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Vinita Srivastava: From The Conversation, this is “Don’t Call Me Resilient.” I’m Vinita Srivastava.
Anne Spice: For me, I think the land defender is not a title that you claim for yourself. It’s an action. And it’s about the practice of actually being on the land and reclaiming ancestral territories and territories that are under attack.
VS: In this episode, we take a look at Indigenous land rights and the people on the front lines of these battles. These are the land defenders fighting to protect land against invasive development. Both my guests today have stood up to armed forces to protect land. Their work to defend land is about protecting the environment, but it is much more than that. It is fundamentally about survival and the right to live openly on what is stolen land. Ellen Gabriel has been resisting land encroachment for 31 years. She was at the centre of the 1990 Kanehsatake resistance. You might know it as the Oka Crisis. It was a 78-day stand-off to protect ancestral Kanien’keha:ka land or Mohawk land, in Quebec. It was a moment in history that many say helped wake them up to Indigenous issues. Anne Spice is also with me today. She is a professor of geography and history at Ryerson University. Anne who is Tlingit from Kwanlin Dun First Nation was recently on the front lines in the defence of Wet’suwet’en Land. After she was arrested on Wet’suwet’en territory last year, a viral video showed the RCMP pointing a gun at the land defenders. In the video Anne can be heard shouting “we are unarmed and we are peaceful.” These are the moments that capture our collective attention. But Ellen and Anne’s work goes well beyond what the cameras show. I’m honoured they could both join me today to explain what it’s like to be on the ground, day in and day out, why they do what they do and how someone might join in the land back fight.
VS: Are you guys ready to jump in?
Ellen Gabriel: Sure. Just give us direction.
VS: Ellen, during the 1990 Kanehsatake resistance the Canadian government sent 2,000 police and over 4,000 soldiers, along with armoured vehicles and helicopters, to subdue your communities. So, I know it’s complicated, but for those that are unfamiliar with the issues, what were you fighting for? What are you still fighting for?
EG: It’s always been about land since Europeans have come here. It’s about land. It’s dispossession and Indigenous people being criminalized for standing up for what is their right, which is to protect the people and the land. So being at the front line, as you call it, it’s not an easy thing. You have to have a will of steel. You know, you have to teach yourself to remain calm and not go for the provocation of whoever is up against you, which is really difficult because, as you know, I’ve been doing this for what’s going on 31 years now. And you get tired, you get frustrated. And the fact that the government who created the problem is just sitting back and not doing anything and just waiting for a violent confrontation to justify the use of force and to devalue and discredit and silence our voices is extremely maddening. You know, where we don’t own the land, the land owns us. We are her people. And I think that’s why we do this, is that people understand their ancestral teachings, is that we need to protect the land for this generation and for future generations.
VS: I watched the Obomsawin documentary again the other day, and I heard you say that, you know, as the trucks rolled in and the SWAT team came out, that you were with three women and you just sort of looked at each other and your instincts kicked in and you said something about being a woman and your role.
EG: The women are title holders to the land and the protectors of the land. And the men’s obligation is to protect the women who are protecting the land. Title to the land goes through us and we have not been respected as we see in the Indian Act, attacked the authority in the roles of women. So it’s a huge obligation because we need to fight a government that has infinite amount of resources, both financial and human. And so you need to be strong. And what you know is your obligation and why there is such an importance to it, which is without the land we’re nothing. Without the land we don’t have a language. We don’t have a culture. We cease to be ronkwe people. Ronkwe people is all Indigenous people. That’s our word – Kanien’keha word – we are People of the Flint – Kanien’keha:ka, so there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that and how it’s a very scary thing to be in the front. You get attacked from within and you get attacked on the outside. So you really have to be strong in your beliefs. And if you falter just a little bit, it can be detrimental to your mental health because it is a very stressful thing to carry this this burden. I say it’s a burden because we should have been able to resolve this in 1990. But the government never negotiated in good faith. They had no intention of resolving this peacefully as they do now. It’s a new government. They seem to be really friendly, but they’re actually not. They’re just repackaging colonization to justify land dispossession, saying that we are willingly giving up our land and we never have willingly given up our land. You have to be really stubborn, which I think is in our DNA. So I’m proud to be a stubborn Kanien’keha:ka woman in all this.
VS: And you’ve been stubborn for, as you say, 31 years. I’m wondering, has anything improved?
EG: Not for Kanehsata:ke. I think Kanehsata:ke has been punished over the last three decades. We have more land that has been taken from us by settlers and we are being silenced once again as we were in 1990 as traditional people. People who are following the original constitution and teachings of our ancestors that predate European arrival. When I look outside, yeah, I see a lot of improvements and a lot of changes. But even there, there’s still so much work to do on so many levels. And if we look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, there’s solutions in there which have to do with education because it’s a mindset, right? When you talk about peace for us, you have to have a good mind and that takes teachings. It takes education, which I think is absent from the educational system within Canada. And so it’s an uphill battle still for us.
VS: Anne you’re also a lead defender, and also in your work you document land defenders. And I’m just going to take a moment to just to pause for a minute to ask what may be a basic question. But what is a land defender? Who are the land defenders?
AS: For me, I think the land defender is not a title that you claim for yourself. It’s an action. And it’s about the practice of actually being on the land and reclaiming ancestral territories and territories that are under attack and insisting on a narrative that recognizes that these territories do not legitimately belong to the state, they don’t belong to Canada. When we talk about defence, it can seem like we’re just creating barriers from outside invasions. And some of the work is doing that because there are these really clear forms of invasion that are attempting to steal the land or steal the land again or repurpose it in ways that will damage it and damage our relations. It’s about protecting our relationships with the land and the water and the animals and upholding our responsibilities, which is part of what it means to be Indigenous Peoples. And it’s part of our teachings as Indigenous Peoples is to be holding those responsibilities and acting on them. And we’re consistently kept from being able to exercise those responsibilities by the state and by industry. And so our relatives are under attack in these spaces. And so part of our work is to protect them. And part of our work is to be able to deepen those responsibilities and those relationships in the face of this really violent industrial push onto Indigenous lands.
VS: You’re also a scholar and you spend some of your time documenting, not only participating in these movements. Can you describe a little bit of what you have seen?
AS: When I’m out on the territories or when I’m in spaces of siege, is just to listen to the people who are trying to defend their own territories and listen to their experiences. There’s a witness saying that’s important there. I don’t think it’s my role to tell other people’s stories for them. I think that part of this is trying to tease apart what it is exactly we’re up against, and that that’s the place where scholarship can really make an impact in trying to tease apart this really violent machine that continues to attack our people and attack our lands and to figure out exactly what it is that they are trying to do. And I think that part of the reason that’s really important is because we’re not on the same page as settler Canadians. And despite the way that the current government talks about reconciliation and their desire for reconciliation, we still have a basic disagreement about the disagreement. There’s a continued attempt to try and redefine the land that we’re standing on. And so where we see a fight for our futures and for future generations and a deep responsibility towards the land, they see a construction site and they see the future of energy futures for the Canadian public. And so as long as we are not on the same page about those definitions – like we’re fighting over that imagination about – we want to imagine future generations living on on the land and being able to feed themselves from the land and being able to drink the water because it’s not contaminated. And so I think part of the work of scholarship is to figure out what the desires are of the settler state and so that we can imagine different things and are imagining different things for ourselves and our people. And land defence is bringing those things into reality.
VS: This was a year in some ways of really understanding that, well, for many people, I think just publicly this was a year of anti-racist uprisings. For me, it really drove home the idea of life and death movements. This idea that land defence movements continued even throughout the lockdown. Ellen, you’ve said that you thought the presence of satellite TV in 1990 saved your lives. And Anne at one point in a live stream video that circulated about the Wet’suwet’en protests with the RCMP guns pointed at you, you could be heard in the video shouting that “we are unarmed, we are peaceful.”
EG: It’s been a very useful tool because mainstream media does not pick up the stories in our communities. I should mention that the Atikamekw woman, Joyce Echaquan, she recorded her own death, which sparked outrage for Indigenous People, at least here in Quebec, and the demonstrating to the public that here’s some evidence for you to show you live some of the realities that we are facing. It’s also a double-edged sword because sometimes those things are used against us. You know, we always have to be the perfect ones. We are the ones that are faced with: we have to behave, we have to have peaceful resistance. So it’s a useful tool in that in having the world witnessed what probably was a worse experience for our ancestors. I think we are very privileged in this day and age, no matter where we are, to be able to have access to these. Because I am tired of people stealing the narrative. I am tired of people thinking that 1990 was about 60 warriors with weapons when there was a lot of people behind the lines who were not armed. I was never armed. And you know, it was difficult to show the facts. The police taking meat out of the donations that were coming from Six Nations and other communities and letting it sit in the sun. Our elders who went for chemotherapy and were forced to stand in the sun for two hours or four hours, people being strip searched, men being tortured by La Sûrete du Quebec and the Canadian Army. So now we have the tools to show what is going on. And I think this is waking up people in a different sense. People act as if we have a choice to whether be on the front lines or not. No, we don’t, because if we do nothing it condones acts of aggression against our people.
VS: Anne you’ve talked about technology as well. We’ve got something that’s faster and maybe more in the hands of the protester, of the defender.
AS: I agree with Ellen that it is this kind of a double-edged sword. There’s a level of public awareness that would not be possible if we weren’t able to get the message out about what is happening and to get visuals out about what is happening without having to rely on mainstream media. And I think that, well I know that the RCMP and the state and industry view that as a threat to them. There are leaked reports that talk about the use of Twitter in the siege on Elsipogtog and they were very concerned about people’s ability to get that narrative out to the public without it being first filtered through mainstream media or through a state narrative. So I think that this can be really powerful and the ability to get these images out quickly in the siege on Wet’suwet’en really helped to spur the response and the acts of solidarity and action that were happening across the country and actually around the world. And so I think there’s something really powerful about that. Underlying that is that there are relationships, long-standing relationships between Indigenous nations that were the main strength of those solidarity actions came from those already underlying relationships. It wasn’t social media alone. It was social media layered on top of this already existing commitment to fight for each other and to not let other Indigenous nations be under attack without there being a powerful response. And I think this is something that we learned from the siege at Oka as well. That these solidarity responses are relationships that we’re building between each other. Those are really important. At the same time, there’s an element to social media that is is really frustrating to me. And that’s the need to present a spectacle in order to have people pay attention. Upwards of 70 tactical officers descended on a checkpoint with four people in order to get national attention on what was going on on Wet’suwet’en territory. Because, I mean, although that experience itself felt very violent and traumatizing, there is a daily violence that’s happening on that territory and many others where land defenders and supporters are being surveilled. There is constant police presence and police patrols. As Ellen said, you have to be the perfect person. If you slip up, they make you a criminal and that the constant presence of police and of industry and their ability to just continue to do work on territories where they have not received consent is a form of violence that I wish people cared about more because it’s killing people. It’s killing people in the present and in these often kind of imperceptible ways, people are going hungry because they can’t hunt on their territories. The contamination of the territories is causing rates of cancer in Indigenous communities that can only be explained by this colonial pressure to build and to continue to support industry, even when it’s having these effects on on Indigenous lives.
VS: What does the day to day look like? That’s not visible to everybody?
AS: I think a lot of the time, and in ideal circumstances, it just looks like Indigenous people living on the land and all of the things that are involved in attempting to rebuild communities that are centred on the land. And so when we’re not being constantly interrupted by police, which is a sort of a daily thing that’s happening, people are going out hunting and they’re cooking for each other and they’re hiking around the territory and learning about the different plants and animals that are there and passing that knowledge along. The goal is just to be able to live as Indigenous people that is constantly being interrupted and challenged by the settler state and by industry. So it’s really hard to go out hunting when they’re upwards of 100 industry trucks driving by on the roads that you used to be able to just drive along without seeing anyone or when every time you go out to go berry picking, you’re followed by police. It’s not particularly glamorous a lot of the time, I think that there’s this view of Indigenous warriors as being like the sort of glamorous thing happening out in the territory. A lot of the time it’s just daily life and a consistent resistance to attempts to interrupt and disrupt that daily life.
EG: I want to honour what Anne has been talking about, because this is what happened to us for at least a decade after the 1990 crisis. The surveillance has never stopped. There are daily helicopters flying over. And we have a select group of people within the community who can do things with impunity. And this is part of the colonial project, the divide and conquer. So I’m just at a loss for words. You always have to have hope. I have hope that the younger generation will be much kinder and gentler to the Earth and that they will wake up because we’re talking about generations, multigenerational trauma. We’re talking about multigenerational trauma, not just from Indian residential school, but from from defending the land and defending who you are. And land defence is not a spectacle. It’s not a fad. It’s something that we do simply because we have to we don’t have a choice. I raise my hands to Anne and Wet’suwet’en people and all the land defenders. From the Mi’kmaw to the north, we’re living in the prophecy time. We’re living in a climate both politically and spiritually, which is changing and not necessarily for the best. So the people who have those teachings, we need to speak to them. We need to encourage them to speak out. We do not have the luxury of time anymore. The changes are coming. And the Earth doesn’t need us to survive as a species. And that’s one thing that I think the egos of humankind need to come down a notch and say we’re not the most important thing here. How many species have become extinct because of the activities of people? Yesterday, I was thinking about this so-called democracy, a democracy that’s based on more power and more rights to corporations for the rich get richer and the people need to stand up to push back. That’s not a democracy. That’s authoritarianism. We need to decolonize our minds and how we look at land defenders. We’re not just defending the communities in which we live in. We are defending the whole thing of what constitutes sovereignty. Our version of sovereignty, our own definition. Not the colonizers’ definition of sovereignty.
VS: I think the thing that always has struck me is that we’re supposedly in this era of reconciliation. And I’ve heard, Ellen, you said that reconciliation has to be alive before we can call it dead. And many of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders have said reconciliation is dead. And are we in an era of reconciliation or are we not?
AS: I think there’s a question about whether or not reconciliation is even the goal, you know? I think you’re right, Ellen. The easy answer is that we’re not. The government would love to believe that we’re there. But I think that, I mean, I’ve said this before as well. You could look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We’re still arguing over truth. You kind of have this image of people sitting down at a table and hashing things out, but words aren’t going to solve the issues that we’re dealing with. I think there is like a full reaccounting of what Indigenous people have suffered as a piece of it. And the fact is that we’ve subsidized the existence of Canada, we’ve subsidized the Canadian economy, which continues to pull resources from Indigenous lands without benefit, with actually a lot of detriments to Indigenous Peoples. And so, I don’t think reconciliation quite captures what it is that’s necessary. And so if that’s the ceiling when it comes to what we’re seeking in terms of justice and liberation, I don’t think it does it in and of itself. So, yeah, I definitely hear that, it would need to be alive in order for it to be to be dead.
VS: I hear you say words, words aren’t going to solve this. What do you think will help?
AS: I think that there’s always been a burden on Indigenous people to tell the government what it is we want, as if we haven’t been clear for generations and generations that what we want is the land. What we want is the ability to live on the land. And as is clearly stated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the right to continued use and control over access to our lands. And that, that is one of the ways that we’re going to be fighting against this change in climate, all the environmental catastrophes that we’re facing. We’ve had to get pretty creative about how we do that while under colonial occupation. I think there’s a burden on settler Canadians and non-native people to take on some of that creative work and to try to imagine for themselves what it would mean to actually live in accordance with Indigenous law. I think that deepening relationships with Indigenous nations, if you’re living on someone else’s territory, then building a relationship with them is really important and continuing to kind of work into those relations and connections and to take up some of the responsibility that we’ve taken on for protecting the land.
EG: One of the things that we’ve asked for is a moratorium on all development. And Minister Miller has said absolutely not. But a moratorium on development for us to at least to have a breather. You can be a short-term moratorium when we sit down and all the people understand what’s at stake. If we don’t do this, then this will happen. If we do do this, this is going to happen. That’s free prior and informed consent. And we’re not able to get even to that table. I think we need to educate people on the buzzwords that are used that repackage colonization so that there’s a better understanding of the games that are being played. They are playing games with our lives. So we are the dispensable people in Canada. Everybody talks about what a small percentage of the population in Canada. Yeah, at one point we were the majority and because of war and disease, a genocidal act happened and you killed off the majority of our people who had the knowledge and the language of understanding how to survive on this beautiful land. We’re not able to do that when there’s persistent land theft and it’s done under Canadian laws. They’re not including our perspective. They’re not respecting our rights. So it’s a very coercive and abrasive relationship, our relationship with Canada and all the buzzwords, the flowery speeches and all that. They don’t mean anything to me because there’s no actions behind those words. And until there is, I will continue to be a pessimist but a hopeful pessimist.
VS: I was going to say, you don’t seem like a pessimist to me. You seem very hopeful in that you continue. So it seems to me like you are an optimist.
EG: Yeah, I am. As an artist, you always have to try and find the beauty in life and maybe expressing yourself in a different way. You have to remain hopeful because there are children that depend on it. There’s another generation that depend on you, because it was it was a generation that I depended on to give me what I have today. So it is giving that back.
VS: You’ve spent some time analyzing resistance techniques, but also you’ve looked at colonial structures so that you might find the path of least resistance or pathways forward. I’m wondering if you can share some of those findings with us.
AS: That’s like a nicer way of putting it than I probably would. I would say that I’m looking for vulnerabilities in an enemy, really, and places where the system can be dismantled and there’s a possibility for that. Still, I really understand the play between pessimism and optimism. I think that there is hope in the way that we show up for each other. And as Ellen said, resistance there in 1990 spurred a decades-long attempt to punish people for resistance. And I think that it’s also really important for us to make sure we make it clear that that is not acceptable, that we’re not going to allow other people, especially land defenders, to be made an example of. And so I think part of it is that we can do some narrative work. In this way words do matter to push back against the criminalization of land defence and land defenders, and that’s one place where I see some space for moving forward. I think there’s really technical work to be done when it comes to dismantling particular bureaucratic forms of violence. I think that if you look at environmental assessment regulations, there’s things that are present in this structure that are oppressive by design. Structures and processes and forms of paperwork that are intended and built to fast track industrial projects. They don’t have Indigenous consent built in. So part of what might be necessary if we’re wanting to work with the government when it comes to, say, implementing UNDRIP is to try and figure out how to build Indigenous consent into these processes, because right now it’s not even there. And so it’s irrelevant. It’s irrelevant. If Indigenous people say no to a project, it doesn’t matter in their process at the end of the day.
EG: That requires resources. And I agree with everything you’ve said Anne. The frustration is you need people who are policy analysts, human rights lawyers. You need a team almost 24 hours a day just to watch what is going on in order to fight it. We’re fighting a big machine of industries that have the resources. And so little land defenders like myself, we’re just out there trying to get the people to wake up and to get the public to be on our side. And it takes a long time. And sometimes we don’t have the time. Sometimes by the time we’re able to catch our breath, that piece of land is gone. So I’d like to have a satirical court process where we put them on trial and people understand what it is that we’re trying to do.
AS: I think that we’re seeing some really hopeful engagement from Indigenous youth and there’s, I think, real power there. But sometimes I also worry that the intergenerational aspect of our organizing is not there or is not as strong as it could be. Or that maybe where we’re not looking to the people we should be looking to, to tell us about how you know, how this fight has has been ongoing and what it was like decades past, those stories aren’t always accessible for us. But I’m wondering what you think about the role of intergenerational work and storytelling in resistance movements, given that you’ve seen this through for the past 31 years?
EG: Well, I think it’s really important for people to listen under our great law. Everybody is important. That doesn’t matter what your age or gender is. So I find the colonial view of let’s let the youth lead is kind of wrong. It should be youth who have listened to elders have sat down and learned just like any form of leadership, it has to come with knowledge. And some youth can be elders in their own right, depending on how they were raised. But equality means that all age groups are listened to, all age groups are respected and have an equal voice. It’s just like, well, we’ve seen so much male leadership. Let’s see some of the women’s leadership. So we have to create a balance between how many voices are the kind of voices that are heard. I learnt from so many people over the last 30 years and some were not Indigenous people. But the elders that I listened to were Indigenous elders from all over the Americas. And the similarities that we have in our belief system is sort of reinforcing that motivation to continue to do the work. So it’s really including everybody and teaching the children to listen, teaching the children that they’re important, that they’re loved. We have to look at it holistically in every way, shape or form our mental, physical and spiritual help that we need on a daily basis.
VS: I wanted to ask you about the idea of the need for this ongoing strength. And the name of this podcast is “Don’t Call Me Resilient,” which challenges that idea of the state of asking people to remain or praising them for their resilience in all of these ongoing battles. I’m wondering what you think about that notion of resilience.
AS: I don’t think that the word itself is the problem. There is no individual resilience. And if we view it in that way, then we’re where we’re going to be weaker. I think that we only exist in connection to others in this network of relations and this web of relations that we find ourselves. And if we are resilient, it’s only because we have those connections to lean on because we’re being held up by others, whether human or otherwise. And I think that sort of widens this idea of resilience.
EG: Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree with Anne. I think it’s about strength. It’s about courage and how strongly you believe in what you’re doing. For me, I think one of the best ways to survive in all this is to feel the sun on my face and the wind, those beautiful summer winds, even the cold winter winds that make you feel alive. It’s all about feeling alive and being alive and what you do with that spirit that you were given when you’re born, that spirit that for now has a body but will be set free one day. And it’s really difficult to say. If you want to put a label on people who defend the land, then it can’t be resilient. It’s got to be something like courageous, compassionate people who whose spirit lives beyond this dimension. Because, like I said, I think we carry the spirit of our ancestors with us and and we’re never alone, no matter where we are.
VS: Thank you both so much. That’s it for this episode of “Don’t Call Me Resilient.” Thanks for listening. If you want to continue the conversation on land defenders, find us on Twitter @ConversationCA and use the hashtag #DontCallMeResilient. If you’d like to read more about land defenders and land rights, go to the TheConversation.com. That’s where you’ll find our show notes with links to stories and research connected to our conversation with Ellen Gabriel and Anne Spice. This is the end of season one for “Don’t Call Me Resilient.” If you like the podcast, please submit a review and share your experience and insights.
Don’t Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. This podcast was produced with a grant for Journalism Innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. Our producers are Nahid Buie, Latifa Abdin and Nehal El-Hadi with additional editorial help from our intern Ibrahim Daair. Reza Dahya is our technical producer and sound guru. Anowa Quarcoo is in charge of marketing and production design. Lisa Varano is our audience development editor and Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada. Special thanks also to Jennifer Moroz for her indispensable help on this project. And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water.
Thanks for listening, everyone, and hope you join us again. Until next time. I am Vinita. And please don’t call me resilient.
Authors: Ibrahim Daair – Assistant Editor | Culture + Society | Vinita Srivastava – Producer | Director of Innovation | Senior Editor, Culture + Society