Indigenous Reconciliation Still Lost on Deaf Ears

In the last week or so something off-beat happened in the pacifist, hippy-happy city of Victoria, BC: entire groups of people have stepped right onto major thoroughfares around the city, holding banners, huddled together and singing songs.

Yesterday, demonstrators blocked access for the second time in the last week to Bay Street Bridge and Johnson St. Bridge, cutting off easy access to downtown Victoria. In other parts of the country, similar demonstrations have blocked of major rail networks, bridges and highways.

Their motive? An open protest against unfolding events in northern British Columbia, where a Coastal Gaslink pipeline is trying to rip through the middle of traditional land of the local Wet’suwet’en First Nation. Making things worse, the RCMP began enforcing a court-ordered injunction so that Gaslink’s contractors can continue their work, leading to multiple arrests.

Despite federal and provincial efforts to supposedly “begin a healing process” with Indigenous groups, communication, accountability and due process still remain problematic.

So, following my reporter instincts, I went down to Johnson St. bridge after word broke out on Facebook that demonstrators were gathering on the bridge yet again.

As I approached the bridge, people were huddled together, chatting and singing on the road. (Copyright Octaviauto 2020)

I covered protests and demonstrations in my reporter days before, but this was different. Perhaps that I wasn’t official media, just a local citizen curious to see what’s happening. It also felt closer to heart, as does the subject at hand. Not 10 minutes in, I noticed passerbys on nearby walkways hurling insults at the demonstrators. Colourful things, such as, “go get a job you fucking degenerates,” or “how dare you block the road, people have lives, kids at school to pick up! fucking losers!” And contrary to popular belief, these were not old hippies living their Vietnam-era rebellious youth again. These were young people, mostly in their early and mid 20s; students, people with jobs. Educated people with homes and families, and obligations, like everyone else.

The vitriol from angry Victorians continued well into the evening, some even making threats. Yet despite the assault of insults, not one demonstrator engaged with these individuals. There were no fights, no face-to-face heated arguments. This overall peaceful arrangement was kept by several demonstrator “officials” decked in hi-vis vests, whose mantra was “this is about solidarity, please do not engage with those people, let them carry on through.”

It certainly paid off.

Mind you, there were a few notable encounters. One man was seen walking past, yelling at the top of his lungs, “build it! build the pipeline! build it! sell the gas to China! Sell it all to the People’s Republic! Build it!” he kept repeating it all the way across the bridge. His banter was met with tribal hooting and whooping. Another walked past the blockade throwing eggs at demonstrators and their banners, yelling “fucking idiots! get a job you fucking scum!” – meanwhile, police were sitting well in the background, watching this unfold.

Demonstrators hold NO CONSENT – NO PIPELINE banner on east side of Johnson St. Bridge. Copyright Octaviauto 2020

All the negative reactions coming from the community was, to say the least, troubling. The idea that these people blocked “their” road, “their” bridge, is proof that many people, including our own government, is missing the whole point of these demonstrations. No one is happy to stay out in the cold holding banners. No one desires to put themselves in danger. Yet, historically-speaking, human beings will step up and make themselves heard when they need to. These are people speaking out for other people whose voices are not being heard; because if they were, they wouldn’t have to block bridges, roads or railway tracks to do so.

“Many people just don’t want to be bothered by it, or they’re misinformed,” said one of the demonstrators. “It’s easier to pretend everything is okay, but we’re not going to do that. We’ll sit out there and we’ll try for as long as we have to, until the Wet’suwet’en are heard.”

Darkness fell and temperatures dropped, yet it did little to dampen demonstrators’ spirits. (Copyright Octaviauto 2020)

It’s just easier to just pretend nothing is happening. That problems are too far away from our doorsteps for us to care. It’s precisely what’s wrong with our society. It doesn’t affect me, so I don’t need to be bothered mentality is what allows terrible things to happen in our world in the first place.

Demonstrators march towards the B.C. Legislature Building where other demonstrators have camped out for the last few days. (Copyright Octaviauto 2020)

The passive-aggressive reaction from government officials is equally self-evident. No one, from the municipal or provincial government, has addressed the situation as of the time of writing this entry. No word from B.C. Premier John Horgan, and nothing even from Prime Minister Trudeau, either.

This is particularly alarming for a city and a province, as well as a nation, that dedicates a significant amount of its time trying to flaunt its Indigenous sensibilities.

Smiling faces, open hypocrisy

A banner standing in front of the BC Legislature Building. (Copyright Octaviauto 2020)

I see it everywhere, particularly here in Victoria. On big posters and highway boards, I hear it over the radio and see it on local news; I see big centers of “reconciliation” built from retroflective glass, lacquered wood and polished steel. I see it when I apply for a job, the line, “do you identify as Indigenous/First Nations, priority may be given to this group,” or “we want to acknowledge the XXXX people for the land we are on.”

Yet in the real world, there’s a different kind of story playing out, making all these efforts of healing seem more like a facade; a cover for how people truly feel about Canada’s indigenous people. That is most evident of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who, in midst of everything that is happening in northern B.C. right now, has remained dead silent. This is a man who beat drums and chanted the songs of First Nations during his regular visits here in B.C. and rest of Canada, while eagerly begging other Canadians to truly embrace reconciliation and allow healing to begin. His actions however, have spoken the complete opposite; and whether it’s a lack of leadership, poor judgement or just plain ignorance, the results of all this false reconciliation is unfolding before our very eyes.

Actions behind closed doors

RCMP officers switch between shifts near their roadblock as supporters of the Unist’ot’en camp and Wet’suwet’en First Nation gather at a camp fire off a logging road near Houston, B.C., THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Perhaps the most sinister element in all this is the ongoing effort to try to conceal, or at the very least, keep the rest of the world from knowing what is happening up there.

Case in point, RCMP continue to block all media from entering the troubled region, while allowing open access to Coastal Gaslink staff into Wet’suwet’en territory. Just recently, a Ricochet Media journalist was detained and wasn’t allowed to leave the site for eight hours.

Again this is why it’s critical to have reporters on the ground, to watch, to learn, to report what is happening for the rest of us who can’t be there ourselves to witness it. Even when journalists are denied access, arrested or abused, that alone is a story even of itself. It tells the world that something unethical, illegal, possibly violent and unjust is happening, and the powers that be don’t want witnesses. There is, after all a difference between keeping the public out for safety’s sake, and purposely suppressing every avenue of information to shield unjust behaviour.

Police officers stand on the road after clearing the intersection of protesters that were blocking an entrance to the port during a demonstration. (Darryl Dyck, The Canadian Press)

Adding insult to injury, journalists are not only confined to areas outside the exclusion zone, but told to contact RCMP’s media liaison via telephone, despite having no cell service in that area.

Via Ricochet: Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs remain firmly opposed to having the pipeline cross their territory. Police are clearing Wet’suwet’en people and their supporters from the area and recently expanded their exclusion zone by more than 20 kilometres.

300 steps backwards

Everyone living in North America (and South America) knows the story, or at least, they should. Around three centuries ago, Europeans came and colonized what is modern-day Canada, United States and South American nations. I’m oversimplifying here, but the history of destruction and violence against indigenous populations is thick and still being documented.

So to see it happen again in 2020 is hard to grasp, or even believe, and this is what much of Canada is feeling right now. The RCMP’s actions have opened old wounds for many Indigenous people out there, because their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and ancestors experienced the same kind of violence and forced exile many times before. Doesn’t matter how any PR magician can try and spin it, this event reeks of old colonial barbarism, and there simply is no place for it in Canada; nor should there be anywhere else in the world.

Rediscovering history via an immigrant lens

When I came to Canada with my parents in 1998 from Romania, we knew very little about what transpired here. Even in school, it took me years and bits and pieces to learn what happened to Canada’s Indigenous population. In Grade 7 history class, I clearly remember asking myself, “where are all the Aboriginal people? They were here tens of thousands of years ago, so where did they go?” Little did I or my colleagues know, they’ve been here the whole time, yet seemingly kept hidden behind a veil. There was no acknowledgement via the PA of whose land the school was built on; no club or group dedicated for the purpose of Aboriginal development or studies. Toronto’s school curriculum was, and still kind of is, hilariously thin on the subject.

It wasn’t until Grade 10 when I met a fellow colleague, who was part Algonquin, part Portuguese. It was also at this point that I, as an outsider, got my first hint at what happened here. He told me chilling stories of when he was still back on an Aboriginal reserve in northern Ontario; of how there was always so little food or water, yet drug and alcohol abuse was always rampant. He told me stories of his mother going to residential schools, being beat up by teachers and pelted with rocks by other white kids, just because she was indigenous. I could mouth no words of comfort, I still can’t; nor could I understand why these people, who lived and died here for thousands of years, were treated with such discrimination.

Shortly after graduating high school in 2007, I took a co-op job with Toronto Police as an assistant liaison and coordinator for the Special Olympics, which Toronto Police was a host of at the time. One day, I was assigned to accompany a Toronto Police Aboriginal Affairs Officer, whose job largely revolved around trying to build a support network between Toronto Police and Aboriginal/Indigenous community service centres in Toronto.

Once inside one of these centres, my whole perception of the subject shifted dramatically again. Thick plexiglass, cold steel counters and benches were the only things in a dimly-lit reception area, whose walls were painted a sickly teal; reminiscent of the same colour found in a Romanian hospital.

“This is where all the struggling native youth in the city end up. Most of them are addicts and come from broken homes. They have nowhere else to go,” the officer said to me in a somber voice. It was one of several rehabilitation centres of this kind in the city. I was shocked, not only to see people my age or younger in such pain and suffering, but completely invisible to the rest of society.

In my years as a journalist, I took a more active approach. I had direct contact with First Nations chiefs and band members, openly trying to tell their stories. My approach was to listen and assume I knew nothing, using only curiosity to guide me.

Over the years, I learned of injustices committed against indigenous groups on a provincial level, all in favour of hungry developers looking to expand their real estate portfolio at any cost. One such example, my story on the Pacheedaht First Nation in Port Renfrew, B.C., and how the construction of a new marina was forced through, despite outcry from most of the local community.

Sound familiar?

Real reconciliation starts with respect

At its core, what’s happening with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and elsewhere in Canada right now stems from a deep lack of respect. Respect for culture, respect for traditions, respect for human beings. It all starts by actually listening, not hiding behind a curtain of politeness and courtesy.

Responsibility of reconciliation doesn’t just lie with the RCMP, or the government. It lies with all of us to speak out against what is wrong, and stand by those whose rights and freedoms have been taken away.

Isn’t that what Canada is all about?

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