Canadian police framing of Wet’suwet’en land defenders as “protesters” trivializes Indigenous territorial rights

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Canadian police arrest Gitxsan land defender Kolin Sutherland-Wilson. Photo by Kai Nagata.

On October 27, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested two land defenders on Wet’suwet’en territory: Likhts’amisyu Clan Hereditary Chief Dsta’hyl and Kolin Sutherland-Wilson from the Gitxsan Nation.

The RCMP media release on this is headlined: Protesters arrested in Houston area.

The use of the term “protesters” trivializes an Indigenous land defence struggle, while “Houston area” erases recognition of Wet’suwet’en territory.

Land defenders is an internationally accepted term used by governments, organizations and the media to describe those who protect the land.

Even the Government of Canada says: “A land rights defender takes peaceful action to protect the land of a group of people.” Using a broader commonly accepted variant of the term, the United Nations says: “Many indigenous peoples are also human rights defenders, struggling to protect their lands, environment and rights.”

University of British Columbia School of Journalism Professor Candis Callison has previously commented:

“I think that by calling Indigenous people mere protesters, it really erases the long relationship that they’ve been in with lands and waters, but it also erases the long resistance they’ve had to all kinds of moves by governments and corporations to dispossess Indigenous people of their land, and to limit their ability to give consent.”

And writer and editor Hans Rollmann has noted:

“Not only does [the use of the term protester] minimize and trivialize the land defense actions, but it doesn’t adequately reflect what’s going on. Insofar as Indigenous rights are constitutionally protected and acknowledged by Treaties, …they’re people taking action to defend land that by rights belongs to them…”

Likhts’amisyu Chief Dsta’hyl and Gitxsan land defender Kolin Sutherland-Wilson are members of nations whose hereditary chiefs launched a legal challenge that concluded with the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that the provincial government of British Columbia had no right to extinguish the Indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral territories.

Lawyers Kate Gunn and Bruce McIvor further comment: “As with other Indigenous Nations, Wet’suwet’en Aboriginal title exists as a matter of law. It predates the colony of British Columbia and British Columbia’s entry into confederation in 1871.”

They add: “While Canadian courts have held that provincial governments may be able to infringe Aboriginal title, the requirements to justify infringement are very onerous. The provincial government has not attempted to justify [in its approval of the Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline] its infringement of Wet’suwet’en Aboriginal title.”

The RCMP framing of the hereditary chief and land defender as members of a “protest group” and that police were responding to a call from Coastal GasLink “to assist with keeping the peace” are deeply problematic narratives.

Writer Kazu Haga has commented:

“When we use nonviolence to confront violence and injustice, we are not disturbing the peace, we are disturbing complacency. We are disturbing the normalization of violence. When we engage in the hard work of nonviolence and social change, we are not disturbing peace. We are fighting for it.”

As the RCMP caution in their media release that “police will be proactively patrolling the forestry roads to ensure they remain open and unobstructed,” Wet’suwet’en land defenders and allies are committed to stopping the violence of Coastal GasLink drilling under the sacred Wedzin Kwa river without consent and, as Sleydo’ of the Gidimt’en Clan has stated, “the genocide on Indigenous people and lands.”

For more, please see the Gidimt’en Yintah Access call to Come to Camp. And for ongoing updates, you can follow Gidimt’en Checkpoint on Twitter.

Video of Kolin Sutherland-Wilson who says: “We’re doing everything in their power to stand up to injustice because we are doing what we know is right and we are following our truths … for the sake of peace, for the sake of the land.” Photo by Michael Toledano.

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