Critical Thinking Series No. 1
Taking a stance in the Wet'suwet'en pipeline crisis
The Critical Thinking Series: I regularly write as a method of processing information and analyzing issues; most of what I write is never seen by anyone. The Critical Thinking Series is a collection short pieces of writing that I have chosen to share in the hopes of promoting critical thinking about topical issues by sharing my own thought processes. I am an educator. I wish to engage in critical thinking and to encourage others to do the same. I do not seek to convince through superior argument or intellect. I recognize that everyone has to come to their own conclusions and live with those decisions.
We live in a world of contradictions; it is both the privilege and the burden of living in the twenty-first century. However, as David Moscrop said earlier this week, “ask yourself if, when, and why you side with power… sometimes [we] side with power [and] that’s fine.” However, when we choose to side with power, we must recognize that it is a choice. If we choose to side with power, “spend some extra time asking [yourself] why and to what — and whose — end.” The events of the last week have illustrated the fact that we simply cannot afford to think uncritically about the place of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
I have spent a great deal of time considering the situation on Wet’suwet’en territory and the passion that inflames these issues. My own views on issues of Indigenous rights have evolved greatly over the years as my critical thinking processes have improved. Ultimately, I have come to the conclusion that what the Canadian government is doing is wrong. I understand that their actions are legal and have been duly approved by the courts. However, legality does not equate to righteousness. Anyone can look up the litany of reprehensible systems and actions throughout history that were sanctioned by law.
Although the “rule of law” is touted as a natural part of western society, it is actually an ill-defined concept. We have to understand that the law is not, nor has it ever been morally objective. Moreover, although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Canada is a signatory, states that "All are equal before the law" but that is an aspirational principle. It is not, nor has it ever been, true. The law applies unequally to people; sometimes for reasons of prejudice but also for reasons of practicality of administering a massive system. We should both strive for equal application of the law while also recognizing where we fall short.
In the context of the Wet’suwet’en conflict, Canadian law is influenced by anti-indigenous racism. I don't mean how the law is enforced by police agencies and the courts, I mean the laws themselves and the structure of the system. The foundation of Canada’s government was put into place by racist people in an openly racist society. That’s not a criticism, it’s a fact; Canada’s leaders in 1867 were extremely racist. How could the system they created not be influenced by racial bias?
Acknowledging this reality seems to make non-indigenous Canadians uncomfortable. I imagine there are a variety of reasons why that is the case but I don’t want to speculate or speak on behalf of others. I can speak on my own experience, which is that questions or statements that forced me to probe my fundamental assumptions about the world made me extremely uncomfortable. Moreover, although we do have a problem with bigotry in Canada, my purpose is not to accuse anyone of being an anti-Indigenous bigot. My purpose is to help people understand that just because non-indigenous people don’t see the racism on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t mean it does not exist. Comparing ourselves favourably to the racial problems of the United States does not magically improve our own situation. Simply put, we cannot afford to think uncritically about racism in Canada.
To that point, if you believe that the Canadian government has a right to dictate to Indigenous peoples what should happen on their land, you must understand that viewpoint is based on a racist ideology. What authority does the Canadian government have over this land? Okay, the current government was elected by the citizens of Canada. So let’s take a step back: by what authority was Canada (previously British North America) established in the first place? What gave the first governments the right to exercise authority over the Indigenous peoples who occupied this land since “time immemorial”? Canada was established by right of conquest; this fact is undeniable. Colonizers landed in North America and began a centuries-long process of displacing indigenous peoples from their land. A process that literally decimated the North American Indigenous population. By what right did they do this? By what right was the Canadian state founded? By the authority that comes from the barrel of a gun.
Having established a British colony, the settler governments embarked on a campaign to erase Indigenous peoples from the Canadian landscape. This genocide lasted throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and successive federal and provincial governments have issued apologies for various atrocities that occurred during this time. Public apologies are undoubtedly a step in the right direction towards reconciliation but we cannot forget that the original systems remain largely in place. The systems that the colonial governments used to try and erase Indigenous people remain in place today. How can we be expected to “move on” under these circumstances?
I recognize that I also live on un-ceded Indigenous territory. I vote in elections to establish governments that were founded on principles of anti-Indigenous racism. Could I do more to resist on behalf of Indigenous peoples? Of course. I am not claiming moral superiority over anyone. Moreover, I am a 2nd/3rd generation Canadian immigrant and a proud Canadian citizen who believes in democracy. Every day, I privately express gratitude at my good fortune to be born in this country. However, I do not believe that my vote should have any bearing on what Indigenous people do on their land. Because if I believe that a Provincial or Federal government should have that right, then I am affirming that right-by-conquest/genocide is valid. My conscience does not permit that. Therefore, neither I, nor my democratic proxies, have any right to take part in those decisions.
There is also question about to what degree the Wet'suwet'en people, other Indigenous groups, and their respective leadership are in agreement with the pipeline. I am neither Indigenous, nor an expert on their self-governance structures, so I am not qualified to speak to this. However, this is ultimately irrelevant to the current issue for two reasons: First off, there is no mechanism through which Indigenous people can actually refuse a project that the Canadian government is committed to pushing through. Secondly, even if the majority of the Wet'suwet'en people consent to the pipeline, this is then an internal issue in which the Canadian government (via the RCMP) has no business intervening. The same principles apply to this as to the rest of my thought process: arguing that the actions of the government are just because most Indigenous people are in favour of the pipeline is only valid if you are willing to assume the Canadian government has morally just authority in this issue. As I have illustrated thus far, that assumption is fundamentally flawed.
The question of the moment is whether or not you accept that the incursions into Wet'suwet'en lands is just. Whatever your choice, please make it critically and carefully. Please make it with the understanding that Canadian systems that we love and cherish were founded on racist ideals and those original aims still affect their operation today. Please make it with the understanding that these systems often apply differently to Indigenous peoples than they do to non-Indigenous Canadians. Please make it with the knowledge that any “right” the Canadian government has to dictate terms to Indigenous peoples is a right established through conquest and genocide. Please make a critical and thoughtful choice; we cannot afford anything less.