A leisurely drive downtown on Sunday afternoon might have caused some frustration if you wanted to pass through the corner of Wyndham and Macdonell during the noon hour. A group of about 40 activists were demonstrating in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who, on their ancestral territory in British Columbia right now, are running out of time to stop the development of a natural gas pipeline.
“It’s a bunch of people who are basically just standing up to colonialism, and these pipelines,” said Xico Lopez, one of the spokespeople for the demonstration. “Every single person living on occupied Indigenous land has a duty to the Indigenous people on whose land they live on to fight for their best interests, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
The story of what’s happening in the Wet’suwet’en territory is complicated. The land covers 22,000 square kilometres in northwest B.C., and a company named Coastal GasLink is trying to build a 670 kilometre pipeline to transport liquid natural gas from where it’s being fracked in northeastern B.C. to the terminal in Kitimat. Although the pipeline has the approval of the provincial and federal governments, as well as the elected regional band councils, the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation have been occupying the construction site for over a year in defiance.
It was this time last year that tensions were high at the checkpoint that leads to the pipeline construction site where the hereditary chiefs and allies were encamped. Heavily armed RCMP officers enforced a court injunction to allow Coastal GasLink workers to access the road and break the barriers to the site, which lead to the arrest of 14 people. The RCMP were criticized at the time for barring media from the site, and for allegedly jamming communications.
Concerns about an RCMP over-reaction to being challenged were heightened in December when The Guardian published an expose on notes made by the RCMP at strategy meetings prior to last year’s raid. The notes revealed snipers on-site were given permission to shoot to kill, and that officers were instructed to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want” on protestors at the checkpoint.
“I feel like people don’t understand sometimes the severity of what the Government of Canada is trying to do on on the Wet’suwet’en territory,” Lopez said. “That land is unceded, and it’s not a part of Canada. Canada is invading a separate nation, and the Wet’suwet’en have the clear right to dictate who will, and will not, enter their land.”
So what can we do about that here in Guelph? The point of Sunday’s demonstration was to raise awareness.
“If you live anywhere on what we call Canada, you’re living on the occupied territory of Indigenous folks,” explained Natali Montilla, another spokesperson for the protest. “These struggles are all interconnected, and it all has to do with extractive industries and the destruction of the land for corporate interests and the greed of the government.”
“It’s our responsibility to put pressure on folks here, to put pressure on RBC, which is one of the main investment companies that are funding Coastal GasLink, and to put pressure on the RCMP, who are continuing to basically attack these folks just for living on their lands,” Montilla added.
But it’s not just the police and big corporations that are of concern.
“Man-camps bring hundreds and thousands of settler men who are there to work, and we all know that when white guys are around native women the missing and murdered Indigenous women rate skyrockets,” said Lopez.
In the report from the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, it was noted that there’s “substantial evidence of a serious problem” around the increased rates of drug offenses, sex work, and domestic and sexual violence around “boomtowns” or “man-camps” near major extraction industry projects.
“This increased rate of violence is largely the result of the migration into the camps of mostly non-Indigenous young men with high salaries and little-to-no stake in the host Indigenous community,” the report said.
“It has been proven that when man-camps are around, the rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women, children and two-spirited folks goes up, and they’re directly linked to extractive industries,” said Montilla.
“It’s not the sole responsibility of Indigenous folks to continue doing this work and continue doing really dangerous work,” she added. “It’s the role of settlers to undo colonialism and to put pressure on the Canadian state to stop their invasion of Indigenous territories because we are living on their occupied land.”
After organizing in Market Square to ensure they had the numbers, the group walked to the intersection at Macdonell and Wyndham and spread themselves across the four crosswalks holding signs and banners.
Police arrived about five minutes after the protest began, and about half-a-dozen officers responded in total. Some acted as a go-between for the public and the protestors, and others tried to redirect traffic and helped turn around Guelph Transit buses to find alternative ways into Guelph Central Station. Mostly, the police stood by and let the protest take its course.
“They’ve been pretty helpful in that they’re actually helping us block off the intersection in a way that’s safe,” said Montilla of the police reaction. “We’re not pro-police, but in this circumstance they have actually been okay. The interactions haven’t been really violent, and they’ve actually been really calm and and helpful.”
Not all actions were calm though, and here were some confrontations as evidenced in the video above. One man observing the protest from the doorway of McCabe’s mocked the protestors for demonstrating against a government that supports them financially, inferring that all the protestors present received government support. He also said that none of the participants did not look Indigenous themselves, but several of the protestors did identify as Indigenous including both Lopez and Montilla.
For these activists, shutting down a major downtown intersection was a matter of urgency to bring attention to the situation in Wet’suwet’en. The RCMP could go into the blockade site anytime to remove the protestors there, even after the Human Rights Commissioner of B.C. has called the government to stop the eviction.
The point is that time is of the essence, and simply standing on the corner with signs as cars zip by is not going to get the conversation going, according to Montilla.
“This is to make people see that something is happening,” she said. “They have to physically get out and be like, ‘What is happening? What’s going on? Why are they standing there? Why is this [intersection] being blocked? Now I have to find out.'”
“We need to make people feel uncomfortable, and make people realize that this is serious, and it’s not a joke,” Montilla added.
The protest wrapped up shortly after 1 pm, and the protestors all went their separate ways, but they promised that this would not be the end of the struggle, or the direct action.
“This is not the last of the things that are going to be happening in solidarity with folks, and we’re going to be putting pressure on the RCMP and on the banks to stop their violence,” said Montilla. “So this is just the beginning. It’s not the end.”