U of T solidarity group moves support for Wet’suwet’en online during COVID-19

OISE students, professors organize digital teach-ins, documentary screenings, sign-making
The Solidarity with Wet'suwet'en group held a sign-making session on Zoom.
COURTESY OF VANNINA SZTAINBOK
The Solidarity with Wet'suwet'en group held a sign-making session on Zoom. COURTESY OF VANNINA SZTAINBOK

Whether teach-ins, documentary screenings, or creating signs over Zoom, the Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en group is continuing to organize in support of the Unist’ot’en Camp during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group, formed in February, is composed of graduate students and professors at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

Earlier this year, the group drafted an open letter in support of the Wet’suwet’en. The letter was supported by the Department of Social Justice Education and the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at OISE.

The Unist’ot’en Camp has been at the centre of national attention due to the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline, a 670 kilometre project in British Columbia that runs through unceded Wet’suwet’en land. There were widespread protests against the pipeline earlier this year in response to Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raids on Wet’suwet’en territory — though protests have been ongoing for a decade — since most of the hereditary chiefs oppose the pipeline.

Challenges faced due to COVID-19

Katie Bannon, a Master’s of Education candidate in the Department of Social Justice Education, commented that because construction of the pipeline is considered an essential service by the government, allowing it to continue during this time thwarts the efforts of protesters.

“The government is taking advantage of required physical distancing in order for construction to continue, as there is limited capacity for land defenders to safely hold rallies or physical blockades,” wrote Bannon.

Due to increased focus on COVID-19, “the mainstream media for the most part is now ignoring coverage of what is happening up north,” added Vannina Sztainbok, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice Education at OISE and a member of the group, in an interview with The Varsity. She noted that, “CGL has benefitted from the lack of attention to the pipeline, which has allowed it to continue its plans with little attention from the majority of the country.”

Because of difficulty in mobilization due to COVID-19, the Wet’suwet’en land defenders have shifted their advocacy online.

Initiatives of Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en

The group has organized online teach-ins, documentary screenings, and sign-making sessions over Zoom. According to Sztainbok, the group’s main goals are “solidarity, amplifying, informing.” Furthermore, “since the group was formed to answer the Wet’suwet’en nation’s call for solidarity, we support the Wet’suwet’en’s objectives, which aim to stop construction of the CGL pipeline, and end the invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory by [the] CGL and the RCMP.”

The Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en group was also involved in a communications blockade, with the goal of “[flooding] the lines of KKR.” KKR & Co. Inc. is an investment firm that is looking into investing in the CGL pipeline. Along with a UK-based solidarity group, the protestors sent texts, phone calls, and tweets to the company.

“By buying the pipeline, KKR would be supporting a project that directly endangers the water, land, and Indigenous lives,” wrote Sztainbok. She expressed that in doing so, KKR might violate the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, to which it is a signatory. The sustainable development goals include clean water, life on land, and good health. “The pipeline threatens all of these,” she added. 

Recently, the Wet’suwet’en and provincial and federal officials held an online ceremony to affirm the Wet’suwet’en’s rights and title, though the agreement made no mention of the pipeline.

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