By Brad Hornick
Twelve hours into a motorcycle ride from Vancouver to the Unist'ot'en camp, and after short dips in a couple of the hundreds of small lakes in 40 degree weather, the glow of the northern British Columbia evening sky turns thick and otherworldly with smoke from nearby forest fires. Seeking a place to sleep, I skip the first small town whose cheap motels were filled with some of the hundreds of firefighters and evacuees from local oil and gas camps. The fires rage as a result of pine-beetle ravaged forests and a hot, dry B.C. interior.
The next day I arrive drained and weary at the Unist'ot'en camp after negotiating an hour and a half of rather treacherous (for a motorcycle) logging truck grooved gravel roads. At the camp entrance, a just unloaded flower power Victoria, B.C. bus of "settler allies" was about to traverse a narrow wooden bridge adorned with big colourful letters painting "no pipelines." I am waved over as next in the queue and was confronted by two imposing First Nations men on the bridge.
"What is my name, where am I from, what have I to contribute at the camp, what had I to offer in the long term, and am I an employee of a resources company or government official?" Hot, tired and still vibrating from hands holding steal grips from bike, perfunctory answers follow: Brad, Vancouver, will help cook, hopefully write, no. "Welcome to the camp" said Toghestiy, "when you write, remember to mention that the pipelines are both fracked gas and bitumen."
I am through the ritual, but during and after my words were spoken, something unsettlingly non-synchronous seeps into awareness. The mindfulness of the road and inertia from travel come to a dead stop, and turn to a disquietingly intense and sober existential awareness of presence at the camp.
Where am I from? Toronto where I grew up? Saskatchewan and Welland where my Russian and German immigrant grandparents settled? East and West Europe where I perhaps had some Indigenous roots? Maybe I am none of that, but an unhinged temporary settler on Coast Salish Territories, a.k.a. Vancouver? Wait, let me go back and restate… let me display some nuance and sensitivity to the meaning and ceremony of the welcome into this place populated by the ancestral spirits of this powerful warrior people…
The Unist'ot'en clan are the original, and as their website says, the "most courageous" of the Wet'suwet'en peoples. They have built a resistance camp to protect their ancestral lands from seven proposed pipelines originating from the Alberta Tar Sands and the "natural" gas from the Horn River Basin in the Peace River Region. These gigantic pipeline arteries are part of continental scale projects that would deliver bitumen sludge and fracked gas through pristine lands and waterways to be delivered to the global capitalist markets.
This is no small effort. These are no small people. The sternness of the composure of my bridge greeters comes from somewhere deep and authentic. The historical importance of the Unist'ot'en stand strikes me as I emerge from the cooking tent to observe the workshop agenda one day. Who is "Wolverine" I ask the camp's baker, who cooks wonderfully fresh bread for campers on a daily basis. "Is Wolverine speaking? I think we should put things aside, people can eat a little late today," she said.
William "Wolverine" Jones Ignace led the armed occupation over aboriginal title at the Gustafsen Lake standoff in 1995, which was a confrontation between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Ts'Peten Defenders in unceded Shuswap territory. It was the most costly RCMP operation of its kind in Canadian history involving more than 400 police officers and support from the Canadian military. His legend covered many other events in recent First Nations activist history.
Wolverine, the war veteran and elder faced the audience of roughly 120 mostly 20-something settler campers in a field behind the main camp house and taught as he spoke with the grandeur equal to any head of state. Wolverine, with the grace that one always experiences in the respectful protocols amongst First Nations, sat and quietly paid epic homage to Toghestiy and Freda, the two heredity leaders of the Unist'ot'en peoples and their stand in this resistance camp.
The bald eagles that fly overhead don't question their ability to dive to catch their land-bound prey or to soar above the tall trees. The salmon don't question their ability to forge across the great Pacific ocean and miraculously return to the small creeks and rivers of their origin. There is no equivocation, no separation of identity and will within these archetypes of creation in their daily actions, as well as in those who emulate through revering them.
I am a settler. I go to sleep in the settler camp. I meet with the rest of the settlers. I talk with the settlers about our support for the First Nations. I clarify my thoughts and feelings of separation from first peoples with the settlers. I meet with settlers and first peoples at food, sharing and workshop time. I am internally confused and a little distraught. My socialist convictions tell me that although I am not working class, I am at least an ally if I intellectually join the working-class project through systemic analysis and practical class struggle.
I am not confident in the theory and politics of de-colonialization and identity. I am a socialist and environmental activist who organizes to resist the capitalist system and the fossil fuel culture that destroys the earth's life support systems. The alienation of both labour and nature is rooted in the social relations and growth imperative of capitalist production and must be challenged at the points of extraction, production and transportation. First Nations are at the forefront of these struggles in my region of the world and many others. I respect them for their courageous positions and I believe (as we need them) they need us "settlers" as an urban front for this anti-capitalist enterprise. Should we not organize as allies and equals?
Somehow, I fear not.
Yes, there is a difference between me and my comrades against the "colonial elites", and the powerful and wealthy ruling class that drive our economic and social priorities. But no matter what my class position or intent, or my desire to distinguish myself from the brutality of colonization, I am a privileged person within colonial institutions and customs. Because of that, I am connected to and complicit in the continued theft of Indigenous lands and the exploitation of Indigenous resources. I may not want to participate in subjugation, but I can't change my history or who I am today. Does this mean I have become a self-accepting -- or is it "self-rejecting" -- colonizer, with the lifetime of ambiguity ahead of me that comes from rejecting my own status?
And what of the 20-somethings here at the camp? Is it not important that they are intellectually and emotionally armed with the confidence in their own class agency, their own archetypal powers? Do they not divest their agency by accepting an admittedly impressive but passive second wheel to First Nations leadership? I go and talk to a couple of my socialist comrades in the settler camp. "We should lead a workshop on the confluence of anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism," I argue. We almost conduct the session but are limited by time and our own hurried disorganization. It's a good thing.
I walk to the kitchen, boxes full of gloriously miscellaneous food item donations sitting in boxes in the sun. "We must form a line and place the boxes in the forest adjacent to the cooking tent in the interest of preservation," someone rallies the camp. We form a line and take care of our food. I join the small battalion of water carriers that transport river water to cisterns beside the kitchen. The meal is ready. We form a circle, a plate is prepared with a taste of each food item for an elder. The elder lifts the plate and prays to the ancestors and the Great Being in thankfulness and blessings for the work of the camp. The elders, children and cooks move to the front of the line and begin the glorious food orgy that only comes from camp-site cooking and eating.
Tonight we meet as settlers. One of the main discussion topics is the "the impossibility of reverse racism." "There is no such thing as reverse racism. Racism is a combination of discrimination and power. Without the power element, there is no racism," the workshop leader exhorts. A legacy of the respectful protocol and ritual that punctuates the events at the camp, I find the discussion to be highly sensitive to each other's viewpoints and levels of consciousness, especially those that are contrarian. I am still myself unclear, by the end of it, but I feel part of an intensely rich discussion.
News floats through the camp one day about an incident on the bridge. A couple of RCMP officers attempt to enter the camp but are at first slowed by the 24-hour guards and then halted by Freda and Toghestiy. I immediately clue into the fact that the heart of camp life is the bridge. I ask if there is a need and a time slot for guard duty and soon find myself in foul weather gear on site with another settler ally.
We talk about many, many things in rapid fire succession from his vast ex-military knowledge of firearms to the implications of emerging climate science and the impending global breakdown of economic, social and political order. There is no confusion over identity here. My new friend has come to construct some key architectural requirements of the new bunk-house that will house around-the-clock defenders of the bridge. We share some snacks as he sips water from a backpack and shows me some newly purchased pocket-knife gadgetry.
The camp decides to construct a workshop around a roleplay of an intervention on the bridge. Since I am the guy on bridge duty with the two-way radio, I conspire with the organizers. A mob of 30 come to play the role of police in riot gear. I radio to Toghesty that the gate has been breached and the armed phalanx is traversing the bridge. From the hill a rush of about 40 run and mobilize a non-violent defence, placing their bodies on the bridge and chanting "you shall not pass." I feel my own body planting itself to place, empowered by the collective energy.
I leave the camp early. I need to get back to Monday's work routine. I look forward to the awesome British Columbia mountains, forests, lakes and winding roads on my motorcycle. I greet Toghestiy. I have not attempted to develop a relationship. If I am honored by that at some future point, I would be happy, but it is not my place here and now. "I have been honoured and privileged to be welcomed into this camp and amongst your family," I say. "I will make an effort to continue to support the camp in ways that I can." After an uneventful good-bye to new friends I've made, I pass over the bridge, and the truck that is sealing one entrance to the bridge backs-up and I am off.
Back in the city, the listless experience of my own incompleteness, the notion that I could be more attuned to myself, the moment, and to the epic environmental struggle we all face, still pervades my daily life. I think back to the hard coldness waking up in my sleeping bag, the few days bereft of city comforts, the starkly fresh crisp air and immediate connectedness to nature (not least through constant mosquito bites). I think of the incessant whirl of frenetic city activity which then slows to a crawl in this self-conscious writing and reading.
On August 4th, "B.C. Day", not far from the Unist'ot'en camp, an Imperial Metals owned Mount Polley Mine tailings pond is breached. Massive devastation has ensued from the release of toxic sludge into the pristine waters, including threatening the salmon run protected by the Tsilhquot'in Nation for many decades. A couple days later, B.C. Premier Christy Clark travels to the area to assure the people that the water is fine. But there is no such thing as clean water downstream of this disaster for ever more.
The toxins that have been released (including mercury poisoning) and that have settled in the hillsides are there for every day's rain to continue to wash into the water, into the fish, into the wildlife on which the First Nations survive. In 2001 when Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark and their government was elected, one of the first things they did was initiate the process of deregulation of many of the mining regulations that would have helped prevent this from happening. The Liberal government's support for these corporations created the conditions for this disaster. They, along with the corporation executives should be forcefully held accountable. Canadian mining companies get away with this throughout the world.
The stand at the Unist'ot'en Camp is the expression of human imagination and emancipation in our dying world. It boldly evokes the centuries-old cries and exhortations of pain and triumph shared throughout the Americas in Indigenous communities that have fought the hollowed-out soul-less systems of colonial and capitalist power.
The Unist'ot'en camp is an invitation to reach down and take a camp cup, drink water from its flowing rivers for nourishment. Stand on the bridge and defend what divides the outside from life's oasis. Embolden one's spirit in the fight against the forces of death. It is a long way from the city. Be prepared for your own clumsiness in its midst.
Brad Hornick is a Vancouver based writer and activist and PhD candidate. He is active with Rising Tide Coast Salish Territories, the Vancouver Ecosocialists and System Change not Climate Change. He writes a regular article on rabble.ca. He will be present at the upcoming People's Social Forum to talk about the camp and ecosocialist strategy.