Why I stand with the five traditional leaders of Wet’suwet’en—especially now

The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, pictured here in 2018. Photo: Unist’ot’en Camp/Facebook
Published February 25, 2020

As I write this, the Ontario Provincial Police are acting to clear the Mohawk action of solidarity with the five Wet’suwet’en traditional leaders, the hereditary chiefs, on the rail lines of Tyendinaga.

I view this act of the Ontario and Canadian Government with great sadness, as it represents a victory for deeply embedded prejudice and misunderstanding, pushes reconciliation much farther away, and will certainly enflame harmful passions on all sides of this issue. It is an act that either represents a complete ignorance of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) or a deliberate violation of it.

Today, it is especially important to say that I and, I hope, many others will continue to stand with the five traditional leaders. This is done with a full and acute understanding of how very unpopular this is with many, and the reactions such a statement invites. There has been much anger and divisiveness generated by the avalanche of bias and misrepresentation regarding the complex issues involved. In this cross-cultural catastrophe, centuries in the making, it is next to impossible for people to listen or hear each other. From what I have seen, very few people are capable of disagreeing without suggesting crude motives, ill-intent, or deformed character.

It is dangerous and hard to speak in such conditions, but an urgent truth compels us to try. Here we hope that people of good will can take the time, develop the compassion, and gain the insight that will bring justice to this Land, and true conciliation and reconciliation.

Why is this so important an issue? Why are people willing to risk so much for what seems to be an obscure and relatively insignificant development project? The heart of the matter, for us and this Land, is in regards to the recognition of traditional Indigenous law and authority over the territory in question.

At the beginning of the colonization of Canada, government officials and missionaries alike—similar to some of their counterparts in the debate about Wet’suwet’en—denied and demonized the authority of Indigenous law and governance, primarily claiming they were defectively primitive. The colonizers only acknowledged the validity of their traditions of law and governance, which sprung from both pagan and Christian sources. They ignored their own Biblical and ethical teaching about the unity of humankind and the good and bad aspects of the development of specific human societies. Much of the wealth of this nation was built on the denial and demonization of Indigenous law and governance. All of the unique and pervasive poverty and misery of Indigenous Peoples over these years is also built on this denial and demonization.

Today, the consensus of international law, the vast agreement of ethical and moral thought, and the near complete agreement of Christian moral theology, identifies this denial and demonization of the authority of Indigenous law and governance as a grave evil. With this recognition, there is no assertion of Indigenous authority over other forms of law and life, nor is there a claim of superiority. There is a simple, just, and righteous claim to be given a seat at the table of all human society. For Christians, Indigenous societies are, like all other societies, under the rule and authority of God. They are, like all other human societies, places of good and bad, nurture and trouble, promise and problem. Though they are rightly recognized for preserving the ancient ecological wisdom that has been obscured by a global culture of money, Indigenous societies are simply acknowledged to have the same responsibility and right to life, justice, and peace that all human societies have under God. To deny this responsibility and right is a great evil. It is, as we have learned here and elsewhere, the prelude to genocide.

The five traditional Wet’suwet’en chiefs are making a claim that a pipeline scheduled for development through their traditional lands cannot be built without their free, prior, and informed consent. This claim is based, primarily, on their age-old traditional jurisdiction and the sacred use of the specific land proposed for development. It is also based on both UNDRIP and recent rulings of the Canadian courts. The courts have acknowledged the validity of traditional principles of leadership and jurisdiction, as well as Wet’suwet’en usage and claims on territory which goes beyond the land granted them under the Indian Act. Though there have been other outside groups that have, for particular political purposes, made broader assertions about the claim of the chiefs, this appears to be the heart of their concern and the source of their passion.

The claim of the five traditional chiefs contradicts the approval of the pipeline by locally elected leaders, elected under a system imposed by the Canadian government. This local government is only one of the 20 First Nations governments involved in the agreements for the pipeline. Along with the elected leaders, some Wet’suwet’en express disagreement with the five traditional leaders. This disagreement has been exploited by both those who support the pipeline and those who oppose Indigenous self-determination. The differences represented here and the question of what weight should be given to the different voices involved leave many, in the media and those that consume it, confused, dismayed, and, often, angry. Although all should attempt to understand the issues involved, it is a matter that the Wet’suwet’en must work out for themselves and, most likely, one that will only be understood well by those who understand the complexities of their law from inside. All those who disagree with the five chiefs should be respected, especially the elected officials. Certainly, all the parties involved, including the government and the corporate interests related to the pipeline, must be a part of the conversations moving ahead.

This does not, in any sense, cancel the importance and validity of the five traditional chiefs’ claim. It is a serious claim of Indigenous Rights. It is an essential claim of morality and justice. This is ultimately what the protests are about, whatever other interests may be involved. This is why traditional authority must be given a high seat at the table that determines justice, sovereignty, and jurisdiction, not only in the territory of the Wet’suwet’en, but across this entire land.

Opposition leader Andrew Scheer asked that those who have supported the Wet’suwet’en on the blockades “check their privilege.” This is an act of American-style “dog-whistle” politics— when a statement that appears not to be overtly and explicitly hostile to a particular group (usually a racial minority) is used to signal to another group (usually angry people of the majority) that the speaker supports their bias against this particular group. In this case, it is implied that people, presumably Indigenous, have time to spend on blockades, contrary to the hard-working people of the majority who were hurt by them. Further, he suggested that these actions were motivated by an anti-energy sector political agenda, as if that was all that mattered to those who protested, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. He clearly called for the use of force to break up the protests. He recognized the economic pain the protests have caused, but hardly a peep about the hundreds of years of pain that government policies have caused and continue to cause for Indigenous Peoples. His statements showed a rugged refusal to acknowledge the claim of Indigenous Rights.

In this way, the statements promote racial stereotypes, enflame divisions already painful in society, and advance a political agenda on the misery of Indigenous Peoples. I believe Mr. Scheer is a good person, so I do not wish to believe that he acted in full knowledge and understanding of the critical nature of the Indigenous issues involved. If he did this in full knowledge of their importance, it is an evil act.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “the barricades must now come down. The injunctions must be obeyed and the law must be upheld.” This statement ignores the vital question of the validity of Indigenous law in the Canadian system. It sanctions force in a way that ignores the central issues and hides under a definition of law that neither recognizes the pain of the past nor the only path to a good future for all: a Canada that reveres the justice and truth of Indigenous self-determination—something the Prime Minister professes to believe.

He recognized the economic pain the protests have caused, but hardly a peep about the hundreds of years of pain that government policies have caused and continue to cause for Indigenous Peoples. By his rugged refusal to acknowledge the claim of Indigenous Right, by his sanction of force—despite offers of negotiation—and by his pursuit of a political agenda in the face of a serious Indigenous claim of right, he did great and lasting damage to the relation of Indigenous Peoples to Canada. It will only enflame the divisions and make matters worse. I believe that Mr. Trudeau is a good person, so I do not wish to believe that he acted in full knowledge and understanding of the critical nature of the Indigenous issues involved. If he did this in full knowledge of their importance, it is an evil act.

Though I have my own opinions about matters related to the energy sector and other aspects that are on the periphery of the Wet’suwet’en conflict, I choose to pursue them through other forms of advocacy. Though I have my own opinions about them, I do not, with this piece, condemn or promote the various strategies adopted to stand with the Wet’suwet’en. I do want to say, with every bit of strength I have, that the question of Indigenous Rights in this matter is a compelling, essential, and defining moment for this Land. The quality of our future will be shaped by this issue, and there is a global aspect to this. A quarter of the world’s usable land is now under the authority and stewardship of Indigenous Peoples. This, for example, is an acute and consequential matter in the Amazon. Only by endorsing and promoting Indigenous Rights and authority will we protect a huge portion of our future.

The only healthy future for our planet is one that respects Indigenous Rights and authority. In the matter of the Wet’suwet’en we are beginning a conversation about the character and quality of our future. I believe that the five traditional chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en are standing on the right side of justice and the right side of a healthy global future. I will stand with them.


  • Mark MacDonald

    Mark MacDonald was national Indigenous Anglican bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada from 2007 to 2019, and national Indigenous Anglican archbishop from 2019 to 2022.

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