#SHUTCANADADOWN: Anti-Colonial Counterlogistics for Indigenous Sovereignty



As we go to print, disruptive actions on Canadian infrastructure organized by Indigenous activists and settler supports are happening in many places of the north of Turtle Island in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en resistance. Deborah Cowen offers us a crucially useful report and analysis. Here’s a link to donate to the Unist’ot’en 2020 Legal Fund if you’d like.

On February 6, 2020, Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) violently raided the unceded territory of the Wet’suwet’en Nation to clear the way for construction of a natural gas pipeline. Arresting land defenders and leadership, destroying community infrastructures, and interrupting ceremony, the raid went on for days. Under Wet’suwet’en law, authority over the nation’s 22,000 square kilometers of unceded territory lies with hereditary chiefs from five clans in a system of governance that long predates colonization. All five hereditary chiefs reject the construction of the pipeline on their territory. In direct response to their calls for support and solidarity, dramatic and sustained actions have proliferated. Coast to coast occupations of rail lines for an unprecedented twelve days and counting, actions at ports, highways and bridges, political offices, and central city streets by Indigenous land defenders and their allies, are represented by the hashtags #WetsuwetenStrong and #ShutCanadaDown. The blockades are having decisive impact. In an era of supply chain capitalism and Just-in-Time logistics, disruption can hit the economy hard. Flows of commuters and commodities that have come to rely on rapid circulation are grinding to a halt.

On February 14, 2020, eight days after the RCMP raid began, industry and government issued threats to the Canadian public about the chaos created by the “illegal” blockades. They warned that “shortages of groceries, propane, drinking water and other goods are on the horizon” (Canadian Press, “Industry warns of empty shelves as CN rail blockade reaches ninth day,” 2020). One corporate leader from the pulp and paper sector called the railroad a “critical artery,” and claimed that blockage was a threat to the life of the sector. Corporate and government leaders warned that the compromised state of supply chains put the very reproduction of settler life at risk, conjuring images of downed planes, layoffs, and eventual economic collapse. This year, Valentine’s Day was informed by a particularly violent form of settler desire — for the “inconvenient Indians” to get out of the way (cf. Thomas King). And yet, aggressive industry efforts to direct settler frustration at Indigenous land defenders are failing.

Fear mongering about dwindling public drinking water supplies because of blockages to chlorine shipments for water treatment, faced fast pushback. Comparisons were immediately drawn to the atrocious conditions of Indigenous peoples’ water supplies, where many communities have lived with boil water advisories for decades. When federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer asserted those taking action “need to check their privilege,” he was met with anger, stunned silence, and even uncontrolled laughter. This was so obviously out of touch with the realities of Indigenous lives in Canada: soaring poverty and youth suicide rates, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, failing infrastructure and housing crises, and outrageous incarceration rates.

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Solidarity rail blockade in Toronto/ Tkaronto organized by groups including Rising Tide and Climate Justice Toronto on February 8, 2020. / Photo by Deb Cowen.

This is in strong contrast to the voices of the Wet’suwet’en nation, whose proud and clear messaging inspires action. In fact, #Wet’suwet’enStrong and #ShutCanadaDown are not only disrupting settler political economy, but moral and affective economies as well. While some pundits call for forced removal of the land defenders, solidarity is building and disruptions multiplying. Marches are taking place continentally and overseas. Indigenous Nations, community and labour organizations, climate justice groups, youth organizations and thousands of professors have declared their solidarity. Recent polls also reflect this surging support with half of British Columbia supporting the Wet’suwet’en, while nationally the figure is closer to 40%. Women and younger people are most likely to be on side (cf. Tiffany Crawford, “Canadians divided over support for Wet’suwet’en protesters,” 2020). Mi’kmaq scholar and public intellectual Pam Palmater celebrates the solidarity actions taking place across the continent, even suggesting that only through these acts of solidarity are meaningful notions of ‘reconciliation’ enacted.

Solidarity actions have assumed a diversity of forms, yet the rail blockades have commandeered the most urgent attention of state officials and corporate executives. This is in large part because of their profound role in Canadian supply chains; hundreds of billions of dollars in cargo travels by track every year, along with over five million passengers. Rail blockades have appeared from east to west coasts, including those led by the Mi’gmaq of Listuguj, the Kahnawake and Tyendinaga Mohawks, the Gitxsan near New Hazelton, as well as solidarity blockades in Coquitlam, Toronto, and Halifax. The Mohawk action at Tyendinaga has resulted in the cancellation of all passenger travel between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and the shutdown of CN operations in eastern Canada. The Gitxsan, immediate neighbours of the Wet’suwet’en, shut the Port of Prince Rupert — a critical international maritime terminal with the shortest absolute distance between North America’s west coast and the ports of the Pacific rim. Dubbed the “Chicago Express” because the vast majority of cargo is transferred from the port by rail directly to the U.S. Midwest, the blockade held 150 freight trains and 18 container ships back from their destinations. Another blockade in the Port of Vancouver — Canada’s busiest port — saw 48 ships unable to pick up or unload their shipments.

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Solidarity rail blockade in Toronto/ Tkaronto on February 8, 2020. / Photo by Deb Cowen.

This counter-logistical approach to anti-colonial action has gained increasing attention in recent years. Recognition that the logistics revolution has led to dramatic integration of global supply chains has also cultivated interest in circulatory chokepoints, as Achilles heels in infrastructural systems for movements interested in fundamental social transformation. Official halls of state power are still targets for action, but it is economic action oriented towards circulatory systems that have been definitive of this struggle. In a blog piece entitled “A Callout for Rail Disruptions in Solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en,” one anonymous organizer insists that, “there is no need to chase the frontline; we can fight where we stand,” (Disrupt The Flows, 2020).

There are longer histories to the use of road and rail blockades on these territories; at the height of the Idle No More movement (2012-2013), Indigenous rail blockades emerged across the country. Likewise, during the 1990 Siege of Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake, Mohawks blockaded a major bridge and highways, while solidarity actions blocked rail lines at points across the country. The situation led one rail to exclaim “virtually all our transcontinental traffic has been disrupted. We are at the mercy of individual bands & whatever decisions they make” (cited in Disrupt The Flows). This call from the colonizer that they are ‘surrounded’ and violently threatened by those they oppress is a structuring feature of colonial culture. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney remind us of this fact outlining how the settler is classically portrayed as surrounded by natives, thus inverting, “the role of aggressor so that colonialism is made to look like self-defense” (The Undercommons, 2013).

Tlingit land defender and anthropologist Anne Spice (2016), argues that oil and gas pipelines like this one, should be understood as “invasive infrastructures” on Indigenous lands. Spice has been on the front lines of this very struggle, working on site with the Wet’suwet’en to defend their lands, up until a violent arrest on February 7. While the Canadian state defines energy pipelines as “critical infrastructure,” Spice sees these same infrastructures as invading and disrupting the critical infrastructure of the Wet’suwet’en.

Energy infrastructures have indeed been at the center of struggles over settler colonialism in recent years, while it is the railroads that were the original invasive infrastructure on Turtle Island. Indeed, the power of the contemporary rail blockades is also rooted in the role that the rail played in the colonization of the continent. Without the railroads there would be no Canada as we know it. Rail infrastructure literally, materially made the settler state possible. Railroads consolidated a vast set of Indigenous territories into the jurisdiction of a single settler state, and was a condition for disparate British colonies to sign the Constitution. But in a seemingly circular move, the rail infrastructure that underpinned the Canadian Constitution also relied upon the Canadian state’s proclaimed jurisdiction in the Constitution in order to be built. The rail was sanctioned by the Constitution and the Constitution was sanctioned by the rail.

The railroad engineered genocide. Rail enabled and rationalized the clearing of the plains and so too the mass starvation of plains peoples. Through deliberate destruction of vast continental herds of 60 million buffalos, transcontinental railroads underpinned the destruction of entire ecologies. The railroad became the key infrastructure in the colonial war against first people as it transported Canadian militia forces to the front lines of colonial wars against Cree and Metis people. The railroads were also bound up in complex racialized labor regimes that particularly impacted Chinese and Black workers. The rail carried white passengers into intimate fantasies of racial subservience and it carried racialized workers to premature deaths. For these and many more reasons, rail networks are so deeply bound up with Canadian settler colonialism, making them an ideal target for anti-colonial action.

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Solidarity rail blockade in Toronto/ Tkaronto on February 8, 2020. / Photo by Deb Cowen.

In the face of #ShutCanadaDown, industry and government keep calling for the restoration of the rule of law, all the while assuming that law takes only one (colonial) form. Yet Canada’s highest court has challenged any interpretation that fails to recognize underlying indigenous title in regions like this, where treaties have not been signed. As Shiri Pasternak explains, “The most important case on Aboriginal title in Canada was fought in 1997 in the Delgamuukw decision” where “the court recognized that underlying title continues to rest with the Indigenous nation where treaties have not been signed” (“No, those who defend the Wet’suwet’en territory are not criminals,” 2020) Pasternak goes on to highlight that it was the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan nations who brought the case to the Supreme Court and whose authority to govern was recognized in the decision. Elected band councils — a system of governance forcibly imposed through the Indian Act — have signed Impact Benefit Agreements with Coastal GasLink. Yet even under Canadian law, their authority is limited to reserves, not the wider Wet’suwet’en territory which is the jurisdiction of hereditary chiefs. On February 16, Jody Wilson-Raybould, who served as Canada first Indigenous attorney general, has weighed in, insisting that “under the constitution, it is up to the Indigenous Peoples who reside in Wet’suwet’en to determine what happens on their territory.”

At the Tyendinaga solidarity rail action, one of the most powerful scenes in this struggle for the respect for Indigenous sovereignty and law unfolded. With a table set up alongside the quiet train tracks, Tyendinaga member Kanenhariyo rolled out the Two Row Wampum and provided the RCMP officers a teaching in Mohawk language. Kanenhariyo explained that the The Two Row Wampum — one of the oldest treaty relations between Indigenous people and European settlers — “is the basis of the relationship between the Onkwehon: we and the newcomers  […] it doesn’t have an expiry, it doesn’t grow whiskers or get old, it doesn’t become obsolete unless one of the parties in the river disappears.” Jon Parmenter writes that this Wampum “makes manifest the joint decision by two parties to remain independent together” (“The Meaning of Kaswentha and the Two Row Wampum Belt in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) History,” 2013). Indigenous legal scholar, John Borrows, explains, “The two purple rows symbolize two paths or two vessels travelling down the same river […]. As nations move together side-by-side on the River of Life, they are to avoid overlapping or interfering with one another” (Canada’s Indigenous Constitution, 2010). In his work, and elsewhere, the Wampum is understood as a model for nation to nation relations. After long and very recent histories of colonial violence, this is extraordinary. That Indigenous people are still inviting the settler government and non-Indigenous people on this territory into good relations is an act of breathtaking spiritual and political generosity.

In the early days of the #ShutCanadaDown movement, the mainstream media interviewed rail passengers who had faced travel delays, on a clear hunt for stories of hate. They stopped one young woman who had been caught on the train in the first day of rail actions, and asked her how badly she was inconvenienced. In response, she explained that she was initially frustrated, but then used the opportunity of the stalled train to research the situation. She not only expressed her support for the Wet’suwet’en and the rail action, but expressed gratitude to the Mohawks at Tyendinaga for creating the opportunity for her to learn. This experience of listening and learning, and of refusing colonial affects of the inconvenienced and injured has become so widespread that mainstream media has had to respond.

The death certificate for the project of reconciliation has already been issued, with the hashtag #ReconciliationIsDead, but perhaps something even more meaningful is in the works. On February 16, in response to the circulation of an interactive map of solidarity economic disruptions, Pam Palmater tweeted, “Now this is a pipeline I can support! A pipeline of Indigenous and Canadian solidarity to stand against genocide and breach of native sovereignty, land rights and the right to say no.” In response to the ongoing and acute violence of colonialism, could it be that a movement is emerging, anchored in direct economic actions and uncompromising in commitments to Indigenous sovereignty? Might these anti-colonial counterlogistics reroute us on a track towards decolonial love? ■