When RCMP violated Wet’suwet’en sovereignty at the Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en camps, allies left their homes to show support and solidarity with land defenders facing a militarized police force. A prevailing refrain became familiar: “When justice fails, block the rails.” Across the country, these folks experienced intimidation, violence and arrest.
Defenders and their supporters orchestrated some of the most effective direct actions to occur in 21st-century Canada. They gave up time, income and plenty of sleep to expose and reject injustice, colonial violence and extraction capitalism. Some media chastised these efforts for “inconveniencing” Canadians. But in an interview with CityNews 1130, Samir Gandesha, director of the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University, welcomed the disruption: “Sometimes we have to undergo some degree of inconvenience in our lives in order for a larger, more public good to be pursued.”
Gandesha’s attitude is instructive for communal existence. To truly be in community with one another is to intimately understand and be responsible for our community members, even at our own expense. The COVID-19 pandemic, which threatens lives around the world, dictates that this imperative become a lived reality.
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Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters showed us a blueprint for militant, unrelenting community care. In order to halt — or at least slow — the damage dealt by this pandemic, we need to look to this blueprint for guidance. But it’s equally dire that we learn from the callousness and myopia that animate its opponents. The troll choruses that accused globalist-backed paid protesters and anti-Canada saboteurs detailed just how ill-equipped many are to imagine a reality centred on responsibility for those beyond our doorstep.
They betrayed two deep-reaching rots that are sure symptoms of capitalism: the absolute deficit of imagination and suffocation of communal spirit that prevent one from conceiving of a reason for personal action and sacrifice beyond measurable financial or sociopolitical gain. These are widely practiced and well-policed convictions couched in centuries of colonial rule and decades of emotional austerity.
During this pandemic, direct action and community support will look different. Our action begins with staying indoors. Social distancing prevents us from pursuing the usual techniques of disruption and demonstration, but there are crises to address, and more will come. Workers are losing their jobs, with the lowest earners usually unable to work from home. Underhoused and homeless folks are losing access to meals and shelter as services close. People who use drugs face compounding health crises and shuttered harm-reduction services. Our Minister of Indigenous Services just reminded us that many Indigenous communities don’t have drinking water, let alone the facilities to practice recommended safety precautions.
These cascading structural cruelties might have been exposed by COVID-19, but they’re not new. Among the rare shreds of optimism in this moment is the hope that mutual aid (defined by care for and collectivity with all) can take root in the craters left by state neglect. But this requires allegiances that run deeper than blood and bank accounts.
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We need to study and learn from the key tenets of the Wet’suwet’en demonstrations: collective responsibility and solidarity for the good of all. Action taken by land defenders and their allies suggested that in the absence of guaranteed justice and safety for our most marginalized neighbours, a unified, diverse and inherently compassionate movement across class and sociopolitical boundaries is necessary. They know this because they live it.
If we’re unwilling to give up convenience for our community, we don’t have community at all; we simply have strangers operating in close proximity with no relational responsibility. With both the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement and the COVID-19 pandemic, settler Canadians are asked if we believe in community, equality and the collective commitment to each other required to sustain those ideals. If we’re going to help curb this pandemic, we need to demonstrate that, like land defenders, we’re prepared to give up convenience for the good of all.
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