On February 6, heavily armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers descended upon Wet’suwet’en Nation territory and began arresting those participating in a peaceful, decade-long blockade against a Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline. Within days, the officers raided the main camp of the Unist’ot’en land defenders. The RCMP used a chainsaw to break through a barrier on which “RECONCILIATION” was written in large letters. The imagery was poignant and the message clear.
What was once a localized struggle between the Wet’suwet’en Nation and state backers of the CGL pipeline has since been catapulted into the national spotlight. Protests and other forms of action have taken place in major cities like Vancouver, Regina, Toronto, Winnipeg, Montréal, and Halifax. Major railways have also been blocked; both VIA Rail and the Canadian National Railway have faced delays, shutdowns, and suspensions on most of their routes. The actions have also interfered with crossings at the Canada-US border, though it was just announced today that the hereditary chiefs and provincial and federal governments have reached a tentative agreement. The details of this have yet to be announced. As students, we can take this opportunity to reflect on what we can do to support the land defenders as well as advocate for climate action.
Many of the protesters across the country are student activists, including those involved in Fridays for Future’s organizing efforts. In recent years, student activism has played a large role in emphasizing the importance of protecting the environment in light of the climate crisis. For example, many students and faculty members supported and attended the historic Global Climate Strike in front of Queen’s Park in September.
A large section of the CGL pipeline passes through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory, which is roughly three times the size of the GTA. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the rights and title to the land were never given up. Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and supporters maintain that the pipeline not only circumvents the government’s duty to consult with the communities who have the right to the land, but also fails to uphold the government’s commitment to the environment.
With the added national attention, the discussion has shifted toward larger issues of Indigenous rights and environmental justice.
A week after the RCMP’s raids, two hereditary chiefs launched a constitutional challenge in Ottawa, arguing that the government has a duty to adhere to the emission levels set out in the Paris agreement. The law they were challenging would allow the federal government to step in on projects like the CGL pipeline, even if they were approved under previous governments. It makes explicit the larger issue beneath the protests: is economic growth or environmental justice more important?
Throughout the protests, the BC and federal governments have expressed concern for the environment, while maintaining support for the law and economic opportunity. Following the railway blockade, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was clear that Canada is “a country of the rule of law and we will ensure everything is done to resolve this.”
‘Green growth’ is the belief that our capitalistic economies can continue to grow sustainably. The problem, I believe, is that not only is green growth too slow to deal with an urgent crisis, but it’s also a paradoxical concept to begin with. Green growth depends on newer goods being produced, consumed, and subsequently discarded in a vicious cycle. It’s buying the newest Tesla model every two years and pretending that’s an adequate response to the climate crisis.
A problem like the climate crisis needs novel solutions that our growth framework simply cannot provide. It is time to think of solutions that move past this paradigm and consider bold ideas that may be uncomfortable.
Degrowth, for example, asks us to imagine contracted economies that address the core issue of consumption, and tie it into issues of wealth distribution and inequality. Postgrowth similarly seeks to shift the discussion from gross domestic product values to better indicators of quality of life, like happiness.
It is important to recognize that these alternative economic approaches have existed for a long time. Indigenous peoples have lived on and taken care of the land for thousands of years on the same principles of communalism and ecological stewardship that the degrowth and postgrowth movements advocate for today.
Where does this place us, as students? On the one hand, we must realize that we are part of institutions — including the University of Toronto — that are heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry. According to a 2016 report by the Sustainability and Education Policy Network, U of T has invested more than $32 million dollars in the fossil fuel industry. Despite the refusal by the university in 2016 to divest from fossil fuels, the Toronto Fridays for Future movement continues to make the case for divestment.
There are numerous opportunities for students to get involved in the fight against climate change, from protests, to social media campaigns, to engaging in dialogue and organizing panel discussions. The fight against the climate crisis is not limited to fossil fuel divestment alone; rather, it is a complex issue that intersects with Indigenous issues, economic inequality, race, gender, religion, and more.
As individuals, we can also begin by questioning growth as a motivating factor in our own lives. We must challenge the ideals that we’re being taught, from economic principles in first-year economics courses to psychology courses that push self-interest as the only motivator of human behaviour. We must even question our own personal motivations to be at university and our own career goals.
Beyond questioning, we can begin to work on solutions in our communities on campus. From promoting second-hand shopping to protesting at Chrystia Freeland’s office in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation, the opportunities to take the fight to the climate crisis are there. Now, all we need to do is act.
Hikmat Jamal is a second-year Philosophy student at Trinity College.
Editor’s Note (March 1, 8:30 pm): This article has been updated to include the recent tentative agreement reached between the hereditary chiefs and the federal and provincial governments.