Indigenous land defenders face state violence and the risk of death in Canada

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Photo: The grave site of Indigenous land defender Dudley George.

Deutsche Welle reports: “Businesses, criminal groups and governments have long violently displaced communities from their ancestral lands — and Indigenous people are seemingly more likely to be killed than other defenders.”

That article further notes: “At least 613 Indigenous activists have been murdered over the last decade, according to data published by environmental and human rights watchdog Global Witness. …More than 35% of [the more than 1,700 land environmental defenders killed] identified as Indigenous. Over the last three years, the reported rate at which Indigenous activists were killed [41%] was even higher than over previous years.”

In Canada, an Indigenous land defender was killed by police during a land re-occupation. There have been numerous other instances where the risk to life was high.

Some incidents include:

Dudley George – 1995

Aazhoodena land defender Dudley George was killed on September 6, 1995, by an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) sniper during a re-occupation of ancestral land expropriated for a military base and provincial park.

Photo: An OPP officer rushes toward Tina George at Ipperwash Provincial Park the day after her cousin Dudley George was killed by the OPP.

Oka – 1990

Mohawk land defenders faced Quebec provincial police and later the Canadian Army during a standoff to protect a burial ground from the expansion of a golf course.

Photo: Canadian soldiers deployed during the “Oka crisis”.

Ts’Peten (Gustafsen Lake) – 1995

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) fired 77,000 rounds and exploded an improvised explosive device (IED) under a truck driven by Indigenous land defenders during a land dispute between the Secwepemc in ceremony and a local rancher.

Photos: Still from RCMP surveillance video of truck with defenders at Gustafsen Lake moments before and after an explosive device is detonated.

Tyendinaga – 2008

The OPP were deployed against Mohawk land defenders opposed to a permit to a local developer for a quarry and another property developer who had announced plans for 200 housing units in Deseronto, both within a Mohawk land claims area.

Photo: The OPP at Tyendinaga, April 2008.

Elsipogtog – 2013

The RCMP deployed heavily armed officers against Mi’kmaq land defenders opposed to seismic testing for fracking in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick.

Photo: The RCMP at Elsipogtog.

1492 Land Back Lane – 2020

The OPP shot at and tasered Mohawk land defenders re-occupying lands (granted through the Haldimand Proclamation) in opposition to a housing development in Ontario.

Photo: An OPP officer at 1492 Land Back Lane, October 2020.

Wet’suwet’en – 2019

The RCMP were deployed in response to Wet’suwet’en land defenders blocking the construction of the Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline being built on their sovereign territory in northern British Columbia without free, prior and informed consent. The Guardian reported RCMP commanders said “lethal overwatch is req’d” (a term used for deploying an officer prepared to use lethal force) and instructed officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want” and that arrests would be necessary for “sterilizing [the] site”.

Video: The RCMP on Wet’suwet’en territory, January 2019.

Wet’suwet’en – 2020

Heavily armed RCMP officers were once again deployed in response to a Wet’suwet’en blockade of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Video: An RCMP officer points his assault rifle at a Wet’suwet’en land defender.

Wet’suwet’en – 2021

RCMP officers used a chainsaw and axe to tear down the door of a cabin and then pointed guns at land defenders and journalists.

Video: The RCMP on Wet’suwet’en territory, November 2021.

Gitxsan – 2021

Video: RCMP tactical officers were deployed against a Gitxsan rail blockade in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en resistance to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Both Calgary-based Enbridge and TC Energy also have permits from British Columbia to build pipelines across Gitxsan land, adjacent to Wet’suwet’en territory.

Wilps Gwininitxw member Ankhla Jennifer Zyp says: “We’re worried, for sure, that we’re going to be met with the same violence [as seen against the Wet’suwet’en], with the same push from the government. We’re concerned about how these pipelines crossing all these rivers are going to affect the salmon returning back to our territory.”

There are likely other instances of where the RCMP, OPP and other state security forces have deployed heavily armed officers against Indigenous land defence struggles that have put the lives of land defenders at risk.

We note the absence of measures, policies, protocols and laws on the part of the state and police to ensure a safe and enabling space for land defenders upholding their rights to free, prior and informed consent and to prevent, resolve, and negotiate land disputes to avoid confrontations that risk injury and death.

We continue to follow this with concern.

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