Trudeau’s promises to Indigenous people ring empty without real diplomacy

The conflict with Wet’suwet’en land defenders shows how little government or industry understand or respect Indigenous communities.

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When I saw photojournalists’ pictures of RCMP members scaling the blockade at the Gidimt’en checkpoint last week, I thought I was watching SEAL Team 6 raiding an ISIS stronghold in the Middle East. Instead, they were scaling a wooden fence to arrest Wet’suwet’en people, including hereditary chiefs protecting their land from encroachment by police and industry.

Those pictures will stay with me forever.

I discussed this event in a series of CBC Radio interviews on Monday morning. Among the questions I was asked is how can we prevent this from happening again. The question is so simple yet so profound.

Firstly, government and company officials should have done their homework — because they clearly didn’t in this instance. If they’d done a deeper dive, they’d have gotten a more accurate picture of the community’s social, cultural and political makeup. In particular, they’d have known and respected the weight hereditary chiefs carry with decision making.

Being better informed would have at least better equipped the government and company officials to have more meaningful engagement with the people whose land they want to access. This may have yielded other results, or maybe even generated options and alternatives.

More detailed study would have also revealed that many Indigenous communities are similar to fragile or post-conflict states abroad. Specialized diplomats are often dispatched to such states, and I’m always surprised this isn’t done in an Indigenous context here. The confrontation seems less heated today, though reports from the Gidimt’en checkpoint say RCMP have established a presence on their land. If there is a pause in the dispute, it could offer some space for diplomacy and meaningful dialogue to take place, albeit belatedly.

This issue will no doubt have some bearing on this year’s federal election in October. In December 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told chiefs at an Assembly of First Nations conference that “no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with First Nations, the Metis Nation, and Inuit Peoples.”

But promising “a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations Peoples —one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation” held out hope to a people for whom hope is all they have left.

With great hope comes great expectations, and there was no way to deliver on his promises in one, or even two, electoral cycles. Real change requires a long game, something that is often overlooked in the whole conversation. And this long game requires true reconciliation, including coming to terms with whose land this really is and what that means for energy and resource companies that want access to it.

I’d like to see the journey the federal Liberals started continue. But Indigenous people must take the wheel now because they know best where they want to go and how to get there. Don’t play politics with hope, not with a people who have lost everything but this.

People are talking about 

  • In this National Post column, Terry Glavin lays out how the federal and B.C. governments’ avoidance of hard questions led to the confrontation at the Gidimt’en checkpoint.

  • CBC reporter Angela Sterritt breaks down five terms you should know in the Wet’suwet’en pipeline dispute, and how to pronounce them.
  • This Times Colonist story spells out some of the differences between hereditary and elected band councils.

  • Columnist John Ivison looks at MP Jody Wilson-Raybould’s surprise move from justice minister to veterans affairs minister in this week’s cabinet shuffle. Wilson-Raybould was the first Indigenous person to head the federal justice ministry and serve as the Attorney General of Canada. She released a statement responding to questions about getting shuffled, and the work that still needs to be done.  

  • This CBC story shows how a family used social media to live stream the removal of a baby from a mother’s arms in a Winnipeg hospital.

Culture connections

Wes Mitchell drummed alongside veterans in last year’s Remembrance Day march through downtown Prince George, B.C.

Wesley Mitchell describes himself as a Carrier man, a drummer, a waste management worker who loves to recycle, an avid volunteer, and a fan of the Prince George Spruce Kings hockey team. He’s spent most of his life in the northern community — where 14.5 per cent of the population identified as Indigenous in the 2016 census.

People “help each other out” in Prince George, Wes says. And while it may be “a hard-working blue-collar community… that’s evolving.”

Wes contacted The Discourse because he wanted to share his story. Over the phone, the 41-year-old talked about how he’s moved from substance abuse to a healthier lifestyle, and how his journey intersected with Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

He says drumming and elders have helped him heal from intergenerational abuse and trauma.

Wes began drumming in 2015, when he was gifted a drum and invited to join the Khast’an drummers, a group made up of Lheidli T’enneh members and friends.

“Drums are song and prayer, right?” he says. “A drum is made from animal skin and wood, so part of my prayer, always, is I thank the animal world and the plant world for giving up their lives so we can continue ours.”

When Wes plays, he’s praying to his ancestors and to Creator. He says he never plays when he has alcohol in his system. So when he fell off the wagon in 2015, Wes put his drum down for a while.

Two years later he was living in his car in the Downtown Eastside. “That’s where my addiction brought me,” he says. “I ended up doing intravenous drugs. I’d never done it in my life.”

He says he “barely survived.” Then he enrolled in an eight-week program at Wilp Si’Satxw Community Healing Centre for men who’ve experienced trauma. Back up north, at Wilp Si’Satxw, Wes received his first Indigenous name — Maluu G’wil ‘Ah which, he says, means “Crazy Echo” in the Gitxsan language.

Wes, right, played with the Khast’an drummers on Canada Day, 2017.

Wes has been sober since Sept. 6, 2017. These days you’ll find him drumming all over Prince George — at schools and hospitals, in parades and as part of the Red Dress campaign to honour Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. For him, drumming is about restoring the balance of the medicine wheel.

“I’ve always felt less than other people,” he says. “It’s helped me heal by just giving me self-awareness, self-respect, the ability to get up in front of people and get some voice and volume. My voice and volume does matter; I do matter.”

Wes asked us to end this story the same way he ends conversations: “All my relations.”

Would you like to share what you love about being part of the urban Indigenous community, or what’s challenging? Send your thoughts, contact info and a photo of yourself to We’ll be in touch if we’d like to feature you in an upcoming newsletter.

Let’s gather 

  • Jan. 19: Populous Map and All my Relations Entertainment are hosting a dance party in Vancouver for folks who want to show their support for Unist’ot’en. The Defender Dance: Party for Unist’ot’en is happening from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. here, in the Creative Coworkers space. Not into dancing? There will be a space for chilling, playing table tennis or colouring. Pay what you can at the door or donate ahead of time on Eventbrite. Direct any questions to Laura at 778-385-5262.
  • There are lots of opportunities for Indigenous youth coming up:

    Youth interested in learning about “the public policy process and how to influence it” may want to apply to Vancouver Foundation’s LEVEL Youth Policy Program. This six-month leadership program’s open to Indigenous and racialized immigrant or refugee young people who are between 19 and 29. Apply here by Feb. 3.

    And youth who are between the ages of 14 and 24 and who have experienced government care may like to join the 17th annual Gathering Our Voices Indigenous youth conference in March in Port Alberni on the traditional territories of the Hupačasath and Tseshaht First Nations. More than 1,000 Indigenous youth will gather this year to discuss things like health, language, culture, the environment, employment, education, sports and recreation. Applications are due by Feb. 8.

  • Feb. 15: Upcoming summit alert! Youth, parents and service providers will be gathering in Abbotsford at WJ Mouat Secondary for FLOH’s Balancing our Minds Summit. This free, youth-led summit aims to “empower youth and bring awareness to topics concerning youth.” There will be workshops on naloxone training, leadership, opioid dialogue and plenty more. Lunch and snacks will be provided. Register here.

If you know about an event that you think should be included in this newsletter next week, send me an email.

And if you like this newsletter, help us build this community by inviting your friends to subscribe. We value your feedback.[end]


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