VANCOUVER—For Nikki Sanchez, camping at the ceremonial gates of British Columbia’s legislature this week in defence of land that an Indigenous community wants to shield from a resource project was nothing new.
Actually, it was more of a homecoming.
As a child, Sanchez camped with her parents at a Clayoquot Sound blockade — part of the 1993 movement to stop a logging project often described as Canada’s largest act of civil disobedience. It’s where she first recalled learning about land rights, injustice and fighting back.
“I’ve been involved in Indigenous grassroots solidarity movements since I was born,” said Sanchez, a Pipil Maya woman who has been active in opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in northern B.C.
“As an Indigenous person it’s almost impossible not to have to engage with resistance movements.”
Almost 30 years later, likely few Canadians spend much time thinking about Clayoquot Sound or the other massive Indigenous-led protests that led news cycles and affected Canada’s landscape around that time: The Oka crisis. Ipperwash. Gustafsen Lake.
But Indigenous people and activist allies haven’t forgotten these historic events and experts say they’ve led to an “accumulation of resistance” and an unprecedented show of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en.
Looking back at these moments in history, some degree of solidarity from the non-Indigenous Canadian public has always emerged, said Sean Carleton, historian and assistant professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.
But digital media has allowed the public to become extremely invested in what began as a local conflict for the Wet’suwet’en.
“I think that may be one of the reasons we’re seeing such a large uptake in Canadian solidarity,” Carleton said. “We might write about this in the future as a watershed moment.”
There is a common thread that unites these historic events, according to Candis Callison, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Institute of Critical Indigenous Studies.
“One thing that ties them together is Indigenous people defending their land, their right to be consulted. Courts continually have affirmed Indigenous title and rights, but we’ve also had challenges to that along the way,” she said.
“At every turn, they’re still having to negotiate” when the state or corporations “move in and dispossess Indigenous people of land or make a decision on what is going to be built on it and Indigenous people have said, ‘No, you don’t have consent.’ ”
Recent poll numbers this week from the Angus Reid Institute showed that two out of five Canadians — or 39 per cent — support Wet’suwet’en protesters, while 51 per cent support the Coastal GasLink project.
Callison said she wonders how much attitudes are shaped by the fact that schools recently started teaching Canadian history in a way that includes Indigenous people. She also pointed to how mainstream media reports on these events.
“Media are not knowledgeable on relations between Indigenous people and Canada. There’s a complicity between media and the state.”
When she and a colleague did an analysis of media coverage of the Idle No More protests, Callison said they found that many conversations on Twitter, particularly from Indigenous experts, were not being reflected by mainstream outlets.
That said, there’s no question digital tools have helped to elevate voices that have previously been ignored.
This past week, people were able to watch a livestream of RCMP officers arresting unarmed matriarchs at a Wet’suwet’en blockade, which Carleton said may have been jarring for Canadians who see Mounties in a positive, nostalgic light.
“When you see police using that kind of force on unarmed people it’s hard to square away,” he said. “Those images challenge our mythology.”
Callison said that while historically there’s been tension between some environmental groups and Indigenous communities, there’s been a lot of work to address how Indigenous groups’ alliances have changed, adding the Idle No More protests “set a high bar” for how an Indigenous-led movement could bring many other groups on board.
Carleton also noted that recent climate strikes are evidence that young people are engaged and ready to protest.
“Our moment right now is very unique,” he said. “There’s a convergence of youth who are looking at the climate crisis, a lot of different groups that are supportive of reconciliation.”
What’s clear is that Indigenous-led resistance movements have been shaping Canada’s history for more than 100 years. Here’s how some of those historical movements played out:
Oka, Quebec — 1990
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The crisis in Oka, Quebec stemmed from the development of a golf course on land the local Mohawk community claimed was rightfully theirs as far back as confederation. The Mohawk fought the development of the golf course in court starting in 1959 to no avail. They set up extensive blockades around the area in 1990, when an expansion of the course was proposed.
The 78-day crisis that ensued became a symbol for just how wrong things can go when conflicts between police and Indigenous protesters escalate. Guns were used by both police and protesters in the standoff, and a member of the Quebec provincial police force was shot and killed.
Police eventually managed to remove the blockade, and the federal government stepped in to buy the disputed land. The golf course expansion was not built and a national First Nations policing policy was developed in response.
Clayoquot Sound, B.C. — 1993
It was dubbed the “War of the Woods” and became one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
In 1993, the B.C. government announced plans to allow industrial logging in roughly 60 per cent of Clayoquot Sound, a temperate rainforest region spanning 260,000 hectares on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Indigenous leaders from the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations and their allies came out by the thousands that summer blocking access to the logging site and more than 800 were arrested.
The case, which drew headlines around the world, was hailed by environmental groups as being a pivotal moment that created a “blueprint” for how to manage Canada’s natural resources.
Ipperwash, Ont. — 1995
In 1993, some members of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation began an occupation of Camp Ipperwash, a former military base built on land appropriated in 1942.
In September of 1995, protester Dudley George was shot and killed by a police officer after a splinter group of about 30 protesters occupied nearby Ipperwash Provincial Park, claiming it contained a sacred burial ground.
The officer was later convicted of criminal negligence causing death and an inquiry found the government of Ontario, Ottawa and the Ontario Provincial Police all bore responsibility for the events that led to George’s death. The land was returned to the First Nation almost two decades later.
Gustafsen Lake, B.C. — 1995
The RCMP deployed 400 tactical assault team members in order to remove Shuswap elders and other supporters from a ranch site in the interior of B.C. they had been using to conduct Sun Dance ceremonies in 1995.
A firefight ensued, with both sides exchanging shots. The police were reported to have fired 77,000 rounds of ammunition during the 31 day standoff. It ended peacefully when the last of the protesters elected to leave the site — their supply route had been largely damaged by the police.
Caledonia, Ont. — 2006
In 2006, Henco Industries set out to develop a 40-hectare parcel of land near Caledonia, Ont., into a residential subdivision. But the Six Nations of the Grand River asserted that they had never relinquished control and protesters occupied the disputed land, blockading roads and rail lines.
The province stepped in and purchased the land to try to resolve the situation. But talks dragged on. In 2011, the province agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit representing hundreds of homeowners and businesses who complained that the protest shut down the local economy.
A representative of the Six Nations Confederacy said at the time: “Where’s our settlement? There’s not even any negotiations going on.”
Idle No More movement — 2012
In 2012, the Conservative government under then prime minister Stephen Harper introduced omnibus legislation in the form of Bill C-45, the Jobs and Growth Act, which critics argued would allow infrastructure projects to be approved without strict environmental assessments.
Four women in Saskatchewan, concerned about the potential erosion of Indigenous rights, organized a rally that they advertised on Facebook as “Idle No More.” It set off a chain reaction of rallies and “flash mobs” across Canada and the world, drawing attention to environmental causes and Indigenous sovereignty.
Theresa Spence, chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, became the face of the movement when she went on a hunger strike on the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill.
With files from The Canadian Press