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Legacy media's shameful 'whitesplaining' of the Wet'suwet'en land defence

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Unist'ot'en Matriarchs burn the court injunction in ceremony. Image: Unist'ot'en Camp/Twitter

As Canada's crippling rail shutdown reaches into its third week, an overwhelming majority of voices in the country's mainstream media have spoken: The Aboriginal demonstrators, who say they are defending their lands from a liquefied natural gas pipeline they do not want, are lawless thugs or fringe activists, and it's time for action, not talk, to get them the hell out of our way.

Those voices are certainly not letting the facts get in their way.

One columnist, Diane Francis, even said the breakup of Canada is at stake. The demonstrations, which she called illegal, are not about pipelines and fossil fuels, she wrote in the National Post. "A full-blown secession crisis is underway," thanks to the federal government's policy of "pandering and subsidizing" Indigenous people.


Sociologists call hyperbole like that "moral panic," which is the tendency of politicians or the news media to irresponsibly spread fear among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. It is a tactic that has often been used to discredit Aboriginal people in Canada, and there is no doubt it is shameful journalism.

We need to remember the facts. The protests began on February 6, and reached a tipping point when RCMP officers in riot gear pointing automatic weapons dismantled a gate erected by unarmed activists in British Columbia trying to prevent access to Wet'suwet'en territories. Fourteen demonstrators were arrested in an attempt to stop construction of the proposed 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline. Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, who oversee 22,000 square kilometres of territory in British Columbia, refused to allow the company access to their lands.

The $6.6-billion project has the support of the government of B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils along the proposed route. Five of the six elected band councils in the Wet'suwet'en nation also support the pipeline. But Wet'suwet'en chiefs say the authority of these councils, imposed on Aboriginal people by the federal Indian Act, only applies to reserves -- not the larger tracts of traditional territory.

So are columnists like Francis correct when they write, as she did, that the pipeline demonstrations are "being spearheaded by five unelected hereditary chiefs in British Columbia who claim their nation -- the Wet'suwet'en -- is exempt from Canadian laws and regulations"?

She's sort of got it backwards. Although the B.C. Supreme Court dealt a blow to the chiefs, granting an injunction against the expulsion of Coastal GasLink from Wet'suwet'en lands, the Wet'suwet'en maintain they never ceded land to the province or federal government and thus maintain jurisdiction over the territory.

In other words, the Wet'suwet'en hold title to the land and it is the RCMP and the Canadian courts that are acting illegally, or at least contrary to traditional Aboriginal rights. Those rights were upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997 when it recognized that Aboriginal property rights had been seized illegally by British Columbia.

I urge readers, and Canadian newspaper columnists, to read the facts of the story, provided in an excellent CTV primer. 

Doing so might have stopped columnist Anthony Furey, for example, calling demonstrators "fringe activists," as he did the other day in the Toronto Sun. Or wait, knowing him, it might not have.

Demonizing "the other" is also a tool of racist discourse. That can be done by referring to those inconvenienced by the disruption as "regular people," as Nathalie St-Pierre did in the Montreal Gazette. Her version of "regular people" are those who have been laid off from factories, commuters delayed on their way to work, those who are deprived of hospital food because propane deliveries are affected, and -- no white privilege intended -- people whose access to clean water is affected by delays of chlorine deliveries to water treatment facilities (I guess for those non-Indigenous communities that still enjoy access to potable water).

Nathalie St-Pierre, by the way, is not a columnist. She was granted access to print on the basis of being president and CEO of the Canadian Propane Association. These are the type of voices that get amplified by Canadian newspapers these days, never mind the obscene conflict of interest.

"This is an all-of-Canada crisis," she declared, adding: "it requires an all-of-Canada solution." Well, if the rights of Aboriginal Canadians must be denied again, that's just part of the road kill, I guess,

Another columnist, Brian Lilley, writing in the Toronto Sun, made the bizarre and unsupported argument that American billionaires are stage-managing this crisis, using Indigenous people as pawns. "Money generated by American billionaires has been used for years to demonize our own oil and gas industry -- one of the cleanest in the world -- by enlisting the help of green and First Nations activists."

Then there's the discourse of denial. The most egregious newspaper editorial so far was by Postmedia, published in the London Free Press. It was headlined "Blockades Not a First Nations protest." It is only some hereditary chiefs -- a position the editorial likened to a Canadian senator -- who do not support the pipeline, it said. That's inaccurate, since Canadian senators are appointed by the Canadian government, whereas hereditary chiefs predate Confederation and hold authority only by a consensus of their community.

But it's not just newspaper opinion makers who don't get it. Canada's politicians have weighed in with their ignorance as well.

B.C.'s NDP Premier John Horgan claims he respects everyone's right to lawful protest, but of course he doesn't: "When you're interfering with the operation of the economy at the ports and through the city here in the Lower Mainland, that becomes a challenge," he said.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says rail blockades are illegal and, besides, they risk slowing down Saskatchewan exports.

Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, whose political instincts got him drummed out of his job, actually said: "These protesters, these activists, may have the luxury of spending days at a time at a blockade, but they need to check their privilege, they need to check their privilege and let people whose job depends on the railway system -- small business, farmers -- do their job."

Walking Eagle News, a satirical news website, mocked Scheer by tweeting: "Career politician who lives in taxpayer-funded house and whose party paid for his kid's private school says Indigenous people blocking rail lines need to check their privilege."

And Scheer's possible successor as party leader Erin O'Toole released a video in which he said he "will fight to take back Canada" along with a tweet in which he promised to "push back against eco-extremists."

Crikey, next thing you know someone will want to call in the army.

Why come on down, Derek Burney! The former chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, writing in the National Post, opined that it's time to use force and stop "wallowing in a litany of historical grievances -- real and perceived."

"Dialogue," he said, "is no prescription for those who refuse to listen because they believe themselves to be custodians of the only truth. They break the laws of the land with abandon, certain that they will face no consequences. Many of their complaints have been addressed extensively by the courts and by the responsible regulatory agencies and have been endorsed by duly elected band councils. Yet nothing but abject capitulation is what is being demanded."

So Diane Francis has plenty of company when she calls this mess "a disgrace."

I disagree, and I call that out as BS.

What's a disgrace, in this day and age, is the willful blindness and stereotypical rage of legacy media influencers willing to overlook the facts -- and centuries of injustice towards Aboriginal people.

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source. This column originally appeared on John's blog.

Image: Unist'ot'en Camp/Twitter

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