Serge Simon stood before television cameras on Wednesday afternoon with a remorseful expression. The Grand Chief of the Kanesatake Mohawk, about an hour’s drive west of Montreal, was there to backpedal.
Earlier in the week, he had suggested that Indigenous protesters blockading rail lines, including in the nearby Mohawk community of Kahnawake, should stand down because the movement had “reached its purpose.”
In the days that followed, outraged members of Mr. Simon’s band called him a “disgrace,” demanded his resignation, and padlocked his office. The Grand Chief got the message: In his news conference, he retracted his call to take down the barricades.
"As a leader, sometimes you have to know when to lead, and when to follow,” he said.
First Nations leaders have been learning that lesson across Canada in recent weeks, as Indigenous-led protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia have spread to Nova Scotia and nearly a dozen locations in between, often without the support of locals chiefs and band councils.
In their place, unelected but traditional forms of governance have claimed legitimacy, along with informal groups of activists whose community support is hard to gauge.
Such diffuse and ambiguous leadership – along with a list of causes that has expanded from a pipeline to redressing the long, dark history of Canadian colonialism – has helped to prolong the protests.
Federal and provincial negotiators have found themselves wondering who speaks for the communities at the heart of this nationwide movement, and what they want.
In the process, Canadians have gotten a glimpse of the complicated, often fractured world of First Nations governance – itself a legacy of the country’s colonial past.
“This question of leadership and who leads on certain issues – I think that’s really fundamentally and constantly shifting for our communities, because our traditional structures have been undermined for so long,” said Courtney Skye, who is Mohawk, Turtle Clan, from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and a research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led governance think tank in Toronto.
Non-Indigenous activists have found a role in the current protest movement amid this power vacuum, seizing on the moment to bring attention to broader concerns about resource extraction and climate change.
In Halifax last Tuesday, about 140 people blocked a highway overpass and access to the Fairview Cove Container Terminal at the Halifax port, professing solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. Some identified themselves to local media as university students or climate activists; others said they were Miꞌkmaq.
At a rail blockade in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Lambert, Que., this week, a few dozen protesters wore masks and declined to give their names, though several were identified as students at Montreal universities. Their protest was promoted heavily on anarchist and anti-capitalist internet forums. Unlike the Mohawk protesters, they flew anarchist black flags.
Alison Bodine, an organizer with Climate Convergence-Metro Vancouver, said her group was responsible for this week’s rally in the intersection of East Broadway and Commercial Drive – a key traffic and transit hub for the city through which buses carrying thousands of commuters daily. Asked what it would take for her organization to stand down, she said the RCMP would have to leave Wet’suwet’en territory, and the pipeline construction would have to be halted. “As climate justice activists, there is nothing really at this point that will cause us to stop continuing mass mobilizations and education and regular protests against massive resource extraction projects,” she said. “The struggle is definitely far from over in that regard. But I think there is a way for the federal government to resolve the current heightened protest.”
Even as outside groups have entered the fray in the recent weeks, it has been Indigenous nations themselves causing the most significant disruptions, and struggling to find a single voice – issues that have played out most vividly among the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia and the Tyendinaga Mohawks in Eastern Ontario. Representatives of the two communities met on Friday, as the RCMP signalled they would pull back from their position in Wet’suwet’en territory, one of the preconditions protesters had given for dialogue – sparking hope that the rail blockades and other economic disruptions might be close to an end.
But both groups of representatives, who gathered outside the Mohawk Community Centre on Tyendinaga territory Friday morning in a drum circle, held contested claims to being the voice of their people.
Five of the six elected band councils that make up the Wet’suwet’en Nation back the natural gas pipeline at the heart of the dispute, but it was a group of the nation’s hereditary chiefs, who have always led the opposition, that travelled to Ontario this week. Their authority was further undermined by criticism from Rita George, a hereditary chief of one of the nation’s composite bands and a respected elder, who told The Globe and Mail this week that the protesting chiefs and outside environmental activists were acting against the community’s traditions of dialogue.
However, many Wet’suwet’en consider the hereditary chiefs to be legitimate leaders, and have faulted Canadian authorities for not engaging with them.
Molly Wickham, of the nation’s Gidimt’en Clan, criticized the RCMP during a news conference held by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association on Thursday for not discussing a possible pulling back from Wet’suwet’en territory with the hereditary chiefs.
She said her community’s government demands direct “nation to nation” contact with other governments.
“Our chiefs and our clans require full engagement on this issue immediately and it’s suspicious to me that government and RCMP would publicly state they have met our conditions without having spoken to our hereditary leadership, to our traditional government,” she said.
The challenge for the Wet’suwet’en is to decide who their authorized governing body is, the elected chiefs or the hereditary chiefs, said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia and also a law professor there. “They do need to get a cohesive voice,” she said in an interview this week, while noting that the context of the protests seems to be a “hostile environment” to do that work.
Finding clear lines of authority among the Mohawks of Tyendinaga has been equally fraught. The band’s elected chief, R. Donald Maracle, has refused to support or condemn the rail barricade erected along the CN line near his community, so as not to “inflame people,” but has made clear that the band leadership is not behind the protest.
On Feb. 7, meanwhile, the external relations committee of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a traditional body made up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations, issued a statement condemning the RCMP “invasion” of Wet’suwet’en territory – a position some rail protesters took as a tacit endorsement of their actions.
When the Wet’suwet’en chiefs came for a meeting on Tyendinaga territory, however, it was with representatives of the Mohawk Nation, a separate form of Indigenous government that comprises Mohawk communities in Quebec, Ontario, and New York State.
This splintered authority derives from the Canadian state’s neglect of traditional forms of social organization among the Mohawk in favour of an elected chief-and-council system imposed through legislation but never fully accepted by communities such as Tyendinaga, argued Ms. Skye of the Yellowhead Institute.
“Because the Confederacy has been so undermined … because there’s been so much upheaval in that system, and because so many people reject the band council system, there’s a lot of people who feel that neither speak for them,” she said. “So what you see is people mobilizing, and creating a third structure.”
That third structure has been in evidence at the rail blockades of Tyendinaga and Kahnawake, where band members with a strong sense of their history and culture have acted spontaneously without the backing of any formal government.
Those in Tyendinaga prefer not to be called protesters. They think the word has negative connotations and obscures the existential stakes of their project. Many of them prefer “land protectors.” Some use the phrase “warriors” but qualify it, noting that it doesn’t mean they have violent intentions, only that they are standing up for their people. (Most declined to give their names for fear of government surveillance.)
Andrew Brant, who is from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and has taken part in the blockade, said all decisions at the rail encampment are made by consensus and informed by the group’s shared cultural literacy.
“Everyone that’s working down here, we know our history, we know our treaties, we know about sovereignty,” he said. “That’s why we can all talk about that, down at the camp. That’s why there are no leaders.”
Participants in the Kahnawake blockade echoed the thought. Kahentinetha Horn, who prefers to go by her Mohawk name, has been an Indigenous activist going back to the 1960s. She was at the Oka standoff in 1990, when her daughter Waneek Horn-Miller, then 14, was wounded by a soldier’s bayonet.
She put the aims and organization of the current protest movement in stark terms. “It’s over for Canada. It’s finished,” she said in an interview. “They tried to kill us all, but we’re still here. It’s our land. All of it. We own everything.”
Kahentinetha is now a Mohawk elder, but said the protest at Kahnawake is not led by anyone in particular. “We don’t have any leadership. It’s the people who decide,” she said.
With reports from Nancy Macdonald and Greg Mercer
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