OTTAWA—From Monday’s dramatic police action against Mohawk activists in Tyendinaga, to Friday’s closed-door meetings in Smithers, B.C. between government ministers and the hereditary chiefs, there was a lot happening this week as Wet’suwet’en solidarity demonstrations continued across the country.
Here is a look at some of the key players involved in the push for a resolution to the dispute that has spiralled into a nationwide political crisis.
Na’Moks and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs
You could say the seeds of the current situation were planted many years ago, when the Canadian state created reserves for Indigenous nations in British Columbia, imposed made-in-Ottawa band council governments on them, and started to treat their traditional territory — never ceded through a treaty, in the case of the Wet’suwet’en — like Crown land.
Generations later, the traditional leadership of the Wet’suwet’en people, with their five clans that span 13 house groups, have largely opposed a $6.6-billion pipeline slated to run through their territory in northern B.C., even as 20 elected band councils on reserves in the area signed agreements supporting the project.
The chiefs’ opposition to the pipeline exploded into a nationwide movement in support of their cause, after the RCMP arrested 28 people on a remote logging road who were blocking construction in the area. Since then, the hereditary chiefs refused to meet with provincial and federal representatives until they were satisfied with the withdrawal of the RCMP and pipeline crews from their territory. Through it all, Na’Moks, the hereditary chief of the Wet’suwet’en Tsayu clan also known as John Ridsdale, has served as the group’s main spokesperson.
Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada
After trying to stay out of the fray by arguing the dispute was firmly under B.C.’s jurisdiction, the Trudeau government was sucked into the conflict as solidarity protests spread across the country and the Wet’suwet’en chiefs’ Mohawk allies blockaded rail lines — infrastructure that sits unquestionably in the federal sandbox — in Ontario and Quebec. The movement has also raised questions about the Liberals’ reconciliation agenda, with demonstrators questioning Ottawa’s commitment to the true “nation-to-nation” relationships that it claims to want.
Faced with accusations of weak leadership from the Conservatives and New Democrats in the House of Commons, Trudeau has tried to call for patience as the government worked to open direct negotiations with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. He’s also urging demonstrators across the country to obey the law, as well as for police to uphold it, and stated that the blockades “must come down now.”
That was more than a week ago.
Carolyn Bennett, Crown-Indigenous relations minister
Trudeau’s pointperson on Indigenous relations since the Liberals took power in 2015, Bennett was sidelined amidst the spreading Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement until the hereditary chiefs agreed to meet with her and her B.C. counterpart Scott Fraser this week.
While Bennett and Fraser are now in Smithers, B.C. for talks about the immediate crisis, the federal minister has also stressed the Trudeau government’s long-term goal of helping Indigenous nations reform and strike modern treaties or self-government agreements after they were split up and oppressed for decades through the Indian Act of 1876. In a speech to the House of Commons during an emergency debate about the current crisis on Feb. 18, Bennett said over half of the bands created through that law are currently in talks with Ottawa “to work on their priorities as they assert their jurisdiction” to govern matters like education, fisheries and family services.
“We are at a critical time in Canada. We need to deal effectively with the uncertainty. Canadians want to see Indigenous rights honoured, and they are impatient for meaningful progress,” Bennett said.
Nathan Cullen, facilitator
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The former NDP MP for the riding where the Wet’suwet’en live was appointed by the B.C. government to help mediate the dispute between the Indigenous nation.
This week, federal ministers — including Prime Minister Trudeau — credited Cullen with achieving progress in setting up a direct dialogue between government emissaries and the hereditary chiefs. Bennett said his work involved “putting all of the pieces together” with Coastal GasLink, the RCMP and the provincial government. The next day, the meeting was on, with Coastal GasLink agreeing to halt construction of its pipeline for two days, and the RCMP agreeing to stop patrolling a disputed area so that talks could proceed.
On Friday, Cullen told The Canadian Press he hopes Friday’s meeting will move the situation forward, but that it might be too much to expect a full and final resolution.
Marc Miller, Indigenous services minister
Appointed to cabinet after last fall’s election, Miller is a Montreal MP who learned to speak Mohawk and has spoken of his links with people in the nation’s communities in Quebec. As such, he was well-placed to lead the federal government’s dialogue attempts with Mohawk activists who have blockaded and set up camps along Canadian National and Canadian Pacific rail lines in Kahnawake, Que. and Tyendinaga, Ont.
On Feb. 15, Miller travelled to Tyendinaga to meet with Mohawk community members, though his efforts to negotiate a solution have so far failed. Police arrested 10 people and cleared a protest camp beside the tracks this week, while demonstrators roared back Wednesday by throwing rocks at a passing train and lighting fires next to the rail line.
He has described the long anticipated meetings between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and government ministers as a “victory” for peaceful dialogue, as well as the beginning of the process to resolve long-standing issues.
Seth LeFort and the Tyendinaga Mohawks
The Mohawks at Tyendinaga were quick to stand with the Wet’suwet’en chiefs when they set up a protest camp directly beside CN tracks near Marysville, Ont.
Seth LeFort, who also goes by his Mohawk name Kanenhariyo, emerged as a leader of the activists in the community between Toronto and Belleville. He was one of the recipients of a letter from Miller offering to meet more than a week into the rail blockade, and appeared with Wet’suwet’en chiefs when they visited Tyendinaga on Feb. 21.
That was the same day that Trudeau changed tack, dropping his calls for patience to call for the blockades to come down. Kanenhariyo said at the time the Tyendinaga protest camp would remain until the Wet’suwet’en were satisfied that RCMP had withdrawn from their territory. On Monday, Ontario Provincial Police moved in and cleared the camp, arresting 10 people in the face of accusations of “crimes against humanity” from Mohawk activists.
Kenneth Deer and the Kahnawake Mohawks
South of Montreal, another Mohawk community has blocked Canadian Pacific tracks for more than two weeks. Kenneth Deer, secretary of the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake, has acted as a media spokesperson for the demonstrators. He told the Star this week they won’t stand down until the Wet’suwet’en chiefs achieve a settlement “they can live with.”
Meanwhile, Quebec Premier François Legault has called for the blockade to come down, and accused the Mohawk activists of possessing automatic weapons.
Deer was not happy about that and is calling on him to apologize.
“We were really upset and we thought it was really irresponsible for him to say something like that,” he said. “The guys and the women and children that are out there have no guns. It’s been very clear from the beginning of this whole thing that this is an unarmed peaceful protest.”