Who do you support when a community is divided?

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CPT calls for church and settler solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and land defenders in B.C. natural gas pipeline dispute

February 12, 2020 | News | Volume 24 Issue 4
Ross W. Muir | Managing Editor
‘As people who believe in nonviolence, we cannot stand silent as the RCMP uses force and threat of force against people,’ says Rachelle Friesen, CPT's Canada coordinator. (Photo courtesy of CPT)

“The province of British Columbia alongside Coastal GasLink are continuing their plans to build a pipeline through the unceded territories of the Wet’suwet’en. The five hereditary chiefs and land defenders of Wet’suwet’en have denied access to Coastal GasLink, fearing the pipeline will cause irrevocable ecological damage,” states a call to action for faith communities and individuals that Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) issued on Jan. 30.

“Historically the Christian church, the Canadian state and capitalist industry worked together to colonize Canada and displace Indigenous peoples from their land,” the call to action continues. “Today across Canada, many churches are rising up in the spirit of Jesus’ message of peace and justice, and learning about the history and reality of colonization, apologizing for their involvement and/or complicity in colonialism, and getting involved in activities that situate their solidarity with Indigenous peoples and not with the colonial state.

“Now is the time to continue that support and take action! This is our chance, as the Christian church, to demonstrate Christ’s radical love by standing in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en.”

Calls by CPT for action include donating money and food for the hereditary chiefs and land defenders; hosting or joining a solidarity action event; writing letters to B.C. and federal leaders in support of the hereditary chiefs and land defenders; boycotting resource-extraction companies and the financial institutions that back them; and, for those churches in B.C., refusing to “rent space to Coastal GasLink or the RCMP, or to allow their facilities to be used in the service of developing the pipeline . . . .”

Solidarity with whom?

Those who haven’t been keeping up with the news of late might be forgiven for thinking that “the Wet’suwet’en” and “the five hereditary chiefs and land defenders” mentioned in CPT’s call to action are synonymous, and that the community is united with them and their cause. They aren’t, though, as a Jan. 27 APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Network Television) news headline reads: “ ‘We’ve got a real divide in the community’: Wet’suwet’en Nation in turmoil.” So which “Wet’suwet’en” should churches and individuals seek solidarity with?

  • On the one hand are the five hereditary chiefs and the land defenders—who, in a Jan. 30 statement, declared: “We are proud, progressive Wet’suwet’en dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of our culture, traditions and [unceded] territories, working as one for the betterment of all.”
  • On the other hand are the elected chiefs and band councillors, whose offices were established under the Indian Act, which, they maintain, gives them authority over their six reserve lands. Five of the six Wet’suwet’en band councils would like the financial benefits from the Coastal GasLink project to improve their communities and the lives of their members, many of whom are hoping to find construction jobs on Coastal GasLink’s 670-kilometre pipeline, to be built from the Dawson Creek area of northern British Columbia to Kitimat on the Pacific coast, where fracked natural gas would be processed at a liquefaction plant for shipment overseas.

That turmoil referred to in the APTN article is caused by “misinformed people and organizations in Canada and around the world . . . fuelling the fire,” according to Wet’suwet’en member Troy Young, a 48-year-old father of three who hopes to get work on the pipeline project through Kyah Resources, a company owned by the Witset First Nation. “People are saying the project doesn’t have our approval,” Young told APTN, adding, though, “No one can say the pipeline doesn’t have our backing. We were informed, and people want it.”

Gary Naziel, a former Witset First Nation council member when it struck a deal with Coastal GasLink, agrees. He told APTN, “Everybody voted. Everybody had a say. The final decision was up to the council.”

In fact, after consultations with Coastal GasLink, five of the six elected Wet’suwet’en band councils—along with 15 other First Nations that have land the pipeline will cross—have signed “benefits agreements” with the company.

According to the APTN article, “Along with revenue from impact benefits agreements and provincial pipeline agreements, Indigenous businesses will benefit from $620 million in contract work for the project’s right-of-way clearing, medical, security and camp management needs. There is another $400 million in additional contract and employment opportunities for Indigenous and local B.C. communities during pipeline construction.”

UN weighs in . . . then backtracks

CPT’s call to action refers to the fact that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the B.C. Human Rights Commission urged Canada in early January to stop construction on the pipeline until the project has Indigenous consent from impacted communities. 

But, on Jan. 16, the chair of the UN committee, Noureddine Amir, admitted that he was “unaware that [Coastal GasLink] had broad Indigenous backing,” and that “the [UN] committee’s role does not include investigating complaints,” APTN reported.

The admission led Karen Ogen-Toews, a former elected Wet’suwet’en First Nation chief and the current CEO of the First Nations LNG (liquid natural gas) Alliance, to declare in an open letter from the Alliance: “The UN committee’s statement and recommendations should simply and immediately be withdrawn [and the committee should offer] an apology to the 20 [First] Nations.” (The Alliance has a financial stake in the project going ahead.)

Where did the division come from?

According to Troy Young in the Jan. 27 APTN story, when the hereditary leaders of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan nations fought a Supreme Court of Canada case in 1997, “Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan were successful because we had our hereditary chiefs in sync with our elected chiefs, and everybody had the same concerns.”

But Gary Naziel said that, since then, “elected and hereditary leadership haven’t followed the Wet’suwet’en way of making decisions together. . . . ‘It’s been difficult, because in the past 10 to 15 years . . . our laws are not being followed, and it’s disheartening to see that.”

The division between elected and hereditary chiefs became personal in August 2018, when one of Wet’suwet’en’s strong-est pipeline opponents—a hereditary chief—ran for elected office on the Witset First Nation, and was not elected. 

“They’ve had opportunities to elect an anti-pipeline government, but didn’t, and that tells the sentiment of the people in the community,” Young said.

The current conflict, which has garnered international attention, flared up on Jan. 4, following a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that permitted Coastal GasLink to begin working again in disputed Wet’suwet’en territory and the RCMP was instructed to enforce the court injunction and keep both sides in the dispute apart. 

It was then that “the hereditary chiefs asserted their inherent jurisdiction over the territory by issuing the pipeline company an eviction notice,” APTN reported, adding, “[T]he company complied.”

In its call to action, CPT states: “This injunction violates Wet’suwet’en law; the right to free, prior and informed consent. . . . Also concerning is the RCMP’s demonstrated willingness to use lethal force to enforce this injunction during a militarized raid on the Gimid’ten checkpoint.”

CPT is aware there is a divide in the Wet’suwet’en community, according to Rachelle Friesen, the organization’s Canada coordinator. “No community is ever monolithic. But we have to look at the principles of justice and decolonization. While these principles seem vague, we are lucky to have the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a guideline, which requires free, prior and informed consent before this pipeline can be built. In addition, we can look at the situation with great concern as the state militarizes the area with the RCMP. As people who believe in nonviolence, we cannot stand silent as the RCMP uses force and threat of force against people.”

On Feb. 8, two CPTers were among 11 arrested during a protest in B.C.

Signs of hope for solidarity?

In a separate Jan. 27 article, APTN reported that the B.C. government had appointed a former federal NDP MP as a provincial liaison with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs over this latest dispute. Hereditary Chief Na’Moks repeated a request to meet directly with the premier, which was denied, and Na’Moks said that the hereditary chiefs had “‘no interest in meeting with [Coastal GasLink],’ whom they don’t consider a decision-maker in this dispute.”

But, four days later, the hereditary chiefs announced they had agreed to a week of “respect” talks with the B.C. government. Although Premier John Horgan will not be in attendance, according to APTN, “he said he believes the hereditary chiefs will come around. ‘I don’t expect the leadership to say tomorrow that they love the pipeline. That’s not my expectation. But there needs to be a legitimate understanding that the majority of the people in the region are going to benefit from this, and that’s what dialogue will produce.’”

Na’Moks, though, seems to believe it’s the B.C. government and courts that need to come around. “We will never change our mind on this project,” he is quoted as saying in various APTN articles. “We are the law of the land; we are following our law.”

As an act of CPT-inspired solidarity with the hereditary chiefs, Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg has sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling on the federal government “to honour the jurisdiction of the Wet’suwet’en traditional governance. . . and publicly affirm the . . . demands of all five Wet’suwet’en [hereditary] chiefs.”

But Troy Young, who is a cousin of Na’Moks, told APTN that he just wishes outsiders—from the UN to well-intentioned Canadians—would understand that “it’s up to the Wet’suwet’en to work out the conflict.” 

Do you have a story idea for Canadian Mennonite? Send it to submit@canadianmennonite.org.

‘As people who believe in nonviolence, we cannot stand silent as the RCMP uses force and threat of force against people,’ says Rachelle Friesen, CPT's Canada coordinator. (Photo courtesy of CPT)

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thank-you to mr. muir for providing context and perspective to CM readers on the conflict in British Columbia.

why is it that CPT wants CM readers to donate to voices that have no electoral mandate? The Wetsuweten people have resolved these issues in debate and elections. And good faith agreements have been undertaken.

The hereditary chiefs sought an electoral mandate from their own community members, and !failed! Who has credibility here?

The government of the day, and the Supreme court of Canada has unleashed a genie whereby some expect to be treated as sovereign entities, even though they have no electoral mandate. this is a basis for tyranny and brigandry. And to treat with brigands is to legitimize theft.

This is a question that must be asked: if the government is not prepared to act for the common good, does it not lose the right to collect taxes? If government will not use peace officers to uphold the common good, does it not forfeit the right to have citizens defer to officers of the law?

These are not inflammatory questions. They are the consequences of principles we hold in common being violated. Once violated, it is only a matter of time before the consequences follow.

Clarity is not incitement. Clarity is simply seeking Truth in the fog.

The matter of who has jurisdiction in Wet'suwet'en traditional unceded territory was decided in the Supreme Court of Canada 1997 decision: Gitxan and Wet'suwet'en were defined as "exist rights" protected in section 35.1 of the 1982 Constitution. Elected band councils are a creation of the Indian Act. The question about "the rule of law" is, whose law, Wet'suwet'ten law or Canadian law. The larger historical context of settler colonialism is also important. I support the direction the courts are slowly moving towards as seeing Indigenous rights as basic human rights. The adoption of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by Canada and BritishColombia holds out the promise of a serious attempt at unravelling Canada's colonial past. I recently reflected on that history in free verse.

the canadian narrative is fiction
conjured in the imagination of Europe
visions of unlimited wealth and absolute power
sanctified by papal bulls
imagining foreign land vacant
making locals disposable
claiming land by first discovery
flags and crosses asserting sovereignty
land stolen
in the name of god and king

local authorities, cultures, identities swept aside
defining locals as expendable resident aliens
displaced by adventures, speculators, priests, settlers
here to stay
to dominate, dehumanize, exploit, oppress, eliminate
crafting public policy, dependencies, racism, violence
instruments of control
genocide by any other name

sweeping the landscape clean
of ancient occupation
a narrative devoid of merit
contested by living cultures and identities
exposing the painful truth of history
longing for self-determination and self-sufficiency
with dignity, pride and strength
resurgent identities of occupied nations
with laws, customs, ceremonies
that have not died and thrive again

thank-you Mr. funk for that clarification and the lyrical adaptation of a case for the divine rights of native nobility.

the SOC of Canada has consistently parceled out sovereignty. These decisions were/are folly. That sovereignty is now being claimed by un-elected hereditary chiefs. is the former MC Canada Aboriginal relations worker now supporting a Canadian made, "divine right of aboriginal nobility/kings?"

if current trajectories prevail, can you and i not see the end of this as armed civil conflict between elected and hereditary Wetsuweten leaders, and non-aboriginal persons claiming the right of insurrection against the imposed servitude without representation that inevitably flows from a divine right of indigenous nobility?

the new day you proffer us, is a dark night. certainly darker than the circumstances we find ourselves in today.

Ross W. Muir, managing editor of CM, outlines various positions of the Wet’suwet’en and Coastal Gaslink pipeline dispute in central British Columbia in an article entitled “Who do you support when a community is divided?” (CM Feb 12/20). Mr. Muir contrasts the position of the Christian Peacemaker Teams to stand with the five Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose the pipeline in favour of the environment, with the position of the twenty or so bands (Indian Act 1876), Wet’suweten and other, who along with their chiefs have made a decision that the environment can accommodate the Coastal Gaslink pipeline installation and provide much needed economic benefits as well. The complexity of the problem is evidenced in the title to Mr. Muir’s article “Who do you support when a community is divided?” however perhaps it should be reframed to ask “What kind of God do we believe in?”

Mennonite Church Canada does provide some direction in this case via their Indigenous-Settler Relations program. An accompanying statement on their website indicates that “critical to this work (Indigenous Settler Relations) is Indigenous theological learning” and that the “Mennonite expression of Christian faith … (has) been deeply impacted by colonial thinking and practices” (mennonitechurch.ca).

This statement, that it is critical that Mennonites acquaint themselves with Indigenous theological learning is quite radical in that it requires MC Canada constituents to become informed of and perhaps influenced by Indigenous theology. The danger of this kind of thinking, examining Indigenous theology, is that it is a slippery slope to losing a grounding in the Christianity of Western Civilization, which has a historical relationship of “dominion over” and “extraction from” the environment, as well as relying on the binary choice of “are you in, or are you out?” while positing that the peoples of the world should become a Christian monotheistic monoculture. It seems that Mennonite Church Canada is advocating for its constituents to start down that slippery slope towards something other than Christianity as we know it today.

If one were to contemplate exploring Indigenous theology, perhaps the writings of Vine Deloria Jr. (1933-2005) would be a good place to start. Mr. Deloria was a Lakota man from Standing Rock Indian Reservation, North/South Dakota. Vine Deloria Jr. earned a Master’s Degree in Theology in 1963 at Augustana Lutheran Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois. He also earned a law degree at the University of Colorado Law School at Boulder, Colorado. Mr. Deloria spent a good deal of his lifetime writing (20 or so books) and trying to understand/rationalize the negative impacts of Western Civilization, Christianity, and colonialism on Indigenous peoples and land of North America.

In a 1973 book entitled “God is Red: A Native View of Religion,” Mr. Deloria argues that the Western Civilization/Christianity imposed on North America through colonization since 1492, has had an extremely negative impact on the land, its peoples and their beliefs. He posits that Christianity, a religion Middle Eastern in origin, is largely unsuited for the continent of North America and its peoples. Mr. Deloria states that religious experience of a particular place and time, cannot be readily transposed into and onto another specific place and time without disastrous consequences. He argues that in the case of Christianity, “what has been the manifestation of deity in a particular local situation is mistaken for truth applicable to all times and place, a truth so powerful that it must be impressed upon peoples who have no connection to the event or the cultural complex in which it originally made sense” (Ch.4).

At this point in my life, this perspective makes some sense and I even find myself agreeing with Mennonite Church Canada that I should look deeper into Indigenous theology in order to understand this land and its peoples more fully. It requires no little amount of hubris, for me to think that my belief in Yahweh, a Canaanite god arising out of the ashes of the Bronze Age, that a Canaanite god arising out of a union between El and his consort Asherah, that a Canaanite god adopted and claimed by the plains and hill tribes of the Levant, that the Canaanite god of Christianity arising out of a Middle Eastern Judaism, that this god and accompanying belief system/religion should be applicable to and imposed on and transposed to a foreign land and its peoples, and that I should be the one who righteously proclaims that this Canaanite god is presented in a binary option as “you’re either with us or against us.” Hubristic indeed.

Western Civilization including Anabaptist/Mennonite Christianity, has had an increasingly negative impact on the environment and inhabitants of North America through colonialism, through an ideology of domination and extraction buried deep within Christian theology, and an ideology which fears death, which sees nature (including humans) as fallen (sinful) and which posits that it’s monotheistic worldview and temporal perception of history beginning, middle, and end times (heaven bound) is suitable, applicable, and mandated for an entire continent and its peoples regardless of the pre-existing community and entity known as Turtle Island

In order for the god of Christianity to survive and thrive over time, many other gods have needed to die; deicide. In order for Yahweh, god of Christianity to thrive in North America, Mother Earth has needed to be killed. That seems to be the legacy/burden which we as Anabaptist/Mennonite Christianity must both acknowledge and carry.

Vine Deloria Jr. has hope that we will yet have time to turn to the ideologies and ontologies of the Indigenous peoples prior to colonization in order to examine/learn/relearn how to survive on Turtle Island. He writes, “As the long-forgotten peoples of the respective continents rise and begin to reclaim their ancient heritage, they will discover the meaning of the lands of their ancestors. That is when the invaders of the North American continent will finally discover that for this land, God is red” (Ch. 17).

For me, the question for Mennonite Church Canada and Christianity in North America needs to be centered on Christianity and its role on Turtle Island, what should that look like and how could it augment the Gods and the ontology of those peoples who were here long before colonization? The question becomes less of “Who do you support when a community is divided?” and more of “What kind of God do you want to believe in?” It seems Mennonite Church Canada is providing some leadership in this regard.

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