Canada has exploded with protests that have crippled the country’s rail system.
After the RCMP raided an Indigenous camp standing in the way of a natural gas pipeline in B.C., street actions erupted.
In addition, mostly Native protesters acting in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline have put up blockades, bringing portions of the rail system to a standstill.
The blockades are hurting Canadian industry that major business associations have written Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to end the blockades.
Each day rail lines are disrupted requires three to four days for supply chains to recover, according to the letter to Trudeau dated February 18, 2020.
“This is why it is imperative that the Government act now to get the Canadian economy moving again,” continued the letter signed by heads of business associations, like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
If there’s something to be said about industry groups writing Trudeau, it’s that these blockades are “very effective”, according to UBC academic Glen Coulthard.
A Yellowknives Dene, Coulthard is an associate professor in the university’s First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program and the Department of Political Science.
Coulthard is also the author of the award-winning 2014 book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.
“They’re genius insofar as one can exert maximum pressure with minimal amount of people,” Coulthard said about the blockades in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight.
According to the First Nations thinker, direct action, primarily in the form of blockades, is “critically important for Indigenous nations that are suffering the effects of marginalization and genocide because they've essentially been rendered minorities in their own homelands”.
Coulthard noted that there is also one thing happening with the call of major business groups for Trudeau and the federal government to end the blockades.
It’s a “simple divide-and-rule tactic”, he said.
“They're trying to pit Indigenous rights against job creation, which is an incredibly unfair tactic because it draws on a very latent kind of deep-seated, anti-Native racism in the country,” Coulthard said.
According to him, the tactic by business groups also “positions Indigenous peoples as entitled spoiled folks who are acting as a member of the minority against the majority of Canadians”.
Looking back, Coulthard said that blockades have been used historically to “assert Indigenous law and defend Native land”.
Coulthard cited as example the 1990 crisis in Oka, Quebec, when Mohawks engaged police and military in a 78-day standoff over a land dispute.
Again, Coulthard referred to blockades as acts of “genius” in Indigenous resistance.
“This tactic is genius in that one commits maximum pressure with minimal amount of people, which is super important for nations that have been rendered minorities in their own homeland,” he said.
According to Coulthard, direct action like blockades are “incredibly important because Indigenous peoples are feeling empowered to make changes on their own because of the history of bad faith dealings that the government has had with them”.
Coulthard noted that direct actions have historically worked in tandem with negotiations as another tactic.
“Negotiations have historically piggybacked off direct actions, where indigenous peoples have put their bodies on the line in order to protect their laws and land for future generations,” he said.
“So if you look historically, almost every protest or direct action has resulted in the government having to negotiate on terms that it wouldn't have, without those types of actions,” he continued.
Via Rail has announced that it is temporarily laying off nearly 1,000 people because of the effects of the blockades on its passenger train service.
For its part, CN Rail indicated that it would lay off around 450 workers because of train cancellations and rail network suspensions.
However, supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs point out that CN Rail was already forecasting layoffs in November.
On Tuesday (February 18), the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters association issued a media release calling on the federal government to “restore rail service” in the country.
According to the association, for every additional day that the rail blockage continues, about $425 million worth of manufactured goods that are usually carried by rail are sitting idle.
The group also noted that manufacturers loaded an average of nearly 4,500 rail cars per day in 2016, for a yearly total of 1.62 million rail cars.
In addition, manufactured goods account for nearly half of all rail car loadings in Canada.
Coulthard expects that the ongoing expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Edmonton in Alberta to a B.C. marine port in Burnaby, will “meet similar resistance” as the one the country is witnessing in connection with the Wet’suwet’en situation.
Coulthard predicts that protests against the Trans Mountain facility may even gain “more popular support given the proposed right-of-away into the Lower Mainland”.
Asked about the biggest takeaway from the Wet’suwet’en fight and future protests in connection with fossil fuel-related developments, Coulthard said that the “core determinant of these struggles is due to B.C.’s failure to address the land question in the province in a just and honourable way”.
“As a result, B.C. remains on stolen land in the most straightforward sense of the term,” Coulthard said. “And the people who are taking to the streets and taking to the land and to defend their territories are acting righteously against this injustice.”