On Tuesday morning, a group of First Nations leaders, led by Perry Bellegarde, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, held a press conference in Ottawa. There were five men on stage, and depending on how the coming days and weeks play out, they will either be key players in resolving the current crisis, or they could find themselves shoved aside by a rising radicalism, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, that they were trying to tamp down.
Their message, which was at times more substantial and nuanced than that of the federal leaders who spoke later in the day in Parliament, urged calm, dialogue and a lowering of tensions. These men experienced the Oka Crisis first hand, and what they were calling for was de-escalation. They know, in their bones, how the situation has the capacity to become radicalized, to be captured by extremists on both sides and to spin beyond the control of federal, provincial and First Nations governments.
Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon of Kanesatake, the community where the tragic events of 30 years ago began, spoke of his fears of a backlash, and said he was “pleading with protesters” to remove the railway blockades, because they had “made their point.”
“Bringing down the blockades doesn’t mean that you surrender. It doesn’t mean we’re going to lay down and let them kick us around. No, it would show compassion,” he said.
Mr. Simon was being reasonable, practical and truthful – qualities that are always in short supply in politics, because they are so rarely rewarded. Within a few hours, a group of about half a dozen members of the elected chief’s community had barricaded his office in Kanesatake.
By Wednesday, Mr. Simon had come around to a different way of seeing things. “I wish to retract my comments yesterday about whether it is time for the blockades to come down,” he told reporters, reading from a prepared statement. He said he’d had concerns about the potential consequences of blockades, “but sometimes as a leader you have to know when to lead and when to follow. I am now deciding to follow the people. I will refrain from making any further remarks on this matter. I apologize for any harm or confusion arising from my remarks.”
At the same time as Mr. Simon was apologizing for moderation, new barricades were going up on Montreal’s South Shore. As of Wednesday afternoon, two Montreal-area commuter rail services were suspended due to blockades.
And in Edmonton, protesters blocked the CN tracks. A few hours later, a group of counterprotesters arrived and dismantled the blockade. An act outside the law was met with a response beyond the law.
That is not how things are supposed to go in Canada, but peace, order and good government are never givens. They risk evaporation if the people responsible for them do not act to preserve them.
The great dangers now are radicalization of the situation and polarization. There are a lot of groups looking to take advantage of the blockades, and the dispute that sparked them. They come from both sides of the political spectrum, and from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canada. They come to the table with their own agendas.
Remember that British Columbia’s Coastal GasLink pipeline project has Indigenous and non-Indigenous backers, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous opponents. It was pitched as more opportunity than imposition for the First Nations along the route and largely received as such. Within the Wet’suwet’en community, the elected band councils signed on to the project and its extensive employment and benefit agreements, while a group of hereditary chiefs remain opposed.
That is why the dispute that sparked the protests cannot be painted in the simple colours that many of those taking to the barricades want to use. An environmentalist who equates opposing pipelines with standing up for First Nations is living in a fantasy world, as is any oil and gas industry backer who thinks the way to support the pipeline is by attacking Indigenous people.
The fault line in this conflict is not a racial line.
Or at least it wasn’t. But two weeks is a long time in politics. When conflicts become polarized, people feel pressured into pulling up the drawbridge and retreating into camps. There are those on both sides who would like nothing better.