The blockades and protests being erected across Canada in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs of the Coastal Gas Link line in British Columbia have frustrated many Canadians who are wondering why Canadian police forces aren’t forcibly dismantling the barricades. The police are being accused of being derelict in their duties. Given how past civil disruptions in Canada have turned out, the police are more likely being very careful, and with good reason.
In 1990, Indigenous Mohawks opposed to the Quebec town of Oka building a golf course on their sacred lands blocked the development. The resulting confrontation, called the Oka crisis, resulted in the death of Sureté du Québec (Quebec provincial police force) officer Marcel Lemay, and cost Quebec taxpayers an estimated $180 million. It also resulted in a public relations disaster for the province, as the Mohawks gained considerable public support from other parts of the world.
In 1995, a dispute between the federal government and Indigenous Chippewa people who were unwillingly moved from their homelands so the federal government could use the land as a military base erupted into the Ipperwash crisis with the Ontario Provincial Police intervening. The crisis resulted in the death of Indigenous protester Dudley George. The resulting public inquiry cost $13.3 million, and a further $95 million settlement. It also resulted in another PR disaster, this time for Ontario.
Some pundits have said that Justin Trudeau compares poorly to his father Pierre, who reacted decisively against the Front du Liberation du Quebec during the 1970 October Crisis. Those pundits don’t seem to recall that the FLQ kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross and murdered Quebec Cabinet Minister Pierre Laporte. None of the Indigenous protesters have done anything even close, and doing so would be incredibly stupid. The FLQ’s crimes led it to be condemned by other separatists like René Lévesque, and destroyed its own reputation. Those kinds of antics would destroy all the public support the hereditary chiefs have built up.
With experiences like Oka and Ipperwash, it’s no wonder Canadian police are being more careful this time. In his book Regards sur le fédéralisme canadien (A Look At Canadian Federalism) Quebec Cabinet Minister Claude Ryan noted that Oka could have been a catastrophe along the lines of the Waco standoff in Texas, which resulted in over 80 deaths, if the police had gone in guns blazing.
There’s no question that the problems right now are bad.
If the police – or anyone else, for that matter – goes all in on force, things could end up being much, much worse.
Jared Milne, St. Albert