In her 1993 documentary film “Blockade,” Vancouver film maker Nettie Wild chronicles a 15 months period in 1992 when members of the Gitxsan Eagle Clan staged two blockades against clearcut logging operations on their traditional territory in so-called Northern British Columbia. (The full documentary is available on Youtube here 1). Wild provides intriguing insights into the unfolding interpersonal dynamics around the blockades in a small BC town whose primary industry is logging. She documents disputes between two Gitxsan clans – Frog and Eagle – over rights to certain areas. A dispute that is settled as the Gitxsan focus on preventing the local timber company from logging a relatively small tract of land as they push the government of BC to acknowledge their traditional rights on the land. The first blockade stopped the roadway to the logging site, creating tension with local towns folk who rely on the forest industry. There is an altercation when some local non-indigenous youth get drunk and make a half-hearted attempted to burn the blockade. Despite this outburst of aggression, Wild’s interviews also reveal that many settler residents express at least some degree of understanding that what the Gitxsan are doing is related to the very foundation of colonialism and they are right to oppose it. These settlers seemed trapped in a feeling of being helpless to rectify this historic reality, while being economically dependent of an industry and way of life they inherited from their parents. In a few telling interviews resident-loggers describe the destabilizing feeling that comes from having Gitxsan friends whom they hold in very high esteem taking part in the blockade. In Wild’s narrative, it seems that the treacherous emotional landscape finally gives way to a right understanding in which Gitxsan ways of life are recognized. The local logging company capitulates to the Gitxsan demands and puts a halt to their operations, accepting the Eagle clans conditions. There is even a celebration with drumming and celebration as the towns people and the Gitxsan take down the blockade together. And they all lived happily…
The second blockade happens after the local logging company with a heart is bought out by a bigger soulless corporation and logging proceeds. This time, the Gitxsan blockade the CN railway. There are no particularly intimate encounters, the viewer is only shown a frustrated chief on the phone with a deputy minister explaining the situation as the blockade unfolds. Eventually a court injunction is ordered and the RCMP move in and clear the blockade, arresting a number of Gitxsan people. The most compelling emotional interaction caught during this incident, is the somber but respectful exchange between one of the arrested Eagle Clan members and an officer. The men being arrested are not handcuffed and the escorting officer asks the man how long his people have been on this land, “Thirty thousand years” he says. As they walk along the railway track to the awaiting cruisers, the Gitxsan man points out where an ancient burial site is, the office acknowledges the rights of Gitxsan and expresses his hope that things are “moving in the right direction.” As Wild films the men walking down the track, I had an eery sense of where that track was heading, as though each tie was a contingent moment, a necessity pushing into the present.
Watching “Blockade” I was surprised to find myself feeling nostalgic for a time when resistance to obvious wrongs seemed like was still struggle between people who were also human, who could be swayed and could see things differently, who could feel things differently. Twenty three years after the blockades of the logging industry on Gitxsan territory, this tactic is again becoming prominent around the country, only this time the target is not the loggers, but the Petroleum industry driven by the mega extraction projects of the Tar Sands. As production continues to increase, and Harper signs onto long-term free trade agreements in attempt to ensure tar sands exportation for generations to come, Wild’s “Blockade” seems almost quaint. The two Clans resolve their dispute, a logging company voluntarily accept the will of the Gitxsan and stop logging, even the police arresting members of the blockade openly endorse the rights of the Gitxsan to their land. In 2015, the Harper government’s proposed Bill C-51 legislation would qualify many of the actions depicted in Wild’s documentary terrorism 2.
These new times have given rise to new tactics and new strategies. For instance, some important legal gains have been made in regards to recognizing indigenous traditional right to unneeded territory 3. In 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously recognized the Tsilhqot’in peoples traditional right to a 1700 square kilometre area not far from Gitxsan territory. Still, these legal wins are not nearly enough, and so land defenders are again making stands to protect not only indigenous rights to traditional territories, but the survival of vast ecosystems near and far, threatened by fracking, oil spills and ever more cataclysmic climate events caused by global warming.4 For instance, the Unis’ot’en (Frog) clan of the Wet’suwet’en peoples of so-called BC have successfully blockaded lands against the tar sands pipelines by setting up various camps and traditional pit houses on their territories 5. Whereas many of the towns people in Wild’s documentary eventually came around to the reality of the situation, today, millions of Canadians are again finding themselves on the wrong side of history because of the governments actions, and many are beginning to find practical ways to express sustained solidarity with indigenous people in prefiguring a new way of relating both to the land and to one another.
In Wild’s “Blockade” provides examples of how emotional edges can separate people – the different clans, the local loggers. These affective distances can be navigated and common ground can be achieved. It was not until the mega corporations were involved that the force of Canadian sovereignty was deployed through the police, drawing stark legal lines that seemed to leave no room for maneuvering – even though this process was depicted as somewhat genial and non-conflictual (the massive Gustafsen Lake stand-off between the RCMP and Ts’peten land defenders in 1995 reminds us that sovereign violence was never far away) 6. The separation of emotional relatedness and the use of “legitimate” force to securitize corporate agendas is a worrisome progression.
As more new blockades go up and tensions are again mounting, it is clear this isn’t 1992. However, Wild’s depiction of the capacity for people to change their self-interested positions. The capacity of people to change their stance in the face of obvious violations of justice indigenous rights and grotesque violence against the land provides a timely reminder that neither truth nor force are an exclusive property of the corporate-state interests. The guiding and sustaining power of human emotions can help people find new ways of being beyond the dehumanizing rhetoric of fear and the ecocidal greed whose only purpose is to ceaselessly fill the already bloody corporate coffers of colonial capitalism’s cronies.