5. 6. 2021

Building Blocks

Mike Gouldhawke

(Métis & Cree, Treaty 6)

The past two years have seen a new wave of militant Indigenous resistance across Canada, centred on
1492 Land Back Lane in Haudenosaunee territory and the Unist’ot’en Camp and Healing Centre in Wet’suwet’en territory. 

Since July of 2020, Haudenosaunee people of the Six Nations of the Grand River community have been re-occupying a parcel of land adjacent to the reserve that is slated for a non-Native housing development. This struggle builds upon the community’s similar, and successful, land reclamation launched in 2006, for land known as Kanonhstaton.

The Unist’ot’en Camp was set up in 2010 by a Wet’suwet’en clan to stop the proposed development of multiple oil and gas pipelines in so-called British Columbia. A solidarity checkpoint and camp set up by the neighbouring Gidimt’en clan, and subsequent repeated raids by the RCMP in the winters of 2019 and 2020, escalated the situation.

Direct actions and other demonstrations of solidarity have taken place in urban and rural locations, carried out by both Native and non-Native people. On the Native side, the direct action aspect of this struggle is not new, but built upon generations of Indigenous resistance. What has been different about recent times is the greater number of non-Native people willing to not only hold solidarity demonstrations, but also take direct action, using the tactic of the blockade. 


Blocking dispossession

This tactic stands to place a limit on repressive action by the Canadian state and its police: to make the costs of repression outweigh the benefits, not just economically, but also socially. Not just in the present, but for the future.

A private 2015 risk assessment by the federal Department of Public Safety, for example, labeled the Unist’ot’en Camp as the “ideological and physical focal point of Aboriginal resistance to resource extraction projects.” The state security apparatus is concerned not just with any particular action but also with its potential to spread.

In 1990, cross-country Native solidarity blockades of roads and railways were a prominent feature of the so-called Oka Crisis, which centered on Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) land defence. Among those who took action in solidarity with the Kanien’kehá:ka were the Wet’suwet’en, and their neighbours and allies the Gitxsan. 

In the winter of 2020, the solidarity of 1990 was reciprocated, as Kanien’kehá:ka and other Haudenosaunee set up blockades and camps at the Tyendinaga, Kahnawá:ke, and Grand River communities in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan traveled across the country to Tyendinaga and Kahnawá:ke, to deepen already existing social-political links. These strengthened bonds were activated almost immediately, when Gitxsan chiefs and community members blocked a railway in their territory in response to the Ontario Provincial Police raid of a solidarity camp at Tyendinaga, as they had done just previously in response to the RCMP raid of Wet’suwet’en territory. When the RCMP moved in and arrested the Gitxsan chiefs, more community members rushed down to support, blocked the highway, and were able to force the RCMP to release those they’d arrested earlier that night.

Also during the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement, in Treaty 1 territory on the Prairies, Native warriors working in small groups did pop-up railway blockades and would strategically move on before police could enforce injunctions, in order to fight again another day. In response to such actions, the provincial governments of Manitoba and Alberta have sought to criminalize Indigenous direct action through new legislation that threatens steep fines and jail terms for anyone found interfering with “critical infrastructure” a term defined broadly enough to include streets and sidewalks.

More recently, the methods of the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement appear to have played some role in inspiring the ongoing use of road and railway blockade tactics in Mississauga, Ontario, as part of the movement for justice for Ejaz Choudry, a 62-year-old man who, while experiencing a mental health crisis, was shot and killed in his own home by the Peel Regional Police in the summer of 2020.

Implicit in the tactic of the blockade is a strategy that rejects attempts at moral persuasion or mere dialogue with those who hold power and property, and who use it to exploit, harm, and kill. Implicit in the forceful act of solidarity is the sense that an injury to one is an injury to all, and that one can best defend one’s own community by forging bonds with others. If a community cannot escape encirclement by the police on its own, supporters elsewhere can try to flank the state from the other side. This requires building or strengthening lines of communication that evade the state’s and the mainstream media’s control or easy access.


A tactic rooted in care

The strength behind Indigenous resistance flows from our community roots, and our sense of relationality, with each other and with all of our surroundings, living or otherwise. These already structured and long-held relations are what allow us to quickly respond to situations as they arise, with a strategic eye toward the future, toward securing a land and social base for generations to come. Such relations are the building blocks of the blockade, social as much as physical. In this way, the blockade relies on activities of care (or social reproduction) as much as a militant spirit.

In the past year, intergenerational relations of care produced direct action once again in Secwepemc territory and the City of Vancouver (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Səl̓ílwətaʔ and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territories), where several (re)occupation actions against the Trans Mountain Pipeline ended in arrests and court cases. The sentencing of Anishinaabe elder Stacy Gallagher to 90 days in prison led the Indigenous youth group Braided Warriors to block a Port of Vancouver entrance, as had been done a year earlier in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en.

Those solidarities extend beyond the blockade itself. For example, Native and non-Native supporters on the Prairies and in Ontario have been working to build support for Indigenous prisoners, and for people (Native and non-Native) still facing charges from the Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockade movement of early 2020. These campaigns have been made accessible via websites and fundraisers to help arrestees through the court process, and to support prisoners before and after release.

Non-Native people looking to support Indigenous resistance also have avenues open to them other than just adding their numbers to a blockade or contributing to a fundraiser account. Developing one’s own struggle so as to better link it with others is another step in the right direction. The growing self-organization evident in Toronto-area struggles – like in the struggle for justice for Ejaz Choudry, tenant organizing and eviction defence, and support for encampments and all unhoused people is the kind of good work that can also be done elsewhere, at a variety of points of social contention. Through the strengthening of different communities generated through those struggles, the potential for solidarity with the Indigenous resistance movement also grows.

Cities are Indigenous land too, and Native people are also workers, renters, and rough sleepers. We’re used to fighting on multiple fronts at once and we’re used to working with others. The networks of solidarity that make the blockade possible can be built in every struggle against the landlord, the boss, and the police representatives of a system that all oppressed people stand to benefit from tearing down.

Mike Gouldhawke is a Métis and Cree writer whose family is from kistahpinanihk (City of Prince Albert) and nêwo-nâkîwin (Mont Nebo) in Treaty 6 territory in Saskatchewan. He is based out of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Səl̓ílwətaʔ, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territories (Vancouver, British Columbia) and has been part of Indigenous and anti-capitalist movements in the city.