In the early hours of February 6, armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers entered Wet’suwet’en land defender camps with orders to arrest and remove protestors who remained in defiance of a court injunction to evacuate the area for the development of a Coastal GasLink pipeline. These actions mirrored similar raids conducted last year on the very same land.

According to land defenders and reporters, the raid was aggressive, with officers violently apprehending protestors, as well as threatening journalists and attempting to prevent them from photographing or filming the raid.

The Varsity stands in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en land defenders and condemns the undemocratic silencing of journalists as an infringement upon news organizations’ ability to keep Canadian institutions accountable. These very actions are evidence of the insidious and aggressive nature of the raid.

Since the publication of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls last June, the Trudeau government has only just begun serious efforts to bring action and justice to Indigenous communities, days after calling for an end to the land defenders’ blockades.

Many who protest the RCMP’s most recent actions see it as an act of national aggression, with Canada invading the sovereign, unceded territory of the Wet’suwet’en. These include students at the University of Toronto, who have been participants in the nation-wide protests against the RCMP’s actions. These protests have resulted in the mass blockade of transit systems throughout Canada.

While some Indigenous leaders do support the pipeline for mainly economic reasons, what must be emphasized and take precedence is that the hereditary chiefs of the five Wet’suwet’en clans are the ultimate authority in the unceded Wet’suwet’en territories.

In this instance, it is members of the Elected Band Council, not the hereditary chiefs, who have voiced their support for the pipeline. The elected band councils are themselves remnants of colonialism, having been created under the Indian Act, a racist piece of legislation that governs Indigenous lives. However, according to virtually all reports, all the hereditary chiefs, whose titles predate colonization, oppose the pipeline.

Additionally, the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1997 Delgamuukw v British Columbia decision affirmed under Canadian law that the hereditary chiefs had a right to land and governance of the Wet’suwet’en territories.

Unis’tot’en land was specifically infringed upon during the raid. The Unis’tot’en are a clan within the Wet’suwet’en and the “original Wet’suwet’en Yintah Wewat Zenli distinct to the lands of the Wet’suwet’en,” on whose land this pipeline is proposed to pass through and whose people are fighting for command of their culture and community.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have given Coastal GasLink an alternative route through their territory, which does not impact important grounds. Yet Coastal GasLink, with the support of the RCMP and provincial courts, has made it clear that respect is merely an obligatory measure.

It is the belief of The Varsity that the sovereignty of the Wet’suwet’en people must be recognized, and that the RCMP’s intrusion onto unceded land was and is an act of aggression that must be understood as such. The hereditary chiefs are the legitimate authority in these territories, and their opposition to the pipeline is the only opinion that should have legal weight.

The Association of First Nations National Chief Statement on Wet’suwet’en Nation notes, “As it stands, the RCMP is only sworn to uphold civil law and common law. If we are to move forward with reconciliation, Canada must also recognize First Nations laws.”

Canada has a long history of adopting alternative legal systems, like Québec’s French civil law. In an interview with TVO, Daum Shanks, a law professor and Métis academic, discussed the general acceptance of Indigenous law on a case-by-case basis in the Canadian legal system. He emphasized the dominance of Canadian law over Indigenous law, two systems which are not particularly different, but with Indigenous law focused on “taking care of the space you’re located.” Shanks emphasized the need to see this conflict as similar to one between two premiers who are facing a legal disagreement.

In an interview with CTV, Kim Stanton, a lawyer who specializes in Indigenous law explained, “We’re in a situation where Canada and B.C. assume that they have jurisdiction, when in fact, they never legally got it.”

Shanks is focused on the legal system and the means by which we can further incorporate a general understanding of the implementation of Indigenous law. However, the issue still stands that Indigenous law, in this instance, was not adhered to or recognized.

Until Canadian governments accept the authority of Indigenous law on sovereign, unceded territory, reconciliation efforts remain insincere and without respect for self-governance and tradition.

The inconvenienced student

While it might be easy to reduce this into a faraway conflict that does not concern Torontonians and U of T students, it would be remiss to ignore the far-reaching effects of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders’ actions. This is not just an issue of one swathe of land, but one that regards the continued obstruction of Indigenous sovereignty in Canada.

To those who bemoan transit delays, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, understand that these nationwide protests have resulted in responses from a government that resorted to violence rather than dialogue.

Trudeau’s call for an end to the blockade places the onus on Indigenous leaders to further cooperate with the Canadian government, despite the fact that the RCMP’s presence continues to be felt on Wet’suwet’en territory.  Even though they proposed to move to a nearby town, the RCMP officers remain poised to act, and that aggression cannot be ignored.

The Varsity is disappointed in Trudeau’s callous comments and disregard for the power imbalances which continue to motivate these land defenders. Let it be noted that the RCMP made the first act of aggression, and for our prime minister to ask peaceful land defenders to end their assembly just because their actions have forced the government into negotiations represents a gross misunderstanding of these protests.

The Wet’suwet’en have been forced from their land and are subject to centuries of institutional violence in a nation that refuses to recognize their sovereignty.

North American colonialism began with the acquisition of land and resulted in the destruction and genocide of thousands of Indigenous cultures, languages, and communities. The Varsity is calling on Canadians to remember this history, so that we can stop ourselves and our institutions from repeating it.

Institutional support: U of T’s role in these protests

We are privileged to receive our education on stolen land at an institution that is still complicit in colonialism. This can be seen through its involvement with the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA)’s Thirty Meter Telescope project, which sits atop Mauna Kea, a sacred site for Kānaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian.

Despite student and faculty opposition, the university has not taken any steps to divest from this project, issuing a vague statement which noted its responsibility to truth and reconciliation and consultation with Indigenous groups. However, in this instance, the Kānaka Maoli did make their resistance known to ACURA through their protests; it was the university that failed to act on this knowledge.

The Varsity commends the faculty and students of the Department of Geography & Planning for publishing a letter of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en nations, which outlines calls for federal and provincial action with respect to sovereignty and human rights as outlined by the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The University of Toronto sits on stolen land — this is the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River. While faculties, administration, and student groups at times read land acknowledgements at the beginning of lectures, events, and ceremonies, it is not enough to simply remember the past. The Varsity emphasizes the importance of advocacy in this moment where the Wet’suwet’en people are under threat and whose land is under seizure from a nation that ignores their ownership of their land.

The Varsity hopes that the university does not make the same mistake again. Stealing land is not something of the past, and the university must reinforce its commitment to reconciliation and justice for Indigenous peoples through explicit support for student and faculty activism. Reading a land acknowledgement means nothing if you haven’t acted upon your promises.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].

Editor’s Note (February 25, 6:17 pm): This article has been updated to clarify wording around The Varsity condemning journalistic infringements.