Wet’suwet’en protests a revolutionary moment in Canada: Mohawk scholar Gerald Taiaiake Alfred
Protesters are shutting down railways, bridges, ports, and offices.
They’ve taken to the streets in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people opposing a gas pipeline in northern B.C.
It’s an extraordinary flow of events that have fused popular sentiment about Indigenous rights, the environment, and social justice.
For a Vancouver Island-based Mohawk scholar Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, Canada is witnessing no less than a revolutionary moment.
“I can remember saying 15, 20 years ago, that if we ever had a development in our movement where the power of Indigenous nationhood and Indigenous rights could be melded and brought together with the power of young Canadians who are committed to the environment and social justice, it would be revolutionary,” Alfred told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview Thursday (February 13).
“And I think that that's what we're witnessing,” Alfred said.
Raised in the Kahnawake Mohawk territory in Quebec, Alfred is an internationally recognized scholar on Indigenous issues.
He was a professor of indigenous governance and political science at the University of Victoria from 1996 to 2019. He has written books on his field of expertise.
Alfred knows about the Wet’suwet’en people. His former wife is a member of the Laksilyu clan of the Wet'suwet'en Nation.
A son, who is 12 years old, has gone to protests supporting the Wet’suwet’en.
According to Alfred, the protests are providing a “channel among Indigenous youth Canadian youth, non-Indigenous allies, who are just so angry and frustrated at the hypocrisy and the foot dragging and the corruption that they see in their own government”.
“I think that this movement here is reflective of their commitment to take action, to confront what they see in all aspects of their life,” he said. “Not only in politics, but within the culture, within the relationships that they have, a culture among people who have power that allows them to act with impunity and hypocrisy”.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their clans are opposing the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline.
The 670-kilometre pipeline will cut across vast swaths of Indigenous land.
The pipeline will transport natural gas fracked from northeast BC to a terminal near the town of Kitimat, where it will be processed for export overseas.
The infrastructure is part of the $40-billion LNG Canada project.
A policy note by Marc Lee, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, describes the LNG Canada undertaking as a “carbon bomb”.
“The estimated 3.5 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide from the plant and upstream operations are about the same as the emissions from all cars in BC or, alternatively, the emissions from all residential buildings,” Lee wrote.
“When it opens, LNG Canada’s liquefaction facility in Kitimat will become BC’s largest point-source emitter of greenhouse gasses (GHGs),” Lee continued. “And that’s only Phase One, with a potential Phase Two that would double output and emissions.”
B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan declared in his first press conference in January 2020 that the project will be built.
According to Alfred, young people in Canada are finding their voice, and the issues around the Wet’suwet’en struggle has crystallized all that is wrong about the current system.
Alfred said that protesters are essentially challenging people in power to “live by the standards, and the principles and the values that they proclaim”.
“And it's them out on their hypocrisy and failure to do so,” he said. “And it's demanding that the people who are in power in this society live by the laws and the principles that these younger people have been brought up to believe are at the foundation of what it means to be Canadian or to be an Indigenous person within Canada.”
The Wet’suwet’en situation assumed a high public profile in January this year, when the RCMP started enforcing a court injunction against Indigenous people blocking construction work at the pipeline outside the B.C. town of Houston.
The series of police action, according to Alfred, joined together all that people feel about what was going on.
“When the RCMP invaded Wet’suwet’en territory, it’s the confluence of all of these things on an intellectual level, political level, on a visual sense because of social media, and also on an emotional level,” Alfred said.
“It's driven by the the consequence, I would say, of an intellectual understanding of the injustice in the society, of a political commitment to do something about it and the emotional energy recognizing that they are witnessing and living through the actual suppression and acts of violence against primarily Indigenous women who were defending that territory as they always have done,” Alfred said.
Alfred said that it has become “clear to everyone that what's happening in the woods and territories is a microcosm of all of that”.
“And it's provoking a response on all of those levels intellectually, politically and emotionally, and I think that's why you see such passion,” Alfred said.