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The Unist’ot’en Camp is a special place, where it is still possible to drink the water straight from the Wedzin Kwah river, untreated, and stay healthy. Such a direct relationship with the land and water is precious and powerful. It reminds us of what commonly existed prior to the water contamination caused by industrialization and pollution, and it gives us a goal to aim for in terms of restoring ecological health and balance with living systems. It helps us to avoid the destructive Mad Max path that unchecked capitalism and colonization have put us on.
This July 2015 saw the sixth annual Unist’ot’en Action Camp in northern B.C., where Indigenous and non-Indigenous guests gather to work in solidarity with the Unist’ot’en (Big Frog Clan) to protect unceded Wet’suwet’en land and its resources. The camp is located on land that is endangered by 11 different pipeline proposals.
In order to enter Unist’ot’en territory, people must first demonstrate through protocol that their visit will benefit the land and people of this place, and state what skills they can offer. The Free Prior and Informed Consent protocol is a great reminder for settlers (and unsettlers) to humbly reflect on what our intentions and effects are, to check any arrogance and entitlement at the bridge and to move forward as the best selves we can be. And more importantly, it serves the Unist’ot’en in their work as guardians of the land.
Volunteers are building a Healing Centre at the camp, much needed in the face of trauma, systemic violence and attempts at genocide by the Canadian government. There is also a permaculture garden, a root cellar, a bunk house, and lots of solar power at work at the Unist’ot’en Camp. Not being very handy at carpentry or construction, I opt to help the brilliant cooks and to wash dishes, as well as watering plants in the garden. It feels satisfying and grounding to do basic tasks and contribute labour to a community that deeply loves and respects the land, understanding our dependence on its health.
There are a number of workshops looking at decolonization and trauma, water, intersectionality, building movements, legal skills, media skills, identifying false climate solutions, and more. Throughout, I find a thoughtful integration of systemic analysis with hands-on, practical teachings.
In the evenings, there are break-out sessions for the Indigenous peoples at the camp, as well as break-out sessions for the settler/unsettler peoples. At the first settlers meeting, some of us determine the need for a people of colour caucus. As a woman of Canadian citizenship and Chinese descent, I feel it’s important not to be subsumed or erased by whiteness, to be conscious of how racialization plays out differently, and to connect with people who also need space to talk through these issues so that we can work more effectively as allies, bringing more dimensions of our lives to the movements to protect the health of land and water.
On July 11, we are reminded that it is the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis. The Indigenous people take a photograph on the bridge thanking Kanehsatake for their courage and principled stance in 1990, when Mohawks refused to allow a sacred burial site to be desecrated and turned into a colonial golf course. Nia:wen. This means thank you in Mohawk.
One of the key strengths of the Mohawks, as I understand it from Alanis Obamsawin’s film Kanehsatake, is the strength of the women who held things together. At the Unist’ot’en Camp, I observe such strength in Freda Huson and her clan members. These women are committed guardians, deeply integral, and immensely courageous in the face of ongoing intimidation tactics by corporations and the state-funded police who should be protecting these Indigenous citizens and the health of the land for all future generations, but who seem to prioritize short-term industry exploitation (and environmental destruction) instead.
A number of people experience this intimidation when they come to the camp, being stopped and fined for whatever minor infractions the RCMP can drum up. When I leave the camp on the morning of July 13, I also experience this. As my friend and I drive out in our car-share Prius, we observe three RCMP cruisers heading toward the Unist’ot’en Camp.
Upon seeing us, one of them turns around, starts flashing his lights and stops us. The officer asks us where we had gone. I respond, “visiting friends,” knowing that they do not have the legal right to ask us such a question and feeling like they are abusing their power. I know they have the right to ask for my name, my drivers license, and the car insurance, so I give those things over. He fishes for more information when he returns them. I remain silent. He leaves.
I understand that this encounter is only a slim fraction of the kinds of systemic violence and intimidation tactics that Indigenous peoples often experience, violence that will intensify because of the passage of Bill C-51 by the federal government. It scares me to live in an increasingly corrupt petro-state, where the checks and balances that should exist in the legal system are being eroded through legislative maneuvers arguably designed to privilege corporate profits for a few over the well-being of most everyday people who need clean water, clean air, and a realistic response to the dangers posed by climate change.
Recent reports that Chevron may soon send work crews out to work on the Pacific Trails Pipeline increase the likelihood that police will harass Indigenous land defenders instead of protecting them from corporate trespass. In the wake of many legal battles that have found in favour of Indigenous rights, the police should respect the Indigenous laws of this land, not undermine them.
In spending time on the land, I understand that the response to fear is not to cave in to intimidation tactics, but to call them out and to call forth whatever courage we, as a community, need in order to protect the land and water for current and future generations. In this is real dignity and what it means to be human. This honesty is what it means to love water, to love human communities, to love life.
I express my deep gratitude and respect to the Unist’ot’en for protecting the lands and waters for all of us as we feel the effects of climate change ramping up, and I encourage settlers and unsettlers alike to step up and support the Unist’ot’en, through sharing their stories and volunteering time, labour, funds, whatever gifts we have to offer. In Vancouver, for instance, a fundraiser is happening for the Unist’ot’en Camp Healing Centre on Sept 10: Frontlines Beat Pipelines II.
There is an Anishinaabe prophecy that now is the time for people from all four directions to come together for justice, harmony and love of the earth. The Unist’ot’en Camp is a key site in our evolution and maturation process as a human species on this planet, if we are to achieve peaceful relationships with one another and with the other living beings who we depend on for a well-lived, meaningful journey during our time on this earth.
Rita Wong is a poet-scholar who works with and for water. She is the author of monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998), forage (Nightwood, 2007), sybil unrest (Line Books, 2009, co-written with Larissa Lai), and undercurrent (Nightwood, 2015).