The ongoing national controversy regarding Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs' struggle to evict a pipeline company and the RCMP from unceded traditional territory in north-central B.C. has many people dredging up the spectre of "another Oka" as something to be avoided at all costs.
It's too late for that.
The so-called Oka crisis took place after Mohawks in Quebec blockaded a road in the summer of 1990 to prevent a golf-course expansion and condo development on burial grounds and other lands considered sacred. Mohawks from the Kanesatake reserve had been actively disputing ownership of the land for more than a century.
A heavy-handed Quebec police response—involving teargas and concussion grenades—sparked a gunfight that left one constable dead and the Indigenous defenders entrenched after a police retreat.
The RCMP took over from the provincial police after other Mohawk barricades blocked major roads and a bridge linking Montreal and the heavily populated South Shore. Canadian Forces troops replaced the national cops after local demonstrations, riots, and traffic jams proved too much for the RCMP to handle.
Demonstrations and rail and road blockades in solidarity with the Mohawks took place in Ontario and B.C. that summer, and Indigenous groups throughout North America proclaimed their support.
Although the federal government eventually defused the 78-day standoff by purchasing the disputed lands, ownership has still not been transferred to the residents of Kanesatake (although a portion of the pine forest owned by a private developer has been offered to the Mohawks as a land-conservancy donation).
There has been no loss of life or major injuries suffered yet as a result of the recent B.C. impasse. However, the revelation that RCMP were prepared to use "lethal" force and deployed snipers prior to a January 7, 2019, raid by heavily armed officers on Wet'suwet'en checkpoints and a healing centre raised tensions.
A subsequent widely circulated video capture of an RCMP sniper with a rifle trained on a Wet'suwet'en checkpoint defender this month while police readied a second raid did nothing to calm feelings.
Neither did the fact that police made dozens of arrests in the two actions, including one aimed at Wet'suwet'en matriarchs as they participated in a ceremony to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The RCMP's February 19 offer to move its temporary detachment in Wet'suwet'en territory to the town of Houston was a seeming conciliatory gesture. Also hopeful was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's claim that he will not use armed force to end the rail blockades in Eastern Canada—at least until he essentially told Tyendinaga Mohawk leaders and the visiting hereditary chiefs on February 21 at a news conference that "the barricades must now come down" and that "the law must be upheld".
But the hereditary chiefs' insistence that the pipeline will not go through their territory, coupled with a January 13, 2020, declaration by B.C. Premier John Horgan that the pipeline "will proceed" and that "the rule of law must prevail" do not appear to hold out hope for constructive dialogue.
The Wet'suwet'en standoff, indeed, has surpassed the Oka crisis in some ways while also containing the potential to drag on much longer before resolution—if that ever happens.
Oka generated similar sympathetic blockades by First Nations across Canada, with most of them taking place in B.C., long a hotbed of Indigenous resistance and a province where few treaties were ever signed between the Crown and the original inhabitants, unlike the rest of the country.
However, those 1990 blockades didn't lead to the widespread shutdown of regional and national freight and passenger rail service, as has happened today.
And nationwide solidarity protests then did not result in an attempted legislature shutdown, occupation of politicians' offices, border-crossing protests at several places, major road blockades in the nations' biggest cities, attempted port closures resulting in dozens of arrests, and various temporary sit-ins and shutdowns popping up on an almost daily basis.
And though the Mohawk inhabitants of Kanesatake and the nearby reserves of Kahnawake and Akwesasne in 1990 also defied injunctions and had political and civilian sympathizers across the country, they didn't raise the kind of broad support enjoyed by the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and their supporters and allies today.
Major unions across Canada have publicly thrown their support behind the Wet'suwet'en traditional chiefs, even as they struggle with internal strife generated by the approval from elected band councils of the 670-kilometre, $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink natural-gas pipeline that is planned to cross their territory on its way to its Kitimat coastal export terminal.
After the January 7, 2019, RCMP raid on the Gitdumt'en camp, both CUPE (Canada's largest union, with 700,000 members) and the BCGEU (one of B.C.'s biggest unions, boasting 70,000 members) condemned the police actions and declared support for the Wet'suwet'en, with the BCGEU urging the RCMP to withdraw. At the same time, the Yukon Employees' Union, a trades organization with 5,000 members, did likewise.
This year, the Fraser River longshore workers' union—the ILWU Local 502, with 3,000 members—honoured a Wet'suwet'en support protest picket at DeltaPort on February 9, and three days later the National Farmers Union (with probably between 6,000 and 10,000 members) expressed support for the chiefs, announcing that it "stands in solidarity with Indigenous land protectors".
This backing from unions representing working Canadians, not to mention the visible support of many youthful allies at protests and demonstrations across the country, point to the possibility of a prolonged resistance. A recent Ipsos poll found that 58 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 thought supportive protests to be justified.
Let's not forget that ordinary citizens of B.C. were responsible for protests and demonstrations in the summer of 1993—sometimes called the Summer of Protest—that have been called the largest example of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
Protests against the logging of old-growth temperate rainforest near Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island started in earnest with blockades near and on Meares Island in 1984. Those actions escalated to blocking logging roads near Tofino and Ucluelet in 1992 and 1993, after years of fruitless negotiations and court battles. These were carried out in solidarity with two Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations: Ahousaht and Tia-o-qui-aht.
At the blockade's peak, more than 11,000 protesters had travelled to Clayoquot Sound in support, with many of them volunteering to get arrested on the barricades each day. This lasted for three months, with more than 900 arrested, most of them Canadians concerned by what they saw as the excesses and entitlement of forestry companies and the brushing aside of Indigenous title and stewardship of the land and its resources.
Three summers previous, First Nations in B.C. reacted immediately to Oka with road and rail blockades of their own, some in solidarity and others erected to press longstanding grievances regarding resource extraction on ancestral lands.
Although B.C. First Nations' blockades had been used sporadically since 1984's Meares Island examples, they were mostly on remote logging roads and bridges. The summer of 1990, however, saw about 30 barricades spring up, ranging from the Squamish Nation setting up an information picket on the Lions Gate Bridge to blockades on the Island Highway and highways 20, 27, 4, and 16.
A violent RCMP enforcement of a B.C. Rail-obtained injunction against protesters blocking its line at Seton Portage resulted in dogs being deployed and 40 arrests, including those of three chiefs. The nearby rail bridge burned down soon after, and another blockade sprung up farther down the line, near Mount Currie.
More than another dozen blockades were erected on roads and rail lines (hitting both CN and B.C. Rail) during the next few years, with motivating issues ranging from airing fisheries and logging grievances to opposing a ski resort and an RV park to protecting threatened burial grounds.
Another protracted armed standoff, the month-long Gustafsen Lake siege in the summer of 1995, saw 400 RCMP deployed with Armed Forces support against Indigenous occupiers and a few non-Indigenous supporters refusing to vacate privately owned ranchland in the Interior in order to perform a sacred ceremonial dance. The police numbers—along with the use of helicopters and armoured personnel carriers—qualified it as the largest paramilitary action in B.C. history.
The RCMP at Gustafsen ended up firing off approximately 77,000 rounds of ammunition—much of it during one almost comical firefight—and setting off an IED under a moving vehicle (see video below) during an ambush using Bison armoured personnel carriers borrowed from the army. This all added up to the most expensive siege of its kind in Canadian history.
At the end of it all, one non-Indigenous supporterer sustained a bullet wound in an arm and one dog was killed (shot by RCMP snipers, seemingly for sport, during the ambush). Eventually, 15 people were convicted of various charges and jailed for terms ranging from six months to eight years.
B.C.'s First Nations' history of militant action and the clear willingness of many of its non-Indigenous citizens to rally in support and even commit acts of civil disobedience should give pause to any politicians considering deploying RCMP or Armed Forces personnel if negotiations break down over the present disputes.
It may turn out, though, that declining world prices for natural gas might be the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs' biggest ally if the LNG Canada and pipeline backers feel that the whole enterprise may end up becoming a losing proposition.