rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

The criminalization of Indigenous land defenders is a global concern

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Land defenders at Wet'suwet'en Access Point on Gidimt'en Territory. Image: Wet'suwet'en Access Point on Gidimt'en Territory/Facebook

The Globe and Mail headline reads "RCMP Viewed B.C. Coastal GasLink Protesters as 'Radicalized,' Court Documents Show."

That article reports that on January 8, 2019, the day after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raided the Gidimt'en checkpoint on Wet'suwet'en territory in British Columbia, RCMP Sergeant John Uzelac stated in an affidavit, "I am aware that critical infrastructure can be targeted by persons with radicalized ideology."

Sgt. Uzelac was reportedly referring to unarmed Indigenous land defenders who had gathered at the Gidimt'en checkpoint in opposition to a fracked gas pipeline being constructed on their unceded territory without the free, prior and informed consent of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the recognized governance body of those lands.

Furthermore, The Guardian has reported, "Canadian police were prepared to shoot Indigenous land defenders blockading construction of a natural gas pipeline… The RCMP commanders also instructed officers to 'use as much violence toward the gate as you want'… The RCMP were [also] prepared to arrest children and grandparents…"

This despite, the article notes, police intelligence reporting "no single threat indicating that [land defenders] will use firearms."

Criminalization of land defenders globally

On April 24, 2019, a United Nations media release highlighted: "Indigenous peoples face a worrying escalation in their criminalization and harassment, especially when defending and exercising rights to their territories and natural resources, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard today as it continued its third day of discussions."

The Inter‑American Commission on Human Rights has defined criminalization as the "manipulation of the punitive power of the State by State and non-State actors in order to control, punish, or prevent the exercise of the right to defend human rights."

Land Rights Now adds, "Portraying community leaders and activists as obstacles to development, a risk to national security, undermining traditional values or contributing to disruptive violent events is a common strategy."

And Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, stated: "Extractive activities within indigenous peoples' lands and territories undertaken without adequate consultation or consent are the main source of serious violations of their human rights, including violence, criminalization and forced displacement."

This criminalization can have the direst of consequences.

The Dublin-based human rights organization Front Line Defenders recently reported that of the 304 human rights defenders killed around the world in 2019, 40 per cent of them were working on land rights, Indigenous peoples' rights and environmental rights.

The current situation in the Wet'suwet'en Nation

On December 13, 2019, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Canada "to guarantee that no force will be used against Secwepemc and Wet'suwet'en peoples and that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and associated security and policing services will be withdrawn from their traditional lands."

But just one month later, on January 13, the RCMP established an Access Control Checkpoint at the 27-kilometre mark of the Morice West Forest Service Road on Wet'suwet'en territory.

That's in part because a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted Coastal GasLink's application for an interlocutory injunction that prohibits land defenders from impeding Coastal GasLink workers on their territory.

Yellowhead Institute research director Shiri Pasternak notes, "When the court refused to recognize Wet'suwet'en hereditary authority, [the land defenders] become de facto lawless and so are labelled and treated as criminals. So a spectre of danger around these supposed criminals is created by the RCMP and other actors."

Significantly, Pasternak asks, "But how can the injunction override a Supreme Court decision that recognized hereditary leaders as the proper title and rights holders?"

And yet the exclusion zone has been set up by the RCMP and hereditary chiefs are required to produce identification to them to access the territory.

Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Na'Moks comments, "This isn't a war zone. We're not terrorists and that's how they're treating us."

And Harsha Walia, the executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), says, "The RCMP, in our opinion in this case, has instituted an exclusion zone that is arbitrary and unnecessary and reinforces a criminalizing approach to dealing with Wet'suwet'en rights and title, and Wet'suwet'en jurisdiction."

A key aspect to the peaceful resolution of this situation is the state refraining from the criminalization of Indigenous peoples on their own territories and the recognition of constitutional and human rights obligations, rather than the presumed supremacy of a corporate fossil fuel mega-project.

Given their experiences to date, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs have already "submitted a formal request to the United Nations to monitor RCMP, government and Coastal GasLink actions on our traditional, unceded territory."

Brent Patterson is the executive director of Peace Brigades International-Canada. This article originally appeared on the PBI-Canada website.

Image: Wet'suwet'en Access Point on Gidimt'en Territory/Facebook

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.