It's time to stand together

By Dorothy Field, September 2013

Our forests, our minerals, our fish, and our clean water come from Crown land, that is, unceded territory.

I recently returned from my second trip up to the Action Camp hosted by traditional elders of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. The camp is on the path of the Pacific Trails Pipeline as well as the many other pipelines that intend to use that route from the Alberta tar sands and BC’s fracking fields out to Kitimat. Several Wet’suwet’en families have moved onto their traditional clan land, determined to protect the pristine Morice River and their salmon run, their moose and their wild berries from the inevitable spills and seepages that will accompany the oil and gas bonanza.   

Bonanza for whom, you might ask. Not for First Nations. Not for the rest of us. There will be few permanent jobs and the profits will end up off-shore. The environmental degradation which is a certainty will damage our coast and our interior, maybe forever, devastating the livelihood of First Nations and non-First Nations alike. For an idea of what that terrain is like, watch On the Line, a film by two men who walked, biked, and kayaked the route Enbridge and the other pipelines plan to take. Then tell me you’re sure the pipeline companies can prevent or ameliorate toxic spills.

Entering Unist’ot’en territory, we passed through the soft blockade the leaders have had in place for more than a year. Following traditional protocol, everyone—pipeline surveyors, loggers, and the rest of us—who wants to cross the bridge over the Morice River must stop and tell the elders who they are and what they have to offer. The elders explain their position and send away anyone intent on industrializing their land. Pipeline helicopters fly in as well. They too are politely told to leave, though some return several times. 

It’s time to get clear; time for us non-indigenous people to acknowledge that we’ve made our wealth on the backs of First Nations. Our forests, our minerals, our fish, and our clean water come from Crown land, that is, unceded territory. No treaties have ever been signed throughout most of BC. No compensation has been given. Indigenous people have been confined to small reserves while we strip the land of its resources and some of us complain about lazy Indians and the welfare state. This is BC’s underpinning and, despite provincial government claims, no one is standing up for the integrity of our lands except embattled First Nations and some environmentalists. Even some environmental organizations remain deaf to First Nations’ issues. 

Idle No More is just the beginning. Our universities are graduating many First Nations students with higher degrees. Not only do these graduates understand their own cultures, they are highly trained in the culture at large. That gives them an edge. First Nations have been patient, not just because they’re patient people, but because they’ve been decimated over these last centuries. Now the balance is shifting. Healing and empowerment is well underway. Digital communications make First Nation connections across Canada fast and easy, increasing cooperation between nations. We’ve seen only the beginning of these alliances.

The time is now for the rest of us to get behind First Nations’ push for economic, social and environmental justice negotiated on a nation to nation basis. We need to become aware of the colonial attitudes most of us carry to one degree or another, attitudes of entitlement and condescension, and we need to back traditional elders when they stand up to elected tribal chiefs and councils, many of whom are well-rewarded for selling out their people. We must oppose trade deals like the Chinese FIPA, not only as Canadians protecting our sovereignty but in concert with First Nations whose land supplies the resources global corporations lust after.

Prime Minister Harper’s apology to First Nations means little when business as usual continues, exploiting First Nations’ territory while indigenous people live in substandard housing with permanent boil-water restrictions, and receive less per-pupil education funding. The sickening revelation of “experiments” that starved First Nations children as part of “scientific” studies brings the point home. 

Federal and provincial governments continue to see First Nations as an inconvenient obstacle to resource expansion. As Canada’s indigenous people continue the work of healing from colonialism, residential schools and the “sixties scoop,” they are part of a world-wide movement for real justice and equality. For the rest of us, standing together, indigenous and non-indigenous, is the only way forward for the health of all, and we’d better get on it right now. 

Meanwhile, I think back on the nourishment of time spent up north with our Wet’suwet’en hosts. My deepest thanks for all they’ve given me.

Dorothy Field is a visual artist and writer. She is the author of three books of poetry, a children’s book, a book of garden letters, and Paper and Threshold, about handmade paper’s spiritual role in Asian culture.