Unist’ot’en Action Camp – Connecting the struggles: By Herb Varley
The Unist’ot’en camp has been going on for 4 years and is located along the Morice River, which is in Wetsu’wet’en unceded territory. The camp stands in the path of a Pacific Trails Pipeline that would carry natural gas from northeastern BC to Kitimat. This would also pave the way for other projects from the Tar Sands. Grass roots families of the Unist’ot’en said “No” to the project and asserted their sovereignty over the land. Before coming on to the land, visitors are asked who they are, what their purpose is on the land, how long they will stay, and how their stay will benefit the Unist’ot’en, and if they work for government or industry. This protocol that every visitor must go through has helped the Unist’ot’en keep people from resource extraction industries off of the land. It affirms the sovereignty of the people and their responsibility to the land, without asking for it or demanding it from some one else. It is really empowering.
Reconciling my experience at the camp with our own struggles for justice and self-determination in the DTES has been hard. I have been involved in the City’s Local Area Planning Process for about 2 years, spending countless hours trying to demand that development of the area doesn’t displace low income people and that their needs for housing, food, income and safety be met first and foremost. But I have been sitting at the wrong table with the wrong people. Vancouver sits on Unceded Coast Salish territory and I should be at a table with the First People.
The Unist’ot’en camp is an act of resistance to industry and an assertion of sovereignty; it is also a strategy for outreach. For the five days I spent there, over 120 people gathered from all over Turtle Island, from indigenous and non-indigenous communities, to learn about struggles against colonial governments and resource extraction industries which threaten indigenous lands, sovereignty and traditions. The goal is to deepen understanding and broaden support for the various indigenous communities and their settler allies in this ongoing fight against displacement and destruction.
This goal is important for the DTES as well. If we limit ourselves to just this small neighbourhood and the people that live in it, we won’t have enough strength or resources to fight gentrification and displacement. We need to form larger groups and build up our networks of allies. It’s often the same people doing the organizing and speaking at rallies and press conferences, and people tune us out after a while. We need to get more people involved and aware so that the effort to make real social change will be bigger than just a few people or organizations.
One of the most common challenges the indigenous leaders spoke about at the Unist’ot’en Camp was the divisions in our own communities. As resource industry spokespeople talk about jobs and economic gain, some are ready to accept their deals. Others see the long-term impacts to the land and traditional ways of life and refuse to participate. Some people were of the mind that we need to focus on the home front and strengthen our own people first, while others felt that strong action now would force people sitting on the fence to make a stand. Both seem valid to me and need to be done in their own way; each situation and family is different so we need different tactics to win people over.
These same dynamics of divide and conquer are at work here in the DTES as well. We also need to continue outreach and foster understanding in our own community. We need to resist the understandable desire for economic gain and overcome the fear of personal repercussions (like losing one’s housing) in the struggle against displacement and gentrification. We need tactics that can win people over and build unity of purpose and vision.
With all of the concrete that covers the city it is hard to feel a connection to the land here. Everything is so unspirited. It is easy to focus on the carrot that capitalism dangles in front of us daily. It was re-invigorating to be in the bush with grassroots leaders who are committed to a powerful movement of sovereignty, and care for the land, people and traditions. We share many similar struggles and I hope to continue my connection with them in whatever lies ahead for me.