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The Pipeline Crisis Was Centuries in the Making

How the intergenerational lock of poverty leaves so many Indigenous communities with few options but to sign on the dotted line.

Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the anti-pipeline protests that have largely shut down rail travel across Canada. The blockades, which have also temporarily closed off certain United States border crossings, are part of a growing resistance movement against a natural gas pipeline that Coastal GasLink has planned for unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. Speaking before the House of Commons, Trudeau ran through the usual lines about “listening to one another” and being “in this together.” 

Whereas Trudeau offered stylized nothingness in his speech, Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Party leader tasked with responding to the prime minister, was at least honest in his apathy about climate change and Indigenous rights. He repeated the phrase “radical activists” at least four times in reference to the protesters supporting the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, denounced the “rule of mob,” and branded those standing against the CGL pipeline as people who “may have the luxury of not going to work every day.”

But while tying the bow on his garbage speech, Scheer stumbled backward into an accidental indictment of Canada’s economy and its Indigenous “reconciliation” efforts: “These kinds of projects are the only way to lift First Nations out of poverty.” 

As Justin Skin, an elected band council member of the Skin Tyee band, which is part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, told the Vancouver Sun, it’s one thing to speak about living with multiple families in a single house or going without running water; it’s another thing to live it. “Decisions like this never came easy, I’m not going to say it was easy, because it was very difficult,” explained Skin, who signed the benefit-sharing agreement on the pipeline. “But like I said, the people who are concerned about our decision, they should come to the reserve and live in these conditions themselves and then have to weigh in on a decision like that.”

This is more or less Scheer’s point, only while the Conservative leader meant it as a threat, Skin spoke it as a lamentation. But the part left unsaid by Scheer is the matter of why exactly Indigenous populations in these two extremely wealthy countries have economies and quality of life standards that sit so far below those of their white neighbors. In Canada, Indigenous people’s life spans are an average 15 years shorter than their white counterparts’, and 80 percent of those who live on reserves have incomes below the federal poverty line. You can find similarly depressing statistics on and off reservations in the U.S.

This is the pipeline crisis: Not just the extractive industry’s predictable and unrelenting drive to ravage the earth for profit but the intergenerational lock of poverty that leaves so many communities with few options except to sign on the dotted line.

In this way, the CGL pipeline is just another story among many about how things work. For decades, pipelines and other extractive industries, such as mineral and coal mining or logging, have legally pilfered Indigenous land by presenting members of a nation’s council and the citizenry with the same basic sales pitch: “We have money, and you do not.” This kind of coercion extends beyond First Nations and Canadian borders, as you can see the same dynamic play out in Native nations in the U.S., communities of color plagued by systemic and structural racism, and the poor more broadly. As I wrote last fall in reviewing the fossil fuel pitch post–Standing Rock, it is not an accident that pipelines continue to run through, under, and around rural, low-income towns and nations—it is the entire isolationism model of the extractive industry.

The lackluster economic state of reserves and reservations alike is a direct result of repeated attacks on sovereignty by legislative bodies like the House of Commons. It is the result of children being stolen and disconnected from their home communities; it is the result of the Canadian government, in the year 2020, not delivering clean water to reserves; it is a result of a centuries-spanning plot to commit genocide and steal land and then turn around and use the resulting conditions as an excuse to claim more. The concentrated poverty faced by so many Indigenous families and communities is not some accident of history. And it’s the fact of these conditions—and the coercive, deeply fraught “choices” presented to them in the form of pipeline deals or jobs with the same companies destroying the land on which their heritage rests—that can make it difficult to summarize the scope of a struggle in an easy sound bite. 

Multiple things remain true at once: The rail shutdowns have had an impact on working people. They are also a necessary defense of Indigenous sovereignty and unceded land. The immediate-term impacts of the blockades will hurt. So will the long-term consequences of another pipeline tearing through Indigenous land, feeding the monster of fossil fuel consumption while the planet burns. 

The language of law and order seeks to conceal these things, but they bleed through all the same. It’s why the U.S. Congress used bills like the Dawes Act and the Nelson Act and others, which sought to dismantle the communal ownership of Native lands, consolidate tribal nations, and privatize their remaining lands. It’s why its Canadian counterpart drew up the Indian Act in 1867, which forced the Indigenous governments to reshape themselves to more closely reflect their colonizer’s political system. These were attempts at entirely recreating Indigenous nations as liberal political entities. The old governments, the traditional ones, like the hereditary system still used by many First Nations, were grounded in ideals and customs that did not align with capitalism and its desires, so they had to be destroyed. These efforts sought to root out the actors who saw water as a relative and land as a resource to be stewarded rather than mined. They sought to replace them with Indigenous governments and economies that mirrored their own in both structure and intent, and largely succeeded.

And so even when the stubborn lot of resisters remained, the machinations to dismiss them were built into these governments and their laws. That’s how we find ourselves where we are today: Militant law enforcement groups like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the multistate police at Standing Rock were well within their right to point snipers at unarmed citizens, blanket them in pepper spray, and unleash their trained attack dogs. That’s the game. There are permits and land deals and obligatory environmental reviews that make that clear.  

Or at least that was the idea. Then the Standing Rock protests formed—and grew. The water protectors developed a moral vocabulary and strategy of resistance that, while messy and often partial, created a framework for others to join. Suddenly the protesters were no longer fringe radicals but a coalition of Native and non-Native peoples standing against not just the pipeline but the capitalistic and imperialistic forces that thrust so many similar projects through Indigenous lands. Now the Wet’suwet’en resistance joins its ranks.

What makes this latest movement so intriguing is the fact that it can and has been argued that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs—who maintain jurisdiction over what happens on the traditional territory in the nation’s governance structure—have the final say as to what happens in the traditional unceded territory. When they said no to the pipeline, it should have been an open-and-shut case for any nation that truly saw the Wet’suwet’en as equals. They have, in other words, an argument about the rule of law—just not the one being imposed on them by the Canadian government. 

But if you’ve ever followed a case like the Wet’suwet’en’s before, you’ll be familiar with the division storyline that’s been seized upon by the media

While numerous other First Nations and multiple Wet’suwet’en band councils have signed off on the pipeline, it is clear that there is not a monolithic agreement over whether the citizens should take CGL’s money or protect the land. In his speech, Scheer used this fact—one that is true of literally every political decision made by any governmental body—to frame the land protectors as a “mob” and their actions as an affront to democracy. 

This is a tactic laid down by companies like CGL. It’s meant to popularize the idea that because some of the affected citizens and elected officials, like Skin, made the fraught decision to back the pipeline for the overdue economic prosperity promised by CGL, the resistance movement rooted in the hereditary chiefs’ decision is somehow illegitimate. (It’s an incredibly ironic and hypocritical sentiment furthered by a people with a literal monarch on the majority of its currency, but so goes dealing with these arguments.) 

Watching two white politicians like Trudeau and Scheer try and bend the realities of Canadian-led genocide to fit their viewpoints is a painful but predictable experience. But when you listen to the voices of Indigenous people, be it a pipeline supporter like Skin or a member of the opposition, like Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the 27-year-old Inuk member of Parliament from Nunavut, the divisiveness that Scheer and CGL would have you believe exists is suddenly no longer illegitimate or anti-democratic but perfectly human.

“The federal government has backed Indigenous people into a corner,” Qaqqaq said in the House of Commons shortly after Trudeau’s and Scheer’s speeches. “The anger around the Wet’suwet’en territories is about the failed policies that have let Indigenous peoples down. The federal government has ignored or threatened our very existence as Indigenous peoples. How can we talk about reconciliation when the federal government has stolen our lands, slaughtered our sled dogs, refuses us our rights, and continues to give us impossible choices?”

The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ decision to reject the pipeline’s financial boon, however short-lived, is a rejection of a system that offers only those choices. It is a rejection of the cynicism of Scheer and CGL in pretending that any kind of prosperity for Indigenous people must come at the expense of their land and sovereignty. It says no to the cycles of capitalism and extraction that promote only those who look like the people on the money. The reason the Mohawk Nation and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens have been so quick to spring into action to support the Wet’suwet’en land defenders is precisely because they understand all of the above context—either because they have lived it or they know they will one day soon.

“The fact that Canada and its provinces had decidedly expropriated whatever little slivers of Indigenous lands that are left to concentrate their railways, bridges, seaways, power lines, dams, etc.—shows a blatant pattern of disregard and the expendability of Indigenous Peoples in Canadian society,” wrote Kenneth Deer, the secretary of the Kahnawà:ke Branch of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederation.

The truth is that CGL will not be the last fight. Sooner or later, the pipeline will come for everyone—either in its physical form, with spills and man camps, or in the unavoidable form of the encroaching climate crisis. The Trudeau-backed Trans Mountain pipeline, as well as the Kitimat liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, are still on the docket for the Canadian government, because that’s where the money is. And this is why the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ refusal to accede to the federal government’s demands is so important: If they win, if they successfully force the RCMP to leave their lands, and manage to upend CGL’s plans, they will have established another piece in the blueprint for fellow Indigenous nations to follow. Both government officials and natural gas companies will be wary of ignoring First Nations and sparking more direct action; they will be forced to consider not just the forms of government created from the Indian Act but the ones that predate it. 

And with that, the lie that “these kinds of projects are the only way to lift First Nations out of poverty” can finally die. The Indigenous-led movements that have been forced to fight so hard to protect their land and basic sovereignty can turn their focus toward other possibilities—something better than prosperity offered at the cost of our land, our histories, and our future.