in Wet’suwet’en territory

This past year, Canadians were exposed to deeper truths about systemic anti-Indigenous racism and the genocide perpetrated through the “Indian residential school” system. At the time, we underscored the importance of turning the collective grief that followed into deeper understanding and action.

Unfortunately, “Canada traded in its orange t-shirts for assault rifles and tactical gear in less than two months,” as environmental justice campaigner Torrance Coste observed in response to the recent RCMP invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory.

These two injustices – residential “schools” and militarized violence by the RCMP against land defenders – are deeply intertwined.

“It’s always been about the land”

The RCMP played a central role in rounding up Indigenous children and bringing them to residential schools. By its own admission, it worked to search for any Indigenous children who managed to escape and return them to the “schools.”

The role of the RCMP in so-called “residential schools” and the one it’s playing today in clearing Indigenous peoples off their land are the same: to make way for extractive projects, while quashing Indigenous resistance to them.

As Métis artist Christi Belcourt points out, “Canadians need to connect the dots between residential schools and resource extraction. Between child welfare and resource extraction. Between MMIWG2S [Missing and Murdered Women, Girls, and 2-Spirit People] and resource extraction. It’s always been about the land.”

Belcourt notes that Canada and Ontario have, since the beginning, “viewed Indigenous lands for the resources and Indigenous people in the way.”

She writes that “residential schools were built so there would be no opposition to resource extraction. The government admitted this was the intent,” pointing to an 1886 letter from school inspector J. A. Mcrea to the Indian commissioner, which said that “it is unlikely any Tribe would give trouble of a serious nature to the Government whose members had children completely under Government control.”

Belcourt cites a CBC report about how these “schools” were used to “neutralize Indigenous resistance” by using the children as “bargaining chips” against their parents.

Real role of the RCMP

The RCMP’s role in rounding up children for “residential schools” and its violent role in suppressing Indigenous land defense have had a common purpose: to quash resistance to resource extraction.

The RCMP claims to be neutral, that it’s just enforcing the rule of law in Wet’suwet’en territory, contrary to its record of discrimination against and repression of Indigenous movements.

A 2019 report revealed that the RCMP is more concerned about public opinion than the rule of law – hardly a neutral outlook.

It’s now a matter of public record that there were internal RCMP discussions related to the raid on Gidimt’en last year about using lethal force against Indigenous land defenders.

The RCMP has a long history of colluding with fossil fuel corporations to spy on Indigenous and environmental organizations that are opposed to those corporations’ pipeline projects.

Its real role is to serve and protect colonialism. It always has been.

Historian Sean Carleton has described the RCMP’s role as “a colonial paramilitary force.” The RCMP was literally created to subjugate Indigenous peoples. Throughout the force’s history, its role has continued to be an enforcer for colonialism.

The rule of law vs. the role of justice

Canadian governments often say they’re just upholding the “rule of law” when they justify authorizing police actions against protesters or land defenders.

But what they actually mean is they’re upholding corporate interests at the expense of people and communities. Invoking the “rule of law” is an attempt to justify clearing Indigenous peoples off their lands to make way for extractive projects. In other words, it’s cover for colonialism.

Those invoking the rule of law aren’t talking about respecting Wet’suwet’en law, which – as the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized – existed long before there was such a thing as Canadian law. Wet’suwet’en law preceded Canada itself.

As we’ve previously written, “Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs hold rights and title on ancestral lands that has been recognized by Canadian courts.” And they’ve unanimously rejected the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Those invoking the rule of law are also not talking about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a version of which B.C. legislated into law in 2019. The centerpiece of UNDRIP is ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ – a right of the Wet’suwet’en and all Indigenous peoples that has been trampled on by the RCMP, Coastal GasLink, and the federal and B.C. governments.

No, the “rule of law” has nothing to do with justice; it’s a euphemism for the use of force in the service of fossil fuel CEOs.

It’s not about the rule of law. It never has been.

This fixation on the rule of law is a distraction from whether what’s happening is just or not. It’s not the rule of law but the role of injustice that’s at the heart of the Wet’suwet’en efforts to defend the land.

Despite the Wet’suwet’en’s clear title to their land, recognized by the Supreme Court, corporations like Coastal GasLink are still able to use the legal system to perpetuate colonialism.

Justice for the Wet’suwet’en people would mean recognizing their sovereignty over the land and water of their territory, ending the RCMP invasions, and ending provincial and federal government support for the Coastal GasLink pipeline. We have a responsibility to help ensure that happens through continued solidarity.