As RCMP officers clash with members of the Wet’suwet’en and their supporters on the planned route for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, another battle is taking place in the background.
It’s a war of words.
Those involved in this clash are usually called “protesters” or “demonstrators” by RCMP, government officials and media, but they call themselves something different: Land defenders against an RCMP armed invasion.
Critics say the RCMP and government framing of the current Wet’suwet’en actions misrepresents the reality and the history of the situation, and that the media’s use of that language only reinforces it.
Invasion vs. enforcement
The RCMP’s actions are being framed as an invasion by land defenders, activists, supporters and critics. They argue that the police are illegally invading unceded Indigenous territory, and that the people have not consented to industrial work being done on their land.
Meanwhile, the RCMP say they are enforcing the injunction granted by the B.C. Supreme Court. Under Canadian law, this gives the RCMP a mandate to allow Coastal GasLink’s access to the land.
For Savannah Minoose, a Cree/Métis storyteller from northern Alberta, there’s a “fundamental misunderstanding” in mainstream media that often stems from trying to appeal to a broad audience.
“I feel that they are using incorrect language and … misrepresenting the situation at hand,” said Minoose, who was one of the land defenders arrested at Port Vancouver on Monday.
Minoose said words such as “protester” and “demonstrator” do not accurately portray the work being done to protect traditional Indigenous culture — which is inextricably tied to land and water.
“We reject the term ‘protester’ because it is … linked to colonialism and colonial violence that is inflicted upon our bodies,” Minoose said, adding that when government, police and/or media use the term “protester,” she feels it’s clear they are not willing to fully address what’s at the heart of the current conflict.
Hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en nation say the project has no authority without their consent, and that the territory is unceded — this is backed up by another, earlier federal Supreme Court decision from 1997 that overturned a B.C. ruling saying the rights of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en were ceded at the time of Confederation.
In a news release Feb. 12, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) called the RCMP’s actions “unlawful invasion.”
Minoose said she doesn’t think the media should use the term “enforcement.”
“When they report that, it just proves that they do not understand Indigenous governance,” she said.
Danielle Taschereau Mamers, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on the role of media in Canadian and Indigenous politics, said the role of media outlets covering the current action in Wet’suwet’en is an important one. She said historical context is crucial for outside readers, especially when it comes to the history of the RCMP’s role in enforcing colonial policy.
“When media reports describe and show images of RCMP and police raiding camps and arresting land defenders, this ought not be separated from the context of over-policing and over-incarcerating Indigenous peoples across the country,” Taschereau Mamers said in an emailed document.
Land defenders vs. protestors
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Taschereau Mamers said she’s noticed many media reports using the term “land defenders” or “land protectors” at the beginning of an article, only to revert to “protestors” or “demonstrators” later on, which strikes her as disingenuous. She said the latter terms infer illegal action by the Wet’suwet’en people, which she said emphasizes the economic impact of their action over their sovereignty.
She said it’s important to keep in mind the Indian Act, which created the band council system currently dividing the decisions of the Wet’suwet’en councils and the wishes of the people.
“Contestations between Indigenous nations and the Canadian government or industry have roots in more than 150 years of settler colonial policy and violence. These conflicts have been created by the Canadian government,” she said.
Candis Callison, a University of British Columbia journalism and Indigenous studies professor, said over the past several years she’s seen the term “land defender” come up again and again, only to have media refer to Indigenous actions as “protests.”
“Most of the time, what Indigenous people are trying to get across is that they have been in long relationship with the land and waters that they are on. And that long relationship is why they had moved into a defence mode or a protective mode,” said Callison, who is Tahltan, a northern B.C. First Nation near Wet’suwet’en.
“I think that by calling Indigenous people mere protesters, it really erases the long relationship that they’ve been in with lands and waters, but it also erases the long resistance that they’ve had to all kinds of moves by governments and corporations to dispossess Indigenous people of their land, and to limit their ability to give consent,” she said.
Callison said she has mostly been following smaller, independent media outlets such as Ricochet Media, The Narwhal and The Tyee, because she finds they include a lot more historical and political context in their coverage of what’s happening in Wet’suwet’en and across Canada.
“That also shows you how much the (media) landscape has changed,” she said, explaining that in previous stories of land protection by Indigenous nations, “you really relied on major media to tell these stories and often they didn’t do a very good job.”
Callison pointed out that the mainstream media are often perceived as part of the settler colonial state, alongside the police and the government.
Band councils and hereditary chiefs
The Coastal GasLink project has been given the go-ahead by all 20 First Nations band councils from the region. These councils are themselves a structure of colonialism, critics say, and the RCMP the active arm of the colonizers. It’s been pointed out that the RCMP, or their predecessors the North-West Mounted Police, were in fact created to help Canada gain control of more Indigenous territories in the late 1800s.
Vice-President Chief Don Tom of the UBCIC said in Wednesday’s release that the land defenders are not just standing up for their own rights: “Ultimately the land defenders in Wet’suwet’en are trying to keep their territories clean for the benefit of all British Columbians.”
Minoose said that to her, the term “land defender” or “protector” acknowledges the sacred action being taken and the sovereignty of Indigenous people over unceded territory. She said the consent of the band councils was given under an inherently colonial structure, and that it does not represent the consent of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
And that’s been backed up in the federal Supreme Court, she added, referring to the 1997 decision.
“Canada doesn’t have jurisdiction over this land and over our culture,” Minoose said.
With files from Alex Ballingall, Shree Paradkar and The Canadian Press