Indigenous youths occupy office and secure meeting with Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark
B.C. NDP MLA Melanie Mark is expected to deliver a letter today (February 24) to Premier John Horgan on behalf of two-spirit and Indigiqueer youths who oppose the construction of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline.
The youths are demanding that the RCMP retreat from Wet’suwet’en territory and refrain from using force to remove Indigenous people from their lands, among other things.
Mark agreed to deliver the letter on Friday (February 21), after eight two-spirit and queer Indigenous youths occupied her East Vancouver office and demanded she meet with them. The office occupation, in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who are opposing the construction of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline on their territory near Houston, B.C., began around 9 a.m. and lasted until the late afternoon, when Mark finally agreed to meet with them.
The meeting was monumental, the youths said.
“It’s against ministry safety protocols to do so but she followed her ancestral protocols to have a conversation with us and that was exceptionally important to us,” said Jaye Simpson, an Oji-Cree Saulteaux two-spirit trans woman.
“Melanie specifically stated to us that it was against ministry protocol, she made it very clear that the folks that are in charge of ministry security advised her against meeting with us but in spite of that she came to the table,” said Sii-am Hamilton, of the of the Sto:lo and Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations.
“In spite of her being part of this colonial system…she does have a heart for Indigenous youth.”
The meeting came on the same day that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that blockades "must come down". Today, Ontario Provincial Police arrested Tyendinaga Mohawks who have been camping on Mohawk territory for 19 days beside the CN Rail line near Belleville, Ontario.
The letter asks that Mark do everything in her power as a cabinet minister to “meet the demands of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs".
Through direct action, and appealing to an Indigenous politician, the youths are forcing officials to listen to them and to do politics differently. The nearly one-and-a-half-hour meeting was not open to the public or reporters, but the youths in attendance said it included ceremony and protocol. One of them brought her a gift of salmon.
Mark, the only First Nations woman ever elected to the B.C. legislature, could be seen through the office window wearing a black and red button blanket. (Carole James is Métis.)
Several of the people who exited the meeting appeared to be tear-stained, Mark included.
“They asked me to come and listen and I believe in our culture it is a listening exercise,” Mark said to reporters as she left her office.
“They’ve delivered me a letter that they’d like me to share with my colleagues and I will be doing just that, but when it comes time to our culture we had witnesses with us, that is a very important part of the story, making sure that the story is told as we all heard it, but the most important thing is that the young people wanted me especially as their MLA that they voted for, a Nisg’aa woman, to hear from them.”
The premier’s office said it could not comment on security protocols, which are run by the Legislative Protective Services in consultation with local police, and a request for comment from Horgan on Mark’s meeting with the youths went unanswered.
Hamilton, who uses they/them pronouns, said that although the meeting was powerful, it’s but one part of the ongoing movement.
“These actions will not be stopping any time soon,” they said.
“This is office is just one of many that will continue to be occupied, because until the RCMP and Coastal Gaslink are off of Wet’suwet’en territory it is our job as Indigenous youth to keep occupying these spaces…”
During the occupation, a group of about 50 people stood on the sidewalk outside the office in solidarity with the youths inside. Occasionally, one of the Indigenous youths would go outside to speak to the crowd, sometimes leading them in chants and song.
The youths' position as queer, two-spirit, and trans people is a driving force behind their Wet’suwet’en solidarity action, they said.
Historically, two-spirit people in Simpson’s nations were important leaders in governance and protocol, and they participated in upholding the nation’s justice system.
“It’s me upholding my inherent and ancestral right to ask the governance systems in place currently to adhere to Wet'suwet'en law," Simpson said.