Historian says Canada uses police force to 'protect the economy' instead of dealing with Indigenous concerns
TORONTO -- In the wake of Ontario Provincial Police moving in to arrest Mohawk protesters at a railway near Belleville, Ont., Monday morning, a historian who studies colonial violence says that this latest use of police force is a sign that Canada, despite its goals of reconciliation, looks like it is repeating the mistakes of its past.
“As a historian, I’m disappointed,” Sean Carleton told CTV News. “We often talk about learning from the lessons of the past, so that we don’t make the same mistakes, and here we are.”
He added that if things continue in the direction of more police intervention, he’s “really concerned that reconciliation, if it’s not dead already, is certainly on life support.”
The Mohawks of Tyendinaga have had camps set up near a railway in their territory for nearly three weeks, protesting in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in B.C. who are embroiled in a struggle with RCMP and workers attempting to put a pipeline through their lands that hereditary chiefs say they have not consented to.
Rail blockades sprung up around the country in support of hereditary chiefs after the RCMP enforced an injunction in Wet’suwet’en territory that required land defenders to allow Coastal GasLink pipeline workers onto their land.
There were reports of RCMP violence against land defenders as they raided the Wet’suwet’en camps one by one in early February, arresting protesters.
Now, it seems the OPP’s turn to court controversy by arresting Indigenous protesters on their own lands. They arrested 10 protesters on Tyendinaga territory on Monday. Andrew Brant, a land defender who spoke to CTV News, alleged that one person was “hurt by police,” and reports from the scene confirm that an ambulance was seen leaving the area, though it’s unknown what type of injury might have been sustained.
“Canada has decided to force a kind of ‘might is right’ approach,” said Carleton, who is also an assistant professor at Mount Royal University. “And unfortunately I think it shows a sign of weakness, and a lack of courage on Canada’s side to actually sit down at the table, understand what the Wet’suwet’en chiefs were asking for, which was not unreasonable.”
The Mohawks of Tyendinaga have maintained that they would end their presence by the railway and allow trains to move through their territory as soon as the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs tell them the RCMP has left their lands, which they have said is a requirement in order for nation-to-nation talks to occur.
However, despite the RCMP announcing it would be pulling its forces back to a nearby town and no longer operating out of a remote detachment set up in Wet’suwet’en territory, Wet’suwet’en officials say that Mounties have increased patrols.
“The problem is that while they said they were going to pull out, in fact they’ve been pulling people over, profiling people, performing unsanctioned surveillance on Indigenous people as Canada has been doing for 150 years,” Carleton said, repeating allegations that have come out of Wet’suwet’en territory over the past few days.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that he is committed to reconciliation and wants a peaceful resolution to protests. But on Friday, his tone shifted, saying that Canadians “are running out of patience" with the blockades.
After claiming that “every attempt at dialogue has been made,” he said that Indigenous leadership needed to demonstrate an understanding that “the onus is on them.”
Carleton said this type of response is incompatible with reconciliation, and is a “smokescreen” that he says Canadian governments have used before to justify police force in dealing with Indigenous protests.
One example he mentioned was when, in 1995, dozens of heavily armed OPP officers stormed towards protesters from Stony Point First Nation who had occupied traditional lands appropriated by the federal government for a military training camp and the nearby Ipperwash Provincial Park.
An Indigenous protester, Dudley George, was shot and killed in the struggle.
The comparison to previous failures of nation-to-nation communication between Canada and Indigenous peoples is not one that officials are unaware of.
In his speech Friday, Trudeau even mentioned the need to avoid situations such as the Oka Crisis in 1990, when a 78-day standoff in Quebec left one police officer dead, an Indigenous teenager badly wounded and the relationship between Mohawks and non-Indigenous locals in tatters.
"History has taught us how governments can make matters worse if they fail to exhaust all other possible avenues," Trudeau said.
But not all cases of police use of force or intimidation are simply a matter of history. Just last December, The Guardian published a story outlining how the RCMP had been prepared to use “lethal overwatch,” -- meaning the deployment of snipers -- in a January 2019 raid on Wet’suwet’en land defenders that saw 14 people arrested. The RCMP argued later that the term was taken out of context.
After the raid on the Mohawks of Tyendinaga on Monday, The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake put out a statement saying the council “wishes to express its outrage and disgust regarding the actions taken this morning on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.”
The statement went on to say that while OPP officers were moving in, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs had been working on “an imminent solution” with federal and provincial governments -- a decision that the OPP apparently did not wait for.
They gave demonstrators at Tyendinaga a midnight deadline to leave the area without facing charges. The deadline came and went. But then, in the morning, numerous OPP officers moved in.
Carleton said that over the past 150 years, Canada seems to default to using force to “protect the economy,” instead of addressing Indigenous concerns.
The rail blockades have caused disruptions to life across Canada, including almost 1,500 temporary layoffs between Via Rail and CN Rail, halts to passenger travel and economic impacts on the agriculture sector.
CN Rail’s freight operations in Eastern Canada ground to a halt. There were concerns raised about potential shortages in propane in some areas of Canada, which is used for heating homes, senior facilities and farms. A letter was penned to the government on behalf of the heads of major business associations in Canada, calling for an end to the blockades amid the economic turmoil.
But supporters of the blockades say that a protest that does not provoke some sort of discomfort is ineffective in getting the greater public to consider how Indigenous lives are disrupted every day by the continuing effects of colonization in Canada.
Among the concerns raised by opponents to the blockades is that the rail blockades could lead to shortages in chlorine to purify water for communities across Canada, which, ironically, shines another light on how Indigenous communities are treated when compared to the rest of Canada; according to the federal government’s website, there are still 61 Indigenous communities under long-term “do not consume” or boil-water advisories.
Since November 2015, 88 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted. But some communities still suffering under them have not had clean water since 2006.
Molly Wickam, a spokesperson with the Gidimt’en Camp -- one of the Wet’suwet’en camps set up during their initial standoff with RCMP -- told CTV News that Indigenous protesters such as the Mohawks of Tyendinaga “have the right to do what they want on their own territories.
“And the fact that stuff has been shut down, that people aren’t getting their needs met is an indicator that the government needs to address the actual issue. They can’t continue to use force on unarmed, peaceful people.”
She said that this situation isn’t merely about a pipeline, or a single protest, but speaks to “a bigger issue about Indigenous rights: Indigenous sovereignty.
“The fact that armed policemen went in and removed Indigenous people from their own territory once again speaks to the fact that this issue is not going away (anytime) soon, and that the governments clearly haven’t learned how to deal with this issue, by sending in more force.”
Carleton agrees, saying he hopes that Canada will “look in the mirror,” and decide whether to commit to dealing with issues through dialogue.
“I think we’re clearly at a crossroads,” he said. “Is reconciliation going to continue to be hollow promises? Or is it actually going to be getting down to the root cause of these issues, which is the ongoing history and practice of colonialism in this country?
“Are we committed to dialogue and diplomacy, do we have the courage and conviction to actually change our behavior, or are we just going to continue to use force to get our way? And I hope that we can find a different way to move forward. But it doesn’t look like it, based on the events of this morning.”
With files from the Canadian Press