The current blockades across the land known as Canada, done in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people, whose land is currently occupied by the RCMP, are a long-overdue reckoning. The purpose of the blockades is to impose economic pain on Canada. This is fitting as Canada has undermined, weakened and destroyed the economies of Indigenous peoples since before Confederation.

Kanenhariyo gives Indigneous Services Minister Marc Miller a teaching on the Two Row Wampum February 15 2020. Photo credit: Katie Doyle

Sharing the Land

The historic treaties that govern relations between settlers and Indigenous peoples across much of Canada are statements of land-sharing. The image of the Two Row Wampum expresses this most explicitly. The two rows of purple on a white background symbolize a friendship between two peoples continuing to live according their own customs. 

The original peoples and the settlers used the land in different ways and sharing seemed both possible and desirable. If we apply a contemporary perspective, the treaty ideal was for two economies to flourish side-by-side. 

The form and scale of early settler economies was limited enough and small enough that Indigenous economies could continue. Further, the settler economies produced different goods, which allowed for beneficial trade with the Indigenous economies. 

As settlers moved West and treaties were signed with the original inhabitants of the land, one consistent promise was that Indigenous people could continue to hunt, fish, trap and gather freely almost everywhere in the treatied territory. However, as settlers spread across the land, Indigenous economic practices were curtailed and criminalized. Far from being allowed to continue their traditional practices, Indigenous people were corralled onto reserves. 

Zero-Point-Two Percent Economy

The late Indigenous scholar and leader Arthur Manuel pointed out that the poverty endured by many Indigenous communities is the result of economic strangulation. He connected that strangulation directly to the land. Manuel argued that the settler-colonial practices of the Europeans and Canada shrank the economic base of Indigenous Peoples from 100% of the land to a mere 0.2% of Canada. Canada has ignored the underlying Indigenous title and the promise to share the land. By proclaiming the exclusive right to grant access to the land and its resources, Canada has made itself rich while making Indigenous people poor. 

No single metric can express the disparity that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. However, even imperfect measures like income per capita and Statistic Canada’s Community Well-Being Index show the stark difference. The income of First Nations people, living on reserve, is about half of non-Indigenous income. The Community Well-Being Index includes income, education, employment and housing. The index is 25 percent lower for First Nations communities compared to non-Indigenous communities.

Neither of these measures captures the harms associated with economic activities that disproportionately affects Indigenous communities. Alberta tar sands extraction is associated with abnormally high cancer rates. Mega-dams, like the one planned for Muskrat Falls in Labrador and Site C in British Columbia, are associated with mercury poisoning for those that fish and hunt downstream. An area around Sarnia, Ontario, densely populated with petrochemical plants, known as ‘Chemical Valley’ produces high levels of air and water pollution in neighbouring Aamjiwnaang First Nation. The camps used for large-scale infrastructure projects like pipelines, referred to as ‘Man Camps’, often brings violence to neighbouring communities, especially against women. Indigenous communities and peoples are the primary victims. 

Wet’suwet’en solidarity demonstrators blockade an intersection in downtown Toronto on February 16 2020. Photo credit: Katie Doyle

Opposing Pipelines

For centuries, Canada has made it difficult, if not impossible, for Indigenous communities to develop and sustain their own economies. At the same time, they treated those communities as less valuable and less important than settler communities. The Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline is just the latest example. 

The hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en told Coastal GasLink (CGL) that they did not approve of the company’s proposed route. However, they offered an alternative route that followed already disturbed landscape. Coastal GasLink rejected the proposal. Among the reasons cited by the company for the rejection was the route’s proximity to non-Indigenous communities of Smithers, Houston, Terrace and Kitimat. 

The violation of Wet’suwet’en sovereignty, the threat to lands that support Wet’suwet’en economic practices, and the contravention of their customs of land stewardship were considered unimportant. More important to the settler governments, and their courts, is the development by settler corporations of resources that will overwhelmingly bring jobs and income to settler communities. 

Stock Photo: CN Rail Locomotive in Train Yard. Taken in North Vancouver, BC, Canada

The Cost of Solidarity Occupations

The violation of Wet’suwet’en jurisdiction has triggered widespread resistance by Indigenous people and settler allies. Numerous solidarity blockades, and other actions, have shutdown several rail systems and demanded the attention of the Trudeau government. The purpose of the blockades is to impose economic costs on Canada. 

The government of Canada systematically prioritizes its economic well-being over the well-being of Indigenous people. This is “business as usual” in Canada. These blockades are a declaration that business as usual is over. Canada is finally having to account for the damage it has done to Indigenous peoples.

Estimates of how much the blockades are costing the Canadian economy place the figure in the billions. However, it is impossible to get an accurate value. Consider the sixty-six or more ships that are waiting off the B.C. coast for the blockades to end. Every day these ships act as floating storage facilities, is a day they are not able to deliver other goods. That is lost income for the shippers. The delay of the goods they hold is disrupting carefully managed supply chains. That requires an incalculable amount of effort to reorganize. Some production facilities may run short of essential inputs, forcing them to shut down. While the railway companies are obviously impacted, the trucking companies that carry goods to and from the rails will also be losing work. 

With a few strategically located blockades, solidarity actions are seizing up large portions of the integrated Canadian economy. Since Canada’s is a global economy, the effects will be felt beyond our borders. This brings yet other costs. Non-Canadian companies will be more reluctant to do business with Canadian companies that are exposed to the risks and uncertainty associated with unacknowledged Indigenous jurisdiction. 

Business as usual is done. Now, the government will either back down from its illegitimate and illegal incursion into sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory, or it will resort to force to bring an end to the blockades targeting the Canadian economy. Hopefully, it chooses the path of peace and friendship that was the basis of the original treaties.