British Columbia·Analysis

B.C.'s DNA is embedded in Wet'suwet'en demonstrations

This week's demonstrations are part of the same conflict around power and privilege that has coloured British Columbia's history.

It's about privilege and power, race and resources, just as it's been since Gold Rush days

Demonstrators rally at the B.C. Legislature on Tuesday to support Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

At its core, this week of rotating blockades and demonstrations across B.C. is the same conflict that has always existed in this province. 

But it's also different.

It's the same because British Columbia's political culture has long involved strikes and protests and civil disobedience, often meant to inconvenience, usually centred around rights and race and resources. 

"These have happened before and they will continue to happen," said Rod Mickleburgh, a longtime B.C. journalist who has written books on the labour movement.

"We're so wired to cover the latest thing and perhaps boost it out of all proportion to its relevance ... and people forget our history."

But the demonstrations supporting the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline are different, because technology and social media allow the dispute to play out in real time to the entire nation, with a level of coordination among young Indigenous leaders never before attained. 

"It seems like they've always been five steps ahead of law enforcement, five steps ahead of the politicians inside the legislature," said Vyas Saran, a University of Victoria law student and policy researcher who acted as a legal observer at Tuesday's legislature protest. 

Labour no longer leads the way

For all the talk about the historic nature of this week's demonstrations, the legislature has been stormed by protesters before and mass arrests haven't only been predicted — they've actually happened.

However, it's also different, argues Ben Isitt — a Victoria councillor who participated in this week's blockade of the legislature — because it's a new type of coalition, less centred around traditional labour and more focused on younger environmentalists and Indigenous leaders.

"We're seeing those two movements come together ... giving more strength to this movement than some other ones we've seen in recent years," he said.

Isitt, who wrote his PhD dissertation on the history of protests in B.C., also believes these demonstrators are willing to push the envelope. 

"I was surprised to see, in terms of the depth of support ... the openness to militant tactics, or to more non-violent civil disobedience that the young people demonstrated."

Wet’suwet’en supporters block Prior Street at Malkin Avenue in Vancouver on Monday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Unceded land

It has the same fault lines as an infamous conflict 156 years ago, when six Tsilhqot'in chiefs were hanged by the government in a dispute over whether a road — one that also connected the coast to natural resources in the Interior — could go through their unceded territory. 

"B.C. as a province, for its entire history, built on its economy and its growth on the resource sector. And that always comes as a point of conflict when it comes to the issue of title around Indigenous rights," said Khelsilem, an elected Squamish Nation councillor.

"It remains an unresolved issue and I think that that speaks to the heart of this issue."

But Khelsilem says it's different because there's a greater awareness around injustices faced by Indigenous people than ever before.

 And a new generation of leaders might not take the same tactics as those before them. 

"They've seen too much hypocrisy. They have too much history to draw on," said Saran.

"They see that direct action is the only thing that works. It's the only thing that gets them the goods."

Wet'suwet'en supporters in Vancouver have blocked traffic at Cambie Street and Broadway multiple times in the past week. (Franny Karlinsky/CBC)

Betrayal by the NDP?

On the partisan politics side, it's another story of the NDP campaigning on progressive issues and then disappointing some of their most fervent followers.

"Traditionally this is what happens. You say one thing when in opposition, and then you become government and it's much more difficult," said Mickleburgh, who recently co-wrote a book on the first B.C. NDP government with Geoff Meggs, a former Vancouver city councillor who went on to become John Horgan's chief of staff

"Once the NDP got elected for the first time in B.C [in 1972] the labour movement thought ... they were going to get everything they wanted. Well they didn't. And they were not happy about it. These are the tensions that make it just a little bit harder for them to govern."

The political calculus might not be the same for this government though, because we're in an age where young people are increasingly seeking different political options. 

"There is a palpable sense of disappointment, or frankly heartbreak, by a lot of activists ... and indigenous people who in good faith hoped this government would be a little bit different," said Khelsilem, who has warned the government could lose support they've traditionally had in First Nations communities. 

"They're putting a lot at risk in terms of the future."

This week's demonstrations are part of the same conflict around power and privilege that has coloured British Columbia's entire history, right down to its name. 

But it's different because history is a living document. 

And this chapter doesn't have a conclusion. 


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.