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In the 12 days or so since the Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute blew up from a localized confrontation in the British Columbia interior to a national crisis, two schools of thought have predominated.

The first holds that the protests that have blocked rail lines and closed ports across the country are fundamentally legitimate and should be treated as such. The territory to which the Wet’suwet’en Nation claim title is unceded land; the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are the legally recognized executors of their title; therefore their consent is required before any such project can be built on their land, and therefore the protesters who have taken up their cause, far from violating the rule of law, are enforcing it.

The second holds that the protests are fundamentally illegitimate and should be treated as such. That the Wet’suwet’en territory is unceded does not mean it is sovereign; neither has their particular title under Canadian law been established by the courts, even if the general contours of aboriginal title have – a title that, if it were recognized, would legally entitle them to be consulted, not to give or withhold their consent.

That the authority of the hereditary chiefs to decide the matter on behalf of their people is current law, furthermore, does not mean that it always must be: A substantial number of the Wet’suwet’en people not only disagree with the chiefs on the pipeline question, but reject the whole setup, whereby their own wishes and those of their elected representatives can be vetoed by a handful of people without a democratic mandate of any kind.

And so people who cleave to the second view have tended, not merely to reject the legitimacy of the protests, many of which have been carried out in open defiance of court orders, but to demand that they be dismantled, their organizers prosecuted. To do otherwise, they argue, is to telegraph weakness, to invite further lawlessness, and ultimately to threaten civil order, and the economic and social structures that are built upon it.

Protesters block CN Rail tracks in Vancouver on Feb. 15, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

But the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. One can both believe that the protests are fundamentally illegitimate, and that it would be folly to attempt to dismantle them by force.

It is true that the protests are in many cases illegal and that the protesters tend to baldly misrepresent the Wet’suwet’en conflict – which is not so much a conflict between the Wet’suwet’en and the Canadian state as a conflict within the community – where they have not had other issues in mind altogether. It is true that the longer the blockades go on, the greater the hardship that is likely to result. The authorities would be well within their rights to step in.

But just because you have a right to do something does not make it advisable. Before you attempt to exercise a right, it helps to assess whether it is likely to do more harm than good, or whether it is even possible. On both scores, intervention would seem unwise.

Canada is an immense country – the source of its strength, but also of its weakness. Its populated areas laid out in a narrow strip along the U.S. border thousands of kilometres long; its infrastructure – the arteries through which its people move and its goods are shipped — is peculiarly exposed. All you need is one chokepoint to shut down the lot. It is simply not possible to protect every mile of rail or pipeline, every highway and every port, from blockade or sabotage.

Even if you could, it would still be a bad idea. For, Canada’s prosperity is fragile in another way. Its history is not of military conquest of the Indigenous peoples by the European settlers, but of an uneasy bargain, broadly embodied in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and codified in the various treaties that cover much, though not all, of the country. That the treaties have in many cases not been fully honoured only adds to the precariousness of the situation.

Canada’s way of life will not be sustained by force. It depends crucially upon the willingness of the Indigenous peoples to co-operate with the wider population, to identify their interests with the success of the Canadian state, and to work within its legal and political structures. The present crisis reminds us that a section of Indigenous opinion has been radicalized, to the point that it is willing to defy the laws, even to assert a quasi-sovereignty. But it also demonstrates the continuing possibilities of goodwill, so far as the broad middle ground of Indigenous opinion can be kept engaged and on side.

Nothing could be better calculated to turn moderate opinion against the Canadian project than the indiscriminate use of force against the blockades. Rather, patience and solicitude are what is required, attending the most pressing practical needs of First Nations while slowly isolating the radicals, whose unreasonableness will become more apparent over time. The last thing we need are martyrs.

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