The Pandemic Is Slicing Away Indigenous Sovereignty in Canada

The Wet’suwet’en ended pipeline protests for safety’s sake, but the police aren’t following the rules.

Protesters man a barricade in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and the Tyendinaga Mohawks
Protesters man a barricade on Highway 6 near Caledonia, Ontario, set up in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and the Tyendinaga Mohawks on Feb. 26. Geoff Robins/AFP via Getty Images

February now seems like years ago, but before the coronavirus hit Canada, it spent most of the month in the midst of a major social and political crisis that initially seemed like the country’s major challenge for 2020. At issue was the construction of a gas pipeline through unceded indigenous territory and the use of excessive police force to enforce a court injunction against unarmed geriatric water protectors. What was once arguably the most severe challenge since the last Quebec sovereignty referendum 25 years ago had disappeared from most people’s radars as the pandemic hit.

Yet like tremors before an earthquake, the first of Canada’s back-to-back crises foreshadowed the second. The protests, blockades, and other solidarity actions related to the defense of Wet’suwet’en territorial sovereignty resulted in (now comparatively minor) economic disruptions and social tensions, exposed weaknesses in government crisis management, and seriously tested Prime Minister Justin Trudeau early in his second term.

The crux of the problem is myriad unresolved issues with indigenous sovereignty in Canada—or rather, the lack of it.

As has been the case for over a century and a half, since Canadian Confederation, the territory of ostensibly sovereign indigenous nations within Canada has been consistently used for major infrastructure projects that non-indigenous Canadians don’t want to see run through their own backyards. This partly explains why it was so easy for indigenous protests to nearly shut down the Canadian economy in February: railways, highways, pipelines, canals, and other strategic infrastructure already cut through indigenous territory.

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That’s the case with the highly controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline being pushed through the territory of the Wet’suwet’en nation in northern British Columbia. Though an alternate route was available that would bypass Wet’suwet’en territory entirely, it was rejected at least in part because it would cost more.

Though solidarity protests and blockades came to an end in late February as the Canadian government negotiated with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, these negotiations were subsequently put on hold by the pandemic.

Work on the pipeline, however, continues unabated.

Members of the community say neither pipeline workers nor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers dispatched to the area are maintaining adequate social distancing, and that pipeline workers are lodged nearby in crowded hotels and work camps. Indigenous North Americans are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 owing to the relative remoteness of indigenous communities from public health centers and the high rates of preexisting health conditions. In Canada, as in the United States, indigenous communities often lack access to clean drinking water as well. The rate of coronavirus infection among the Navajo, for instance, is estimated at 10 times the rate for the entire state of Arizona.

According to Jennifer Wickham—a spokesperson for one of the Wet’suwet’en clans, the Gidimt’en—police officers from the RCMP’s Quick Response Team have been rotating in and out of the community throughout the pandemic. The response team is composed of officers from across British Columbia and is typically used to respond to catastrophic events or for riot duty.

Wickham indicates that the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en nation are unable to continue negotiations because their consensus-based meeting system would require congregations of more than 50 people, which have been outlawed as part of Canada’s social distancing guidelines. Though the Wet’suwet’en have complied with the regulations, the same rules do not appear to apply to pipeline workers. Moreover, Wickham indicated that both the federal and provincial governments are unwilling to discuss either the pipeline or the presence of the RCMP in indigenous territory during negotiations.

Beyond the immediate threat, the pandemic has raised important questions about indigenous sovereignty in Canada, including whether indigenous nations have the right to close their territory to outsiders in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.

That appears to depend on whether the territory is the site of a major infrastructure project or not. While there’s no official prohibition on indigenous communities limiting movement through their territories, putting this into practice is another matter.

In one notable case, a couple from Quebec sold all that they owned and drove over 3,000 miles to the Yukon Territory, where they then boarded a flight to the remote community of Old Crow in an effort to evade the pandemic. Unprepared as they were for life in the Arctic, the couple was equally unaware their presence had put the isolated community of 250 at severe risk. After the visitors were returned to the Yukon capital of Whitehorse, Old Crow was subsequently closed to outsiders.

Closing off from the rest of the world is easier for remote fly-in-only indigenous communities in the High Arctic, but for the indigenous communities of British Columbia located near major energy infrastructure projects, similar actions are not possible.

As to whether the Wet’suwet’en could close their territory to outsiders—including pipeline workers—Wickham said, “We would love to do that.” But she indicated that the British Columbia government would not allow it.

For their part, public relations spokespeople for the British Columbia government indicated that they had communicated specific pandemic instructions to the pipeline builder TC Energy and that government health authorities were working with industry partners to limit the spread of the virus. However, the extent to which these instructions are being followed has been left open to industry interpretation. For the moment, while on-site workforces have been scaled back, work still continues.

While the Trudeau administration has at least projected an image of competence during the pandemic—particularly when compared to the United States—long-standing contradictions and hypocrisies inherent to Trudeau, his governing minority Liberal Party, and the nation as a whole provide numerous opportunities for new crises in the months ahead. Trudeau’s continued support for pipeline projects—as well as a recent decision to resume controversial arms shipments to Saudi Arabia—are steeped in the big-tent political strategies of pre-pandemic Canadian politics.

As millions of Canadians this week found themselves unable to access federal financial aid programs and unemployment rates continue to rise, Trudeau’s tactics seem designed to solve yesterday’s crisis. For the moment, the beleaguered prime minister can rest assured that more street protests and railroad blockades aren’t likely to appear on the horizon. Then again, no one saw the pandemic bearing down either.

Taylor C. Noakes is a public historian and independent journalist originally from Montreal.

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