While the Canadian state speaks reconciliation out of one side of its mouth, its courts and state-issued special Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) task forces are colonizing, with state violence, the Indigenous people in so-called North America. From genocide, to forced assimilation, to violent paternalism, the rhetoric of our nation-state has changed, but its goal remains the same. Where the case for defending the settler situation is indisputably weak, the eradication of Indigenous people has arguably been Canada’s goal regardless of its national program du jour. A recent court injunction against the territories of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, in so-called British Columbia, led to a militarized police raid in early January that was backed by TransCanada, owner of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
On January 7, the Canadian state forcibly broke through the Gidimt’en checkpoint, arresting 14 land and water defenders. The Canadian state and Coastal GasLink have violated Article 10 of the United Nations’ Declaration of Rights for Indigenous People, which claims that “Indigenous people shall not be forcibly removed from their land or territories.” Further, actions for the Coastal GasLink project on Unist’ot’en land, in the Wet’suwet’en Nation, are allegedly in violation of the Wildlife Act of 1985 through the ongoing bulldozing and destruction of Unist’ot’en land and traplines without prior consultation. It is entirely significant that these violations and acts of colonialism are disrupting the Healing Centre in Unist’ot’en, which is dedicated to bringing wellness to Indigenous survivors of intergenerational trauma from colonial violence. We can view what happened at Unist’ot’en as blatant affirmation that the war on ‘Indians’ in Canada remains the true political agenda in spite of Justin’s dreamy tears of reconciliation. We must stand with the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
On a cold, mid-January night, I sat down with Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, a Two-Spirit artist, educator, and land and water protector, to learn about Wet’suwet’en’s international call for solidarity and the meaning of being a supportive accomplice. We exchange small talk and academic woes as I fiddle with the recording equipment. When we begin, Jeffrey sighs and clears his throat. There is a lot to say, and he speaks it slowly with a warm humour that houses his critical edge. Our conversation is non-linear; we both recognize that a straight narrative would not be queer enough for the task. Instead what follows is a collage of wisdom from one land and water protector, filtered through the normative system of the written English language.
“My name is Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, I am Tk’emlúpsemc,” he begins. “I come from the Secwepemc Nation, which is an Indigenous nation that is one of the largest land masses in so-called British Columbia. It’s in the central interior, in the south. But I’m also fourth-generation English settler. My mom is third generation; her name is Jackie McNeil. My father was Jeff Seymour — I’m a junior, I don’t talk about that very often, so don’t ever call me that.” The humour. After a brief pause, he continues, “Yeah, English and Indigenous. So I’m constantly in a state of trying to colonize myself and decolonize.” He looks up and laughs, “It’s good times.”
Jeffrey recently moved to Toronto — the colonial appropriation of the Mohawk tkaronto — and has been one of the many who are organizing and mobilizing in response to the Wet’suwet’en call. If you were present, in person or over Facebook live streams, at the January 9 shut down of the Bloor Viaduct, you heard Jeffrey speak.
When I ask about the RCMP’s actions in early January, Jeffrey shares a story. He’s a remarkable storyteller and nothing, save listening to him speak, can do his stories justice. His framing is nothing short of powerful. “While Justin Trudeau was skiing in [Whistler], the RCMP went into the Unist’ot’en camp and tore down the encampment, forcibly removing — in handcuffs even — with semi-automatic rifles and combat gear, peaceful Indigenous land and water defenders.”
Jeffrey explains that there is no treaty between Canada and the people of the Wet’suwet’en Nation that would sanction these actions, and that the RCMP are acting without grounds or authority. “So, in essence, what we’ve witnessed with this is,” he pauses to clear his throat and build dramatic tension, “imperialism.” Jeffrey laughs. Humour with an edge. At one point, Jeffrey jokes that Trudeau should replace his Indigenous shoulder tattoo — yes, he has one, look it up — with an active Death Star, Death Star II, or even a Starkiller Base — the three most destructive weapons in Star Wars. A glorious idea.
The call for solidarity with Wet’suwet’en is to “shut it down,” explains Jeffrey. “Shut Canada down.” The purpose of this action, Jeffrey elaborates, would be to make the Canadian nation-state “feel that economic interruption, of the flow of money, of goods, of our conveniences. That’s really what it’s about.” The hour-long shutdown of the Bloor Viaduct was just the beginning, says Jeffrey. “But what we were doing there,” he continues, “where we blocked the highway, was also in recognition of what the river once was.”
In 1787, the Don River was ‘acquired’ by the federal government in the Toronto Purchase, which took land from the Mississaugas under the pretense of a loan. The river has since been straightened, paved over, and polluted in continuing acts of urbanization. “We look at water as being alive, as having a consciousness; it remembers everything,” explains Jeffrey. “For me, if there’s water in the room, it’s like a bible,” he laughs. “You know, I —” he thinks on his words a moment, “always speak your truth and talk to the water, but where we stood on the bridge was directly over the river, and so, our prayers and our work for that particular interruption was centred in perhaps a lament of the current state of that waterway.”
Contextualizing further, Jeffrey outlines how the spread of foreign illness through colonial contact in so-called British Columbia was succeeded by the implementation of residential schools. The RCMP’s continued bullying of northwestern Indigenous people is made possible, Jeffrey explains, by the second wave of diseases that decimated Indigenous populations in the late 1700s. “Indigenous nations numbered in the hundred-thousands plus [were reduced] to just under a quarter of that. Even fewer than that.” This wave of disease spread through Jeffrey’s own nation, he tells me. And he describes how another village in Kamloops of 1,000 people was impacted: “Just over 250 people survived and,” he pauses as his gaze drifts elsewhere, “that’s real,” he pauses again, “you know, that trauma. And then the residential school went in Kamloops, so it’s just like thing after thing after thing. So the traumatic experience of witnessing this again is just like,” Jeffrey redirects his thought to a pointed declaration, “people think of colonialism as in the past, or how residential schools have been apologized for.” He scoffs as he says “apologized.” It’s as though, he continues, assuming the voice of the Canadian state, “we’ve said sorry for it yet we’re still going to fuck your shit up. We still want you dead, we still want to ‘take care of Indian problem’ and that means either assimilate or die.”
While the violence against people of the Wet’suwet’en Nation is enacted by a militarized task force implemented by the Canadian state and in conjunction with TransCanada, such occurrences are made possible through the silence and inaction of every Canadian settler (non-Indigenous person). In a quick side note, Jeffrey explains how ‘settler’ is a contested term among non-Indigenous persons for its “negative connotations” and for seemingly denying Canadians of a “sense of attachment or belongingness to the places that they have a few generations of history on, versus since time immemorial with Indigenous people.”
He stresses the importance of knowing one’s history of entry into Canada and the ways in which one’s ancestors entered Indigenous lands. As a fourth-generation English settler, Jeffrey describes his great-grandmother’s entry to Peachland, in the Okanagan Valley, in Sylix territory. Bringing awareness to these intersecting histories is the work of an accomplice to Indigenous people and efforts to decolonize. “Canada has routinely denied its citizens an opportunity to have a relationship with Indigenous people that’s not in an appropriative or in an ‘owned-ownership’ kind of setting.” As he continues, a coy look grows on his face and his voice drops to a dramatic whisper, “Like, Indigenous people are Canadians — in the reverse,” he laughs.
Jeffrey shares that, when he thinks of anonymity, he thinks of Canadians purposefully kept in the dark about the state’s actions against Indigenous people. This leads, he argues, to a condition of “ignorant bliss,” where, “for whatever reason, on some level, Indigenous people are automatically inscribed in people’s imaginations as being,” he pauses, and continues carefully, “the cause of the current situation. So that keeps the average Canadian safe in their anonymity of what their true feelings are about Indigenous people.” Proving Jeffrey’s point, the Canadian government sanctioned a risk assessment four years ago to determine whether or not there would be significant backlash against a raid on the Unist’ot’en camp for the pipeline. The assessment found that a raid would incite a nationwide response, but ultimately deemed the risk ‘medium-low’ due to a suspected lack of support for the Indigenous; the government factored in Canadian apathy and surmised that the Indigenous communities’ response would not be heeded by any majority.
Further weaponizing anonymity, the police special task force jammed all cellular communications to and from those at the Gidimt’en checkpoint before the raid, rendering the Wet’suwet’en struggle and voices unheard and unknowable to Canadians. Speaking to the centrality of digital communications for organizing, Jeffrey tells me thoughtfully: “I think while some people really criticize ‘slacktivists,’ it’s important work that people do, and [by] keeping other people informed and reposting and sharing and retweeting and doing all those things; that digital technology piece is a very powerful tool and a very necessary one. But if they have cellphone cancelling technology then,” he continues in a higher-pitched voice, “it kind of interrupts the moment.” He laughs and shakes his head. His humour is integral to his politics.
Even language has the potential to be a colonial weapon, which is why, Jeffrey sternly informs me, “It’s very important we don’t label them as protesters or activists — that we call them defenders. Because that’s what our calling is. An innate connection to land, to water, to the spirits within those things or on those things is how we arrive in service to future generations.” In order for settlers to be accomplices to Indigenous defenders, it is also important to move beyond the popular notion of allyship. Jeffrey first explains what allyship is: “Allyship is for a person who is just kind of like ‘waking up.’ And allyship still has the ability of a person self-ordaining themselves or anointing themselves with that without ever actually having to confront those uncomfortable moments or uncomfortable feelings that are a part of the decolonial process or the consciousness raising process.”
The big distinction between that and accompliceship, he explains, is that accomplices are recognized by members of the Indigenous communities with which they work. An accomplice, Jeffrey defines, is someone who “actively take[s] up the work that Indigenous people no longer deem as their work anymore, and actively use their privilege to be able to unsettle spaces — to be able to turn the gaze back onto their own communities and have those difficult conversations of doing the hard work of spiritual consciousness raising, of confronting deeply embedded racism. But then also, too — the accomplice is also thinking about their own intergenerational trauma. Because that’s a thing too. The intergenerational trauma exists for everyone.”
There are not enough accomplices. Trudeau and the Canadian government could count on this. They could safely count on the nation to fail to stand together in support of the people from the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Where do we go from here? What are the next steps? I asked Jeffrey to speak pointedly to you, dear reader. And here’s what he said: “Bystanding? No. You have to find where you can step in. And maybe that is through anonymity. Perhaps you, you know, are sympathetic to the cause and find ways to fund the front line. Donate to the Tiny House Warriors. Support people like Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch, [who] travel doing art builds with communities across all of North America.”
“Question why the RCMP are not being investigated for the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans, and Two-Spirit girls and people… No more bystanding. And we all have to start putting our best foot forward and having an active role in demanding and co-imagining a Canada where equity, and the health of the land and the water and all of the furred and the winged, the seen and the unseen, are all centred alongside, with children and women and all of the marginalized people in Canada. Or the world for that matter.”
“We have to start standing up for something and we have to start now. We don’t have a lot of time left.”
The encroachment on Wet’suwet’en land is ongoing. TransCanada is winning in its rapacious takeover of occupied lands for colossal profits for a few. The destruction of their land is occurring as I type this and as you read this.
For more information, updates, ways to support, and links to donate, visit Unistoten.camp.