Alberta Indigenous leaders speak up against approach to Coutts border crossing protest and blockade

Linda manyguns, associate vice-president of Indigenization and decolonization at Mount Royal University, says she is offended by what is happening at Coutts, Alta., as an ongoing impasse has complicated travel to the southern border.

Leaders say there are glaring disparities between response to this protest and past Indigenous-led ones

Supporters stand with protesters during a rail blockade in Ontario in 2020. Amid ongoing protests around Canada, Indigenous leaders are speaking out against how authorities are reacting to different parties. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

linda manyguns, associate vice-president of Indigenization and decolonization at Mount Royal University, says she is offended by what has taken place over the past week at Coutts, Alta., as an impasse has complicated travel to the southern border for days.

"It's obvious that there is some sort of preferential treatment to some portions of society that can demonstrate and shut down borders," said manyguns, who uses only lower-case letters for her name to acknowledge the Indigenous struggle for recognition.

Demonstrators began parking their trucks and other vehicles near the Coutts crossing Saturday in solidarity with similar events in Ottawa to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates and broader public health measures.

The protest has stranded travellers and cross-border truckers, compromised millions of dollars in trade and impeded access to basic goods and medical services for area residents.

Protesters agreed on Wednesday to open a lane on each side of the highway at the crossing. Since then, traffic has been moving slowly through the border. 

RCMP said Thursday that they had heard protestors intended to pull out of the area soon. Protest organizers reversed that decision soon after.

In previous statements, RCMP characterized the protest as an "unlawful blockade," adding that they had been engaged with protestors to find a peaceful and safe resolution for all involved. 

linda manyguns, associate vice-president of indigenization and decolonization at Mount Royal University, says a protest of truckers near Coutts, Alta., has been shown preferential treatment by authorities. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

manyguns said past Indigenous-led protests were met with different actions taken by law enforcement and government, including the Gitxsan rail blockade.

The protest on the train tracks on Gitxsan territory near New Hazelton, B.C., was part of a movement of more than 30 rail blockades that swept the country in February 2020, halting freight and passenger traffic in many areas.

The rail line protests were launched after RCMP arrested people blocking access to construction on Wetsuwet'en traditional territory near Houston, B.C.

The blockade in Coutts isn't nearly as large and hasn't lasted as many days. 

But other Alberta Indigenous leaders and activists say there have been notable disparities between the response from authorities when it comes to this protest compared to recent Indigenous protest actions.

On Wednesday, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in northern Alberta released a statement.

It said if the blockade was being organized by Indigenous people, authorities would respond quickly to remove it using Alberta's Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, which was passed in 2020.

manyguns agreed with that assessment.

"It doesn't matter whether it's murdered and missing women, it doesn't matter whether it's pipelines or whether it's issues with trees or territorial issues," manyguns said.

"We are constantly being reigned in — it is a blatant demonstration of the government's preference for some peoples' voices and not others."

A long line of semi trucks lineup down a highway.
Protestors began blocking the border at Coutts, Alta., on Jan. 29. Some Indigenous leaders, activists and educators say they're doubtful they would have received the same latitude to protest should they have been in the same situation. (Submitted by Jake Zacharias)

Sahtu Dene activist Michelle Robinson hosts a podcast called Native Calgarian. She believes the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act was established to stop Indigenous people from protesting pipeline projects.

"So we literally have legislation in place to allow them to lawfully arrest these folks [in Coutts]. And even with the law on their side, they still won't do it because they're not Indigenous," Robinson said.

Robinson said the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation report, as well as the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirited people all represent a two-tiered justice system. 

"And yet, we're still seeing a lot of the Canadian population almost surprised that this is happening," Robinson said.

manyguns said the message Indigenous people are receiving after witnessing the ongoing negotiations between RCMP and organizers of the Coutts protest is that Indigenous people don't matter.

"Aboriginal people are so sequestered into minimal activities in order to negotiate or make change for the things that were promised to them in treaties and I mean, we've kept our side of the deal. They got the land. All we want is to be treated fairly," manyguns said.