What do the Montréal Canadiens, the Xinjiang Uyghurs and the Wet’suwet’en have in common?

“The Olympic Games, it carries the name ‘Olympic Games’ — we’re going to play,” Blanchet said in French, adding that he understands the Games mean a lot to athletes who devoted their lives to their respective sports. “But it’s not more important than the survival of a people, a nation, a culture,” he said.

Yves-François Blanchet, Bloc Québécois leader. Toronto Star December 1, 2021 on boycotting the Olympic Games due to the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang by the Chinese government.

Let’s say that one more time: But it’s not more important than the survival of a people, a nation, a culture,” he said.

That statement sounds an awful lot like what Indigenous leaders have been saying in Canada for generations about their attempts to save their people, their nations, their cultures. And also what the Bloc Québecois has been saying for decades about saving the French people, the French nation and the French culture.

The point is not to make a comparison between the plight of the Uyghurs and that of Indigenous people in Canada, both of whom have equal title to being the victims of a genocide. The point is that they each represent distinct nations with distinct languages and distinct cultures – just like Québec. The main difference is in the scale of the repressive reach of the Chinese government in eliminating the Uyghur’s as a people, as a nation and as a culture. Assimilation polices taken to the extreme and at any cost.

Fortunately for Indigenous people but unfortunately for the Uyghurs, the global community has come together overwhelmingly to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. 144 countries voted in favour of UNDRIP on September 13, 2007, 11 abstained and the four who originally voted no – Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand – have all reversed their positions and now support UNDRIP. Who do the Uyghurs have to support them: four countries – so far? Four countries have decided to penalize China by holding a “diplomatic protest” whereby they will not send any official representatives to the Olympic Games.

What does the above have to do with the Montréal Canadiens and the Wet’suwet’en. In all three, a dominant “colonial” government asserts authority and control over another nation’s territories. The end result is an attempt to eliminate the other nation’s culture, language and traditions. In Canada, Indigenous people – through patience, resilience and sheer determination – have been able to fight back. One way has been through land acknowledgements. The Montréal Canadians land acknowledgement preceding a hockey game at the end of October that recognized that the arena is located on the “unceded” traditional territory of the Mohawk Nation “launched hysterical editorials, hours of inane talk radio chatter and the interference of Quebec’s populist right wing government. What’s so offensive? That the Canadiens are insinuating Tiohtià:ke (Montreal) is unceded Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) territory.” (Toronto Star. Oct. 24, 2021).

That a seemingly innocuous land acknowledgement could create such a firestorm speaks volumes about how dangerous nationalist sentiments can become. Hochelaga (Montreal) was not the only place where Indigenous people in Québec lived but the concept of terra nullius (nobody’s land) allows colonial governments to claim jurisdiction and sovereignty over everything in “their territory”. Not only in Quebec but in every other jurisdiction – federal, provincial and territory – who still refuse to acknowledge the existence of Aboriginal title and rights. Terra nullius gives them the justification to ignore treaties and “unceded” territory and enforce a Eurocentric view of ownership that overrides Indigenous views of land and responsibility. In China as well, the oppressive weight of official Chinese government policies obliterates the rights of their ethnic minorities be it Xinjiang muslims, Tibetan buddhists, Southern Mongols or democratic protestors in Hong Kong or Taiwan – an independent nation state since 1949 – 72 years!

The Wet’suwet’en also have to deal with the armed weight of the state unleashing a national police force as a proxy security force for a private corporation to trample on Wet’suwet’en rights – unextinguished Aboriginal title and jurisdiction over their “unceded” territory in B.C. as confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1984 Delgamuukw v British Columbia decision. On January 6, 2020 Hereditary Chiefs of all five Wet’suwet’en clans rejected BC Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church’s decision granting an interlocutory injunction, which criminalizes Anuk ‘nu’at’en (Wet’suwet’en law). Since then, the RCMP have made multiple raids on peaceful protestors. Chief Don Tom, Vice-President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs concluded “Using armed force to take Indigenous peoples off their unceded and traditional territories against their will is not reconciliation, it is colonialism in all of its ugliness and hypocrisy”.   

All this for a pipeline that was never approved by the Hereditary Chiefs who the Supreme Court of Canada also recognized as the official representatives of the Wet’suwet’en people who alone had jurisdiction over their territory. How much of the turmoil of the last two years would have been avoided if Coastal GasLink and the federal government had honestly engaged with the Hereditary Chiefs. Coastal GasLink admitted that consultations with the Hereditary Chiefs were “limited in scope and scale compared to other Indigenous community engagement due to what seemed an unwillingness of the [Wet’suwet’en chiefs] to engage.”

It’s far easier to negotiate with someone who agrees with you than someone who does not.

The alternate route proposed by the Hereditary Chiefs, the McDonnell Lake route that would have avoided Wet’suwet’en territory entirely was dismissed by Coastal GasLink since the added cost and one year of additional effort was considered unfeasible. Ultimately, the profitability of the project determined the outcome. Not the legal rights of the Indigenous people who lived there nor the negative environmental impacts to the territory as extensively documented in the Wet’suwet’en submission to the BC Environment Assessment Agency:

By the way, “Coastal GasLInk could face million-dollar fines for repeated environmental infractions. BC’s environmental assessment office has issued 11 orders to Coastal GasLink since the project began, including three in November.” No wonder “Sleydo’ Molly Wickham, a wing chief of Cas Yikh house and Gidimt’en camp spokesperson, said the company’s history of environmental infractions is a key part of why Gidimt’en members and supporters are committed to preventing the company from drilling under the Wedzin Kwa (Morice) River.” (The Narwhal, Dec. 8, 2021).

But it’s not more important than the survival of a people, a nation, a culture,” he said.

The above statement rings true for the Uyghurs who have basically been abandoned by the global community who continue to salivate at the financial opportunities – and profits to be made – by selling into the Chinese market. That same mindset dominates political and business thinking in Canada – the profit motive to exploit “unceded” Indigenous lands to the benefit of governments and corporations – and the Canadian people – at the expense of the Indigenous people who live there.

When profit and domination define government and corporate behaviour and policies, where and when does reconciliation begin? Or of equal importance, how – when the resistance to change is so entrenched? Something has to give – and it won’t be the Indigenous people who have been fighting for change and justice for so long, their chipping away will ultimately succeed – with a little help from the courts. Perhaps the “How?” is the “Seven Generations” philosophy that is behind so much Indigenous thinking that actions taken today must be weighed against the consequences seven generations out to ensure a sustainable world for future generations. Perhaps, “Seven Generations” thinking should guide government and corporate policy versus the short-term financial thinking that dominates the market approach to the global economy.

Maybe then, the world will unite in some way to help the Uyghurs – and other oppressed minorities – to live their lives free to practice their language, religion, culture and traditions free of government interference.

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