This month, resistance to the construction of the TransCanada-operated Coastal GasLink Pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory in BC was followed by government response — a Royal Canadian Mounted Police raid. The story has blazed across news and social media, presenting Canadians with a crisis of conscience.
As is so often the case, our most vulnerable communities have the responsibility foisted upon them to take on the very powerful by themselves in the fight for truth and justice. Indeed, Indigenous activists and allies across the country have boldly taken advantage of the increased media attention to organize fundraisers and protest actions in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en clans.
However, judging by the government’s insistence on the status quo, as expressed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and BC Premier John Horgan in the face of such rebukes, these actions are evidently not enough to shift policy on the scale necessary to meet the pressing challenges of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and climate change.
It falls on those leaders — whether they are institutions, individuals, or student associations — who have dedicated themselves to upholding the pursuit of societal growth and development to exercise their social responsibility at such critical moments.
As U of T students, we inhabit an academic institution that is avowedly motivated toward the knowledge and actions that are understood by our community to be right. We therefore share a responsibility to stand up in the face of what we know to be in direct conflict with those ideals.
The U of T administration, with all of its influence and resources, should assume its role as the leader of its community and come out in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and the resounding nationwide protests, several of which have taken place in Toronto.
It has conspicuously not done so, compelling the Indigenous Studies Students’ Union (ISSU) to publish a statement earlier this month encouraging the administration to break its silence on this issue.
“I think that it is deeply disheartening to see those who are first to perform land acknowledgements being the last to acknowledge the gross abuse of power that is being perpetrated by the Canadian government,” said Joshua Bowman, an ISSU coordinator and Social Sciences Director at the University of Toronto Students’ Union.
One of the educational responsibilities of academia is to help inform public opinion on government policies that contribute inordinately to social injury.
The laws concerning Indigenous hereditary land claims in Canada are complex. It is surely one of the roles of an academic institution with a groundbreaking Centre for Indigenous Studies to enlighten the public on what is not only a moral and ethical transgression, but a legal one as well. Convening a panel that includes all relevant voices would be helpful in illuminating the issue to U of T students and faculty.
U of T’s administration has publicly stated its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and should not remain silent on this particular issue. This is especially true seeing as how the actions of the TransCanada Corporation conflict so egregiously not only with the rights of the Wet’suwet’en clans, but also with the well-being of the planet, which the university has on numerous occasions pledged to defend.
Expressing solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en clans should not be an ethical or political quandary for the U of T administration. It is entirely consistent with its stated purpose as an institute of advanced education and research.
“The university can break its silence quite simply; by coming out with a statement in full support of this. But I’m more interested in what they would do after they break their silence,” said Ziigwen Mixemong, another ISSU coordinator.
“They need to divest and end any ties to anti-Indigenous movements, and they need to enter into treaty with Indigenous nations here to ensure the land they are occupying is being taken care of in the way it was meant to be.”
The administration and U of T’s many and varied student organizations have not shied away in the past from releasing statements of solidarity regarding controversial issues and current global events. They should certainly not do so in the face of such blatant abuse of force by a government against innocent and peaceful human beings.
U of T should instead fully assume its responsibility to its Indigenous students by acting in a meaningful way toward its claims of reconciliation. As an institution of knowledge and purportedly high ethical standards, it should use its position to contribute a credible voice to the public debate.
Students and faculty can support the Wet’suwet’en First Nation by attending solidarity action events such as those posted on the Soaring Eagle Camp’s Facebook account. They can also make a monetary donation on the GoFundMe page created by Jennifer Wickham, a member of the Gidimt’en clan, which will go toward fundraising for legal fees and additional supplies for the checkpoint.
Anna Osterberg is a first-year Master of Teaching student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.