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As the world teeters on the brink of catastrophic climate change and societal collapse, it is clear that those of us with the knowledge and capacity to resist have a responsibility to do so. It is not enough simply to withdraw or make lifestyle changes — that is selfish and cowardly.
Rather we must turn to the front lines, where the battles which are determining our futures are actually being fought. One of those places is the Unist’ot’en Camp which rests along the bank of the river Wedzin Kwah (known in colonial society as the Morice River) on sovereign Wet’suwet’en Territory (in what you may know as Northern B.C.)
There are many such other battlegrounds in the colonial entity known as Canada and around the world, too many to be named, where grassroots communities are fighting against industrial projects designed to further the destruction of our Mother Earth for profit. More often than not these projects intend to take from land that rightfully belongs to the traditional people of the affected area.
Speaking for myself, I could not sit by and passively allow this to happen. That is why I went out this summer to the 3rd Annual Action Camp hosted by the Unist’ot’en on the territory they are defending from several proposed pipeline projects. What I saw was inspiring. Over a hundred grassroots people, Indigenous and settler, gathering together to vow support for protecting this land. When, at the end, I saw there was need for some allies to stay behind and provide support for the creation of a permanent camp, I knew this was the opportunity I had been waiting for. The following are some reflections on what it means to be a front line ally and also what sort of solidarity is needed to keep these front line struggles going.
First and foremost, front line allies serve as support and take leadership from their host communities. This is recognized by guests from settler society as well as other Indigenous nations. Once you are on Unist’ot’en land you are subject to Unist’ot’en law. Unlike settler colonial law, the laws of the Unist’ot’en are living laws and they are exercised orally though living protocols, such as the Free Prior and Informed Consent protocol that all guests entering into the territory are subject to. It is also important that one truly recognize the territory of the Unist’ot’en (and all Wet’suwet’en land) as sovereign — it does not belong to Canada as it has never been ceded or surrendered. Furthermore, Band and Tribal Councils also do not have authority over the territory.
One of the great struggles in Indigenous society has been the selling out of various Band Councils as they continue to make deals with industry, even against the will of their people. But the actual authority for the land lies with the indigenous people themselves and their hereditary chiefs. That hereditary chiefs are the ultimate authority over Indigenous lands is even recognized by Canadian law through the Supreme Court Dalgamuukw case decision. And the will of the Unist’ot’en people has been clearly expressed — they are not interested in negotiating any treaties with Canada and they do not give consent for any of the proposed pipelines to come through their land.
The actual role and nature of being a front line ally can vary widely according to the customs of the community and the specific circumstances of the situation. At the Unist’ot’en camp, front line allies have made themselves useful by assisting with construction projects, helping in the kitchen, and daily support tasks such as chopping wood. Also, the exact role played by each ally depends on their specific skill set. Some are handy and enjoy swinging the hammer all day, while others are more media savvy and assist with outreach and developing vital support networks.
Although all processes on the camp are led by the Unist’ot’en and has a necessary hierarchy, the relationship is not based on glum submission. Often the process is a co-creative one where allied opinion and ideas are valued and incorporated into decisions. There is also a lot of sharing of knowledge. Since being here I have learned a lot about carpentry, how to operate a snowmobile, gather and can berries for the winter, even smoke meat and hunt. In turn, I have also shared some of the skills I have such as social media and yoga. As a result, what we have here has become a team. The Unist’ot’en and the other allies here are now my friends, and we will stand together no matter what government, industry, or anyone else wants to throw at us.
It is important to stress though that one does not have to be at the camp to be an ally of the community. There may be a time when we need a mass mobilization here, and although we do accept visits from trusted friends and allies, there is actually a sufficient number of people here now for general day-to-day operations. But what we do always have need for is solid allies to join our growing solidarity network which does vital work to raise awareness about the camp and provides much needed logistical support. Straight up, community awareness creates increased security for the camp.
The more people that know about us and actively show their support, the harder it will be for the Harper government and industry to move against us. And the more people that like our Facebook page or join our mailing list, means the greater amount of people we will be able to reach out to in important times of need. As well, maintaining a full-time camp is a costly endeavour, a lot of which so far has been paid for out-of-pocket by community members. Food and fuel, in particular, are a constant expense. The trip into town itself is a time-consuming and costly affair as 22km of that has to be by snowmobile. There are also patrols that need to be done in order to ensure that industry is not trespassing on the territory, so our need for fuel is quite high. As well, there are many infrastructure upgrades to be made, such as building additional cabins and adding renewable energy systems for wind and solar power. Therefore, the need for fundraisers from our allies remains a priority.
Fortunately, in a number of cities across Canada, allies of the Unist’ot’en have already proved they are willing and ready to answer the call. In late November, after camp members intercepted and evicted Pacific Trails Pipeline surveryors, a national day of action was called to carry a letter of warning to PTP parent companies Apache, Encanca, and EOG (formely Enron – remember them?) as well as major shareholders. The call was answered by twenty cities across Canada, all the way from Saint John’s, NF to Victoria, BC. In addition, we also garnered international support from Trinidad, New York, California, and Texas (where grassroots folk are working vigilantly to impede the construction of Keystone XL).
This day of action was thrown together in less than a week and with zero operating budget. It proved that grassroots networks working together can equal or surpass the efforts of large NGOs who have money but often lack base support. In fact the silence and lack of endorsement from many large institutions who claim to represent the environmental movement was quite telling. One notable exception was the Council of Canadians, who are increasingly using their stature to speak out against the devastating impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the rapidly expanding shale gas industry. The day of action was an incredible show of support — the key will be to translate that momentum into ongoing activity, especially based on the sheer number of worthy causes which often draw upon the same networks.
A concept that we have developed at camp in order to unify struggle is the Community Corridor. There is no doubt that industry is integrating its efforts. Take for example the Pacific Trails pipeline project. The parent companies own the pipeline, the shale gas that will be delivered along it, and the LNG plant in Kitimat where it will be processed (known as Kitimat LNG). And it is no coincidence that the proposed path of Pacific Trails is nearly identical to Enbridge Northern Gateway. Just as industry is increasingly integrating their plans to form the Carbon Corridor, so must we to create its antidote. It’s time for grassroots networks to boldly unite together in an integrated effort to stop the East, West, and South pipeline corridors with the ultimate goal of shutting down Tar Sands and Fracking at the source.
If, as Julien Lalonde outlines in Part 1 of the Community Corridor series, more and more communities start actively resisting pipeline development it will hurt industry bottom-line and create uncertainty for investors. Now is a critical time too as these projects are still in their infancy, and even business media are expressing doubts about their feasibility. As more communities take a stand on the front-line, the need for logistical and material support will also grow. Thus our solidarity networks will need to grow with it. The key question for those not on the front-line will be, do you want to continue to give your money and support to organizations that fly around running campaigns, or do you want to support real tangible resistance?
Indigenous people will necessarily be the leaders in this fight as the majority of these projects are on territory that remains unceded or was stolen through false treaties that were not lived up to. That is not to say though that the descendants of settlers and new immigrants should stand idly by. Everyone must look at their own community, identify the key struggles that need to be fought, and look at how their issues interlock with other communities.
Not all communities will resist in the same way. Some, like the Unist’ot’en, are going back to their traditional territory and laws. Others are attempting to use constitutional challenges through the Canadian court system. Some will choose to employ non-violent techniques, while others will be more militant. What is most important is that we respect each community’s right to make sovereign decisions about their own course of action and show solidarity with each other.
One thing is clear — the more fronts we open up, the more we build relationships of mutual aid, the harder it will be for our enemies to concentrate their efforts against us.
Brett Rhyno is a grassroots environmental justice organizer, writer, and supporter of the right of all communities to make sovereign decisions on issues that impact them. He is currently living as an ally at the Unist’ot’en Camp in unceded Wet’suwet’en Territory.