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Three years since the historic ShutDownCanada movement - lessons for today

Brian Champ

March 10, 2023
The struggle of the Wet'suwet'en people against the settler colonial violence of so-called British Columbia and Canada has a long history. Wet'suwet'en territory was never lost through treaty or conquest. 
The Wet'suwet'en people maintained a continuous connection to the 22,000 square kilometers of territory from time immemorial to the present day, guided by Anuc 'nu'at'en, their traditional law. Even as many of their people were forced onto reserves, their cultural practices banned and their children taken away to "residential schools", the traditions connected to the land remained alive.
The Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs maintained sovereignty over their unceded territory - this was recognized in the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa decision of 1997, which included similar recognition for the Gitxsan people just to the north.
Instead of ushering in an era of respect and recognition for Indigenous sovereignty, however, governments at all levels reacted to pressure from businesses urging that these rights be surrendered to counter "investment uncertainty”.
It is no coincidence that a decade after the court's decision, multiple pipelines crossing over Wet'suwet'en land were proposed. First the Northern Gateway diluted bitumen pipeline, which was defeated in 2016. Then Coastal GasLink and the Pacific Trails fracked gas (LNG) pipelines that remain on the agenda. Similar projects exist that affect the Gitxsan people as well. The Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs have stated again and again that they oppose ALL pipelines on their territory.
Nevertheless, both the provincial and federal governments and lower courts have worked to enable the construction of these pipelines. CGL started construction in late 2018, and obtained a temporary injunction from the BC Supreme Court to clear opposition.
In early 2019, RCMP violently arrested 14 Wet'suwet'en land defenders and their allies and dismantled a gate they constructed at Gidimt'en Checkpoint with "lethal overwatch" - snipers ready to use deadly force on unarmed people defending their land. Demonstrations in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en erupted across so-called Canada and farther afield. Led by Indigenous people these actions brought allies onto the streets, outraged about violations of Indigenous and human rights, the developing climate crisis and the hypocrisy of the federal and provincial governments. 
In February 2019, land defenders re-established their presence on Wet'suwet'en land. In June, CGL requested a permanent injunction to clear opposition to the pipeline on Wet'suwet'en land. 
Global Climate Strike
In September, 2019 the worldwide climate movement erupted in huge protests at the Fridays for Future global climate strike: half a million came out in Montreal, 100,000 in Vancouver, more than 50,000 in Toronto to demand real action on the climate crisis. There were many smaller actions in cities and towns all across the country, and over 7 million participated worldwide. 
Climate justice demands respect for Indigenous sovereignty, open borders for climate refugees and a just transition for communities and workers to a green economy. A powerful alliance was formed.
Climate justice activists joined actions in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en people as CGL construction inched closer to their land, with well attended marches and rallies in November and December set the stage for the drama in the new year.
On New Year's Eve the BC Supreme Court issued its decision upholding the permanent injunction, calling for the removal of any opposition to CGL. 
On January 4th 2020, the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs asserted their sovereignty and evicted CGL employees from their land. Within days, RCMP had set up roadblocks preventing people from bringing in supplies, and illegal "exclusion zones" that kept journalists from observing the ongoing violation of rights. RCMP equipment and personnel began amassing in nearby towns, preparing for the onslaught to come.
On February 6th, the invasion of Wet'suwet'en land began. Dozens were arrested over 4 days, as an army of militarized RCMP removed improvised blockades on the road, backed by helicopters and snipers. Unarmed land defenders bravely asserted the sovereignty of the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs, despite hundreds of weapons trained on them. 
After the 4 days invasion the RCMP took control of Unist'ot'en Camp at the end of the road, after arresting Freda Husan, Karla Tait and other leaders in the middle of ceremony.
A widely shared video captured the moment: RCMP officers chain-sawing through a sign reading "Reconciliation" and throwing to the ground red dresses - symbolic of the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, a continuing legacy of Canadian colonialism. The word went out from Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs to #ShutDownCanada and that #ReconciliationIsDead.
Shut Down Canada
Almost immediately, the BC legislature was occupied and ports, railways and highways were blocked across the country. Canadian National Railways freight traffic from Halifax to Toronto was brought to a halt. Solidarity blockades went up on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Listuguj First Nation territory in Quebec, Kahnawake Mohawk territory south of Montreal and near New Hazelton, British Columbia.
On February 9th, 300 members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 502 refused to cross a "picket line" of protesters blocking the access road to the Deltaport in Greater Vancouver that handles $1 billion worth of goods yearly, shutting down the port - the Port of Vancouver was also shut down. Police arrested 57 protesters to reopen them.
Mass solidarity actions were organized in cities across the country including 15,000 on a march in Toronto, and bridge, port and road shutdowns in Vancouver.
After 2 weeks, the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters body estimated that $425 million in goods was being stranded daily, and business talked of economic "catastrophe". PM Trudeau threatened that the government patience was running thin and for the blockades to come down: Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs responded by pointing out that "there is a difference between inconvenience and injustice". 
Solidarity poured in from across the country from activist groups, communities of faith and union bodies. 
On February 26th, 20 days after the start of the invasion, BC and federal government ministers sat down with the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs for negotiations. This provided a framework for recognizing Wet'suwet'en sovereignty while leaving the pipeline construction issue unresolved. Blockades from coast to coast to coast were brought down during consultations with the Wet'suwet'en people. 
The governments tried to trade recognition of sovereignty for an agreement to continue the pipeline. But the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs never wavered in their opposition. 
The onset of the pandemic prevented the resumption of #ShutDownCanada once it was clear the government had no intention of halting the CGL pipeline. 
 During 2021, the finding of physical evidence of mass graves at the site of the former Kamloops "Indian Residential School" sent shock waves across the country and around the world. To be clear, this merely confirmed what had already been documented in the Truth and Reconciliation reports, but on Canada Day there was a sea of orange shirts from coast to coast instead of the usual red and white maple leafs. 
In November, 2021, Wet'suwet'en land defenders occupied Gidimt'en territory, joined by Six Nations and other allies. Earlier that year, the traditional government of the Six Nations Confederacy had pledged support to the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs and land defenders Skyler Williams, Layla Staats and Logan Staats stood with them against CGL and the RCMP. The third RCMP invasion in three years did the bidding of industry and the settler colonial state and cleared the way for their planet killing project.
NGOs and protesters targeted RBC for their funding of fossil fuels and the CGL pipeline. In April 2022, the Hereditary Chiefs traveled to Toronto for the in person AGM to confront shareholders with their resolve. RBC shifted their meeting online to avoid this situation. 
In November, as the CGL rig was poised to drill under the pristine Wedzin Kwa river, land defenders again occupied the drill site and solidarity protests grew across the country at RBC branches and Liberal MPs offices. Though the solidarity with Wet'suwet'en still exists, the pandemic created immense challenges for the movement to recreate the magic of #ShutDownCanada 3 years ago. 
The combined effect of the pandemic and the Oil & Gas industry-backed “convoy” movement has been a challenge to mobilizing in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en, other Indigenous struggles and the attacks from governments on the environment, public services and democracy.
But the fire that fed the #ShutDownCanada movement of early 2020 never went out - and in 2023 the smoldering embers can be sparked to full flame again in support of the struggle for Wet'suwet'en sovereignty and the many other struggles for Indigenous justice, rights and sovereignty across so-called Canada. 
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