In early 2020, the #ShutDownCanada movement in solidarity with Indigenous Wet’suwet’en people sparked a wildfire of resistance across the country. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, whose unceded territory encompasses 22,000 km2 of so-called British Columbia, were fighting attempts by Coastal GasLink to push a natural gas pipeline through their lands. In response to the violent arrest of Wet’suwet’en people and their supporters by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), protests erupted.
For several weeks, the rail system across Canada was shut down, port traffic was backed up on both the east and west coasts, and mass protests called for respect of Indigenous sovereignty and removal of RCMP from Wet’suwet’en land.
This movement revealed points of convergence between Indigenous peoples’ struggles and the climate justice movement. Critically, it involved significant support from workers. It built on the spectacuar Idle No More movement that emerged in 2012 and follows in a long history of resistance to colonization by the First Peoples of Turtle Island (the name given by some Indigenous peoples to the North American continent).
Generations of Indigenous people have fought to preserve traditions that have sustained the lands and waters of Turtle Island since time immemorial. This is partly the result of a continuing relationship to the land, as many Indigenous peoples still rely on hunting, fishing and other subsistence activities. But while many retain strong connections to the land, over half of Indigenous people in Canada live in urban centres. The brutal policies of dispossession that created and maintain the Canadian state have severed many Indigenous people’s relationship to the land. Yet through struggle, the collective memory of relations of egalitarianism and reciprocity that characterised pre-colonial Indigenous societies has been reinforced and reinvigorated. By maintaining and reviving traditions on the land, Indigenous peoples have nourished a vision of a livable future, in opposition to the unchecked destruction produced by capitalism.
Canada’s collision course
#ShutDownCanada starkly revealed the hypocrisy of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government. Despite claiming that his top priority is repairing relations with Indigenous peoples, since his election in 2015 he has doubled down on tar-sands oil production.
In June 2019, the Trudeau government passed a non-binding motion declaring that Canada is in a climate emergency. The next day, it approved the Trans Mountain tar-sands pipeline, which it had purchased the previous year for $4.5 billion CAD which, if completed, would carry 890,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to British Columbia. This pipeline runs through unceded Indigenous territories. First Nations leaders have said it will not be built. Trudeau’s stated commitment to establishing a “new relationship” with Indigenous peoples, and meeting Canada’s emissions target under the Paris Climate Agreement, is contradicted by his massive material support for extracting and marketing tar-sands oil.
The Canadian state remains on a collision course with both Indigenous peoples–whose sovereignty is an obstacle to hydrocarbon developments–and the vast majority of Canadians who support a move away from fossil fuels.
The Wet’suwet’en struggle exposed a key contradiction confronting the settler-colonial state: Canada is built on stolen land. The ongoing attacks on Indigenous peoples are a daily reminder that the violence and cruelty that Canada was founded on continues today.
In the case of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, in 1997 they were recognized as the rightful decision-makers on the traditional territories in a landmark Supreme Court decision, Delgamuukw vs the Queen. Yet federal and provincial governments violently suppress any attempt to assert this sovereignty, such as Wet’suwet’en refusal to allow construction of a pipeline on their territory.
This pattern–Indigenous sovereignty being trampled, and industries relying on state violence to ensure access to resources–is embedded in Canada’s foundations, from the doctrine of discovery and the notion of “terra nullius”, through the horrific violence, starvation, unscrupulous treaty-making, cruel residential schools network, theft of indigenous children and destruction of Indigenous governance structures and spiritual practices that comprised Canada’s “Indian policy”. This policy was so fundamental to the development of Canadian capitalism that its architect, Canada’s first prime minister John A. Macdonald, kept this portfolio in his hands from 1878 until 1888, after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built, mass settlement of the West was underway and Indigenous nations had been torn apart, their peoples confined to tiny allotments of land known as reserves.
As Tyler Shipley writes,
The development of Canada fits the predictable patterns of a settler colony born out of European expansion between the 15th to 19th centuries. Though it gradually took on a uniquely Canadian character, many of the same basic patterns are found in studies of the US or Australia, or in more modern cases that follow similar logics, from South African apartheid to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Over the course of a century, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children passed through the residential school system. The 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)–which was established in 2008 to record the history and impacts of the residential schools–concluded that the brutality deployed to suppress indigenous language and culture constitutes “the darkest, longest, and most chilling chapter in the history of the colonisation of aboriginal peoples”.Far from being limited to residential schools, this policy was in force through the “Sixties Scoop”, in which Indigenous children were removed from their families and placed in foster care, and continues in child welfare policies today.
Colonial past, colonial present
The Canadian state’s attempt to destroy Indigenous peoples is not a matter of history— it is a colonial present that manifests in myriad ways. Life expectancy for people from Inuit, First Nations and Métis communities is 69.7, 70.5 and 74.8 years respectively, compared to the national average of 81.8 years; infant mortality rates are 2 to 4 times the national average; First Nations reserves are chronically underserved by health services; 25 percent of Indigenous people live in poverty, including a staggering 40 percent of indigenous children.
And these statistics do not begin to tell the story of the deeply rooted systemic racism towards Indigenous peoples in every facet of Canadian society. The RCMP, founded in 1873 to suppress Indigenous resistance on the Plains, continue their brutal and often murderous persecution of Indigenous people. In Saskatchewan, 62.5 percent of people who have died from police encounters were Indigenous, despite being only 11 percent of the population. In 2016, Indigenous people represented 25 percent of the national male prison population and 35 percent of the female prison population.
But it goes far beyond police and prisons. Incidents of racist abuse in social services like health, education and housing are rife–and too often, deadly, as in the case of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who in September 2020 livestreamed what were her dying moments in a Québec hospital, under a barrage of racist abuse by healthcare workers. This is also the face of Canadian settler-colonialism.
Despite the racism that permeates the structure of capitalist Canada, the struggle of Wet’suwet’en people struck a powerful chord of solidarity that succeeded in shutting down the country—destabilising the “conditions of certainty” demanded by investors.
This solidarity did not come out of the blue. It has been built over years and was moved forward by a series of initiatives seeking to create a common framework of struggles around climate issues, Indigenous sovereignty and workers’ rights. The Leap Manifesto, created by Indigenous, climate, labour, faith and social justice organisations, was launched in September 2015:
We start from the premise that Canada is facing the deepest crisis in recent memory. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has acknowledged shocking details about the violence of Canada’s near past. Deepening poverty and inequality are a scar on the country’s present. And Canada’s record on climate change is a crime against humanity’s future… small steps will no longer get us where we need to go. So we need to leap. This leap must begin by respecting the inherent rights and title of the original caretakers of this land. Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of protecting rivers, coasts, forests and lands from out-of-control industrial activity. We can bolster this role, and reset our relationship, by fully implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Building on the Leap, the Pact for a Green New Deal was launched in the summer of 2019. A few months later, on 27 September 2019, the global climate strike drew 500,000 people on the streets of Montreal, 100,000 in Vancouver and 50,000 in Toronto–including students, Indigenous activists, union members and many more. The sense of possibility was building, as climate actions took place around the world.
But despite broad support for the principles that underlie the Green New Deal, the proposal proved too “radical” for the reformist New Democratic Party and most trade-union officials. This is shameful. Initiatives like the Leap Manifesto, the Green New Deal and now the #JustRecoveryforAll are critically important as they link demands for Indigenous self-determination and climate action with those for a just transition for workers. Such bold proposals can provide an alternative to working-class identification with the settler-colonial state, towards solidarity with Indigenous people. Workers building pipelines, or working in the tar sands and refineries, need a concrete alternative to the dead end of fossil fuel production. Indigenous peoples need solidarity from working-class people to win their struggles. These proposals counter the false dichotomies between jobs, indigenous sovereignty and the environment.
#ShutDownCanada built on the momentum of the global climate strikes, and further radicalized it. But the pandemic brought another type of shutdown, which interrupted that momentum. In spite of this, struggles have continued to develop–albeit with new challenges.
New struggles, new challenges and opportunities
In 2021new fronts have emerged in the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty:
- In early February, the Birch Narrows Dene First Nation in northern Saskatchewan blocked a road used by uranium mining company Baseload Energy Corporation and also issued cease and desist letters to stop further development of uranium mining in the area, to protect habitat of caribou which they depend on for food.
- On April 1st, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Neskantaga First Nations declared a moratorium on mining development in the Ring of Fire area in northern Ontario, and on any development to facilitate access to the area. These First Nations have suffered for years because of the lack of access to drinkable water on their reserves, connected to the mining operations that have disrupted the traditional ways that sustained their lands for millenia.
- In April, a council of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy agreed that no more development would be allowed on their land. This was in reaction to the planned McKenzie Meadows land development which they occupied last year to defend their land. Dubbed “1492 Landback Lane”, this occupation halted the ongoing development, defying injunctions and Ontario Provincial Police raids of the encampment.
But perhaps most emblematic of the opportunities and challenges in building united struggle was the February blockade by a group of Inuit hunters–the Nuluujaat Land Guardians–of a bridge and airstrip used to supply labour, food and equipment to Baffinland’s Mary River iron mine. Concerned about the effect of increased mining operations on their traditional hunting lands, they defied the Baffinland mining company’s plans to double production at the mine and build a rail connection. These plans had been accepted by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), a regional Inuit organization, and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), an Inuit land-claims body.
A spokesperson for the protesters explained,
our organization [QIA] that is supposed to represent us, only listens to Baffinland and says yes. We can no longer stand still. We act out of love for our descendants, our children, the wildlife we hunt, and for what our ancestors endured. They worked hard, they survived hunger to bring us to this day. You must know that we aim to continue our culture and way of life as we want a good life for our descendants.
Even when the people of Pond Inlet said no, apparently one single yes from the mayor is all that counts. This is very wrong.
Significantly, a remarkable open letter in support of the protesters at the mine penned by a “sizeable minority” of the 700 mine workers stranded by the blockade, stated:
We recognize the Inuit as the rightful custodians of this land, and as the people who should make the decisions about how it is used…. You’ve said that it is not the workers you are upset with, but the Baffinland executives, and we would like to say that our support is also not with our superiors in the company, but with you.
In March, both the QIA and NTI reversed their previous approval of the mine expansion, citing concerns of the local Inuit communities. In May, Baffinland CEO Brian Penney said that the company may mothball the mine in 2022 due to shareholder reluctance to invest in the mine given the delays securing the expansion approval. This important victory by Inuit land defenders directly raises the question of a just transition for workers (including Inuit workers) who stand to lose their livelihood as a result.
Not surprisingly, similar dynamics recur in many struggles today, right across the globe–as Indigenous peoples struggle to reclaim spaces lost to colonial/capitalist development. For example, in Namibia and Botswana, resistance is brewing amongst the Indigenous San people to a new shale-oil and gas development that is being pursued by Canadian oil company, ReconAfrica. If fully developed, the company estimates that 120 billion barrels of oil would be produced, which would use up 1/6th of the remaining global carbon budget to keep us under 1.5 degrees. This development is upstream from the Okavango Delta, the world’s largest oasis, and the “sacred homeland” for the San people:
We note that as the custodians of this land for thousands of years, and the rightful current inhabitants and custodians of this land, we have never been consulted, nor have we given the go-ahead to any entities to prospect for oil and gas in this our lands… we will be prevented from hunting and gathering food, collecting medicine and performing our cultural practices and sacred rituals–in short it will prevent us from being San.
Mass action like the #ShutDownCanada movement changed the landscape and has brought the struggles of Indigenous peoples into the consciousness of millions. It has raised questions and debates in the working class and given confidence to Indigenous land defenders, climate activists and their allies that there can be a basis for united struggle. As the Baffinland mine workers wrote in their letter to Inuit land defenders, “This country has seen the consequences of entitlement and greed that have led to the destruction of the land for profit, and we are glad you are fighting for autonomy over your land.… On many occasions we’ve looked around at the massive piles of iron ore surrounded by miles of rusted snow, the colossal diesel tanks and the clouds of exhaust fumes that hang above the camp and thought, “What the hell are we doing here?”
The deep ecological, social and economic crises humanity confronts raise the question of what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels describe as a fight that ends “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. They pointed to the “associated producers”–the vast majority of the population–wresting control of society away from a tiny ruling class to democratically and cooperatively organise the economy on the basis of human need instead of the pursuit of profit. As John Bellamy Foster notes, for Marx “the most important problem facing the society of associated producers … would be to address the problem of the metabolic relation between human beings and nature”. The need to overcome the “rift” in the metabolism between human beings and nature led Marx to study human societies that had not yet been distorted by the ravages of capitalism for insight into ways of relating to each other and the natural world that are sustainable and life-giving.
In a recent discussion on the crisis in the Amazon, Brazilian Indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara spoke of how the system “…sees our land as unproductive, they see land as an object. But the Earth is sacred. It is us. It is our body and spirit.”This outlook, shared by Indigenous peoples the world over but deligitimized and derided over hundreds of years by colonial and capitalist societies–resonates with Marx’s insight that “Nature is man’s inorganic body–nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature–means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”
When mineworkers say “What the hell are we doing here?” in their letter to Inuit hunters, they express a recognition of the unsustainable nature of capitalist production– but also the potential convergence of workers’ struggles against exploitation with the struggles of Indigenous peoples and the fight for a sustainable world. They are linked because they are all directed against the capitalist system, suggesting a potential revolutionary convergence that can overthrow capitalism in the context of settler-colonial states. Finding concrete ways to strengthen and deepen these links is a crucial and urgent task for socialists today.
 For a more detailed account of this struggle and the background to it, see “Fighting back on Turtle Island: indigenous sovereignty, the working class and anti-capitalism”, International Socialism 170, Spring 2021. http://isj.org.uk/turtle-island/
 Shipley, Tyler, 2020, Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination (Fernwood Publishing), p91.