From Red River to Unist’ot’en: An Unconventional Timeline of Police Repression and Indigenous Resistance

To settler opponents of Indigenous peoples’ resistance, the recent events at the Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en checkpoints on Wet’suwet’en territory may seem like just more of the same. Another pipeline protest. Another Native blockade. One more RCMP “enforcement” of a court injunction. At the same time, to settler supporters of Indigenous resistance, the actual content of the struggle and its relation to past cycles of Indigenous resistance may have gotten lost in the mix.

Some settlers may not know their own history and don’t realize they were the ones who put the band council system in place in the first place. Others are probably faking it to score media points and slander resistance. The first ones seemingly don’t understand the value of telling stories over and over again, so that you end up knowing something important about your people’s history. The second tell the same lies, time and time again, hoping something will stick, hoping Indigenous people will eventually forget who they are and the settler masses will forget the land they live on is stolen land.

And when the land gets reclaimed, like at Unist’ot’en, some claim shock, surprise and outrage over laws supposedly being broken. “Whose laws” somehow isn’t the important question. Settlers assume Indigenous laws don’t matter, just like they assume the land is theirs just because they say so, just because they want it.

Image from “Blockade” documentary, 1993, directed by Nettie Wild

Settler entitlement

Settlers don’t always have the best sense of time. In the 1993 documentary film “Blockade” about Gitxsan road and railway actions against logging companies (next door to Wet’suwet’en territory in northern BC), the opening interview is with a settler belly-aching about the disruptions, saying that it’s too late for Native protests because “That land has now been in public use for 120 years […] Time must mean something?”

Is such an absurdly limited scale of settlement is supposed to mean more than time immemorial or 20,000 years of Indigenous people living with their own land?

Despite their respect for the longevity of their own settlements, non-Natives often lack patience and get frustrated when Indigenous stories go on longer than they’re “supposed” to and when blockades and re-occupations pop up again and again. But sometimes you need patience in order to learn something. Sometimes you need to hear a story more than once to really get it. As the “Blockade” documentary shows, settlers regularly get restless and attack Indigenous roadblocks and camps even before the cops do.

More recently, in reference to the police raids at Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en, BC Premier John Horgan got his time frames mixed up when he made a statement about band council systems supposedly being historic and hereditary systems somehow now just emerging. Then he had to go back in time and change his statement, or what he was supposed to mean by it anyway. Maybe he realized it takes at least 9 months for a brand new hereditary system to emerge, for a new cycle of life to begin. And these Wet’suwet’en chiefs seem to be a little older than that.

Settlers don’t always like to admit their mistakes. But even when they do, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did at the recent Kamloops town hall meeting, they limit it to pretending all the problems are in the past, that colonization is just a legacy that we’re now supposedly overcoming. Luckily, some long-time Secwepemc land defenders were there to remind him for the 20,000th occasion that colonization is ongoing, that he doesn’t have a deed to their territory, that the RCMP raid of Unist’ot’en was a national disgrace, that he needs to “get the fuck off our land!” The Prime Minister was forced to admit that Canada has no deed to Indigenous territory but still refused to admit that colonialism itself is a colossal ongoing “mistake.” Colonization is an intentional war for territory, not an accident.

Settler story cycles

The national and international Indigenous solidarity demonstrations and actions for Unist’ot’en were only the latest in a historical cycle of struggles, from the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en blockades and actions in the 80s and 90s, to Oka, Gustafsen Lake, Ipperwash, Burnt Church, Six Nations and Elsipogtog.

Indeed, RCMP raiding Indigenous territory for corporate and settler interests is a time-honoured story for Indigenous people. The force was purpose-made for enforcing colonial order on the prairies and got their real start by raiding the lands of the Cree, Saulteaux/Anishinaabe and Métis on the prairies in 1870s and 1880s.

The Métis Nation had effectively controlled the town of Red River (which would later become Winnipeg) since they had defeated the Hudson’s Bay Company at the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816.

The Canadian army showed up in Red River for the first time in 1870 and started beating and killing Indigenous people in the streets as punishment for the so-called Riel Rebellion. But who had been rebelling against who? Canada wasn’t even there yet when things first kicked off. The Hudson’s Bay Company had sold land it never owned to a country called Canada that hadn’t actually moved into its new property yet. The Métis were just defending their territory, so they prefer the term resistance to rebellion.

Many Métis fled west from the army and Canada to what would later become Saskatchewan. In 1885 the RCMP started a war and lost its first battle to the Métis at Duck Lake. The Canadian army effectively ended the war at Batoche and defeated the resistance. This was the second of the so-called Riel Rebellions, the one with an epilogue that featured the hanging of Riel and eight Cree men. The place were Riel was hanged is now the RCMP training academy.

The story of Duck Lake goes that a Métis on the RCMP side fired the first shot there that started the war. Indigenous people being on both sides of a conflict is nothing new. We keep finding ourselves caught between a roadblock and hard place. And sometimes people are just traitors to their own, hoping to get a slice of the settler pie that ends up more like a crumb from the colonial cupcake.

The Residential School at Duck Lake didn’t close until 1996. Settler colonialism is an ongoing war for territory, it’s true. But it’s also a continuous counter-insurgency campaign for hearts and minds, our peoples’ and theirs. It’s a war of attrition, on many fronts. Colonizers hope they can tell the same story so many times that eventually everyone will believe it’s true.

James Settee

“The Indian Family” and its politics

In 1871, the Swampy Cree and Christian missionary James Settee wrote to his bosses in the Anglican Church about the difficulties he was having in converting his fellow Natives, saying “The Indian family in general was always under the impression that the foreigners were usurpers [and] destroyers of their race and Country; that is this land belonged to them exclusively […]”

The fact that so many Indigenous people continue to be under the impression that the land belongs to them and always will is a nearly insurmountable problem for the settler state. But settlers are nothing if not persistent.

Non-Natives, both for and against Indigenous resistance, oversimplify the conflict to be just about the land and who owns it. But more importantly, colonialism is about how that land is owned, how it’s related to and how we relate to each other through it.

James Settee, despite his conflicted politics and position, reminds us of the other side of the land equation: the Indian family. When the colonizers confine Indigenous people to reservations, residential schools and prisons, they don’t just separate us from the land but from our families, because our families are the ones who can tell us the stories reconnecting us to that land. Residential schools have ended, but mass imprisonment and child apprehension continues unabated. For Indigenous people, family is always political.

Settee had a big family, in both the immediate and more general Indigenous sense. As it happens, one of his grandsons was one of my grandfathers. And my grandfather is one of the many Métis veterans memorialized at Batoche for fighting in Canada’s wars not long after Canada had gone to war against our own people. Not that he had a choice, at least the first time around, as he was drafted under the Military Service Act of 1917.

Although we can’t chose the political context or the families we are born into, we can and oftentimes have to make hard decisions for ourselves about what direction we want our own politics to take and who we want to include in an expansive form of kinship.

James Settee himself was something of a contradiction, but also evolved over time, as all people do. A victim of residential schools before they were even official policy who went on to preach the colonizer’s religion, but who also drew the ire of the church for not assimilating himself or his students enough, he maintained and then re-embraced his Cree spirituality and storytelling as he got older. While at times he faced violent rejection of his Christian views from his fellow Natives, at other times his ability to follow Indigenous protocol could win them over. He wrote that he saw all Indigenous people as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, […] it must appear to them natural when I say I feel for them.”

Settee also had first hand experience of the pan-Indigenous concept of the “Indian family” as for a time he lived with his Métis wife Sarah Sinclair Cook and her family on the mixed Saulteaux/Anishinaabe and Cree reserve St. Peter’s, Red River. He learned to speak Anishinaabemowin in addition to his Nêhinawêwin and took an active part in band politics.

Conflicting narratives

Colonizers, unlike the Avengers, have no Endgame. They’re caught in a time loop. First they raid with their army or cops, then they try to assimilate us in their schools, institutions and foster families. But when we reclaim our land in the face of corporate theft, the conflict has to go back to the cops again. And the cycle of lies have to start anew, with the government, Coastal Gaslink and its cronies claiming to have support from communities because they have the support of the band councils that Canada imposed. Band councils only have delegated jurisdiction over reserves, both being creations of Canada’s 1876 Indian Act. Whereas hereditary chiefs and traditional grassroots people have always been enacting and reaffirming their jurisdiction over their wider territories as sovereign peoples.

Even the RCMP had to go back in time, like the premier did, after they realized how poorly-received their press release on enforcing the injunction at Unist’ot’en was. The first press release was so bold as to claim that regardless of any future developments in the courts, the RCMP would retain jurisdiction over Wet’suwet’en territory. Except the whole conflict grows from the prior and continuing jurisdiction of the Wet’suwet’en people, which Canada has never supplanted, no matter what story it chooses to tell itself, and regardless of any colonial court’s judgments.

At the Vancouver Walk for Reconciliation in 2016, I personally witnessed the at-the-time Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould going so far as to ask her fellow Indigenous people to not even protest against pipelines. Never mind reclaiming the land or direct action, she didn’t even want to see or hear public opposition in public space. Wilson-Raybould prefers the closed door meetings and negotiations where Canada can always come out on top. She did get her start as a lawyer and modern land-surrender treaty negotiator after all. As of January 2019, she’s been demoted by embattled bigwig Justin to the lower rank of Veterans Affairs minister.

Theoretically, you could even see Wilson-Raybould speak at the Métis Veterans Memorial at Batoche for next year’s remembrance ceremony. The only place more appropriate for her to speak might be Duck Lake.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the truth part of the Truth and Reconciliation equation can have a lot of value for the victims of residential schools and their families whose stories have long been suppressed. But the reconciliation part is premature when we never had a positive relationship with settler society in the first place and its government keeps trying to assimilate Indigenous people and forcibly separate us from the land. And truth would also demand the honesty to admit that colonialism isn’t a legacy of the past but an ongoing structure of oppression.

“You’re a liar and a weak leader!”

The price of recognition

At the Kamloops town hall meeting the day after the RCMP raid on the Gidimt’en checkpoint, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had his back against the wall and seemed to lose his composure, whining that when the railway was put in “100 years ago” Native people didn’t have to be consulted. Putting aside his fumbled time frame, he also failed to mention the paramilitary RCMP’s presence being a primary reason that consultation was deemed “unnecessary.”

It took the armed resistance and strength in numbers of the Métis to force Canada to negotiate the Manitoba Act in 1870. The Manitoba Act explicitly recognized Indigenous title for the express purpose of extinguishing it, in exchange for private land grants meant to be based on the patriarchal nuclear family unit and the British philosopher John Locke’s particular concept of working the land. The hope was that Western style farming and the nuclear family household would help assimilate Indigenous people to a settler lifestyle and way of thinking. Never mind that Indigenous people have always worked the land anyway, including extensive farming and horticulture in many territories.

Extinguishment was always part of Canada’s plan for First Nations people as well. Eventual enfranchisement and individualized land allotment after the assimilation program of residential schools did their work. James Settee lost his status and treaty annuities as a member of the St. Peter’s band because he became an ordained minister. Eventually the St. Peter’s band lost their reserve at Red River when they were forcibly relocated to a different Treaty territory (their new reserve being named after Chief Peguis). The settlers called it an elected decision. Sometimes we’re caught between a Locke and hard place too.

How long does it take to get through reconciliation’s “doorway”?

The modern BC Treaty Process that Jody Wilson-Raybould was involved in directly and still champions has dropped the term “extinguish.” Now they just want to “modify” Indigenous rights and title out of existence. Same story, different words.

In 2016, Wilson-Raybould spoke at the annual Reconciliation Lecture hosted by the National Centre for Indigenous Studies in Australia, a talk subtitled “Moving through the Post-Colonial Door.” Are we entitled to wonder when colonialism supposedly ended in Canada and Australia? Wilson-Raybould spoke of a “transformation occurring as Indigenous nations rebuild” and move through the “post-colonial” door. But what is it that our nations are supposed to be rebuilding? Our sovereign relation to our land and each other, or a colonial relation of subservience to Canada? She even mentions “The journey of decolonization…” and then right after that, “the colonial legacy…” But if colonialism was mere legacy, decolonization would already be complete. If Indigenous people are entitled to rebuild, why can’t we do so on our own land under our own law instead of Canada’s, without Canada’s armed goons stepping in to bust things up again? “Reconciliation is a journey, not a destination,” Wilson-Raybould said. That’s because for Canada, reconciliation is part of its ongoing colonial project of assimilation, with police enforcement waiting in the wings when all else fails. And colonization is that long process that runs from Red River up to Unist’ot’en, but which can never reach its end goal as long as Indigenous people continue to keep our story of sovereignty alive in the present.

Mike Gouldhawke lives in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territory, but has family and ancestral ties to Métis and Cree communities in Prince Albert and Mont Nebo, Saskatchewan, as well as Red River and Swampy Cree territory in what is now northern Manitoba. Former writer at Indigenous resistance magazine Wii’nimkiikaa. email:


1 “Bounty and Benevolence” by Arthur J. Ray, Jim Miller and Frank Tough (2000), “As Their Natural Resources Fail” by Frank Tough (1996), “Because I Happen to Be a Native Clergyman” by Derek Whitehouse-Strong (2004).

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