For more than two weeks, Indigenous youth and their supporters occupied the granite steps of the B.C. Legislature’s ceremonial front entrance, spreading out with tents, tarps and protest signs and maintaining a ceremonial fire that filled the building with campfire smoke – and tension.
All that is left of the protest is an ugly protective fence, erected after they vacated the space on Friday.
The protest camp was set up in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders who are in a battle against construction of a pipeline in their traditional territories. It ended after five key leaders were arrested for mischief inside the legislature.
During the occupation, the protesters treated Indigenous Members of the Legislative Assembly – the voices who might have best advanced their concerns inside the chamber – with contempt.
Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark, B.C.’s first female First Nations MLA, was accosted as she travelled to work by protesters who yelled “shame!” while her constituency office in East Vancouver was occupied by demonstrators.
Liberal MLA Ellis Ross, the former chief councillor of the Haisla Nation, ran for provincial office with an agenda to reduce Indigenous poverty, suicides and incarceration rates. He was blocked by protesters from entering the buildings on the day of the Throne Speech and had to find another entrance.
Adam Olsen is the Greens’ interim leader and a member of the Tsartlip First Nation who got into politics seeking to repair the deep rift between the Crown and Indigenous governance. He met with the Indigenous youth, agreed that the pipeline was a bad idea, railed against injustices to Indigenous people – and was yelled at for his efforts.
British Columbia has never before had so many Indigenous voices in the legislature at one time. There has never been a better time for members of the house, who last fall unanimously passed legislation to commit to human rights for Indigenous people, to listen with empathy to the concerns of the youth outside.
But the protesters demanded complete allegiance with their position, dismissing alternative perspectives within Indigenous communities on the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The Wet’suwet’en themselves are divided on the issue, and are in the midst of a sensitive consultation process on issues of rights and title.
Mr. Olsen tried to engage with the Indigenous youth, and remains sympathetic to their feelings of frustration. But he could not countenance their tactics, nor their tone. “I have great difficulty characterizing much of what I experienced … as peaceful,” he said after the protesters blocked MLAs from entering the buildings on Feb. 11. He suggested the protesters were missing the guidance of their elders.
Mr. Olsen was the greatest ally that the youth could have had. His party opposes the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, and has voted repeatedly against the corporate subsidies that government has offered to secure a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry that the Coastal GasLink pipeline is designed to support.
He blamed the government for backing the pipeline project when the opposition from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs was firmly established. “This situation which we face right now was entirely foreseeable,” he said in an interview.
Last week, Mr. Olsen was asked to witness a meeting between Scott Fraser, the Minister for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, and a small group of the Indigenous youth. The group was invited into the legislature only after they gave their word that they would leave after the meeting – a key issue because a court injunction was in place to keep them outside. Mr. Olsen was blunt, after the melee that followed, that the group used deception in order to launch a sit-in that led to the five arrests.
Still, the interim Green leader maintains that dialogue must continue, noting that Indigenous people have little reason to trust the Crown on good-faith bargaining. “Everyone has been let down by this system and it’s important for us to make those systemic changes so that then we can come out with a different outcome.”
Mr. Ross was never going to see eye to eye with the pipeline protesters – he is a champion of LNG, and supports the pipeline as a tool for economic development to lift Indigenous communities out of poverty. But he is also an influential Indigenous leader who served a key role in putting a stake in the heart of the Northern Gateway oil pipeline.
His first encounter with the protesters at the legislature was with a group that prevented him from entering the building on Throne Speech day. “Somebody yelled at my face, some young kid yells my face,” he recalled in an interview. “There was no respect for aboriginal issues, there was no respect for the institution of the legislature. And there was so much ignorance in terms of what these protesters were actually protesting.”
British Columbia is poised now to make real progress toward reconciliation, with new legislative tools, commitment and Indigenous guidance in the legislature. The protests haven’t stopped that work, but they didn’t help it either.