Protectors, not Protesters: We’re All Peeing into the Same Pool

I have been watching for some time the ongoing struggles of the people of the Unist’ot’en camp in BC, the Sacred Stone camp in South Dakota, and Muskrat Falls in Newfoundland and Labrador. For the people of these regions, decisions about pipelines or reservoir flooding are neither remote nor abstract. NIMBY is a luxury they do not have; controversy has come knocking on their doors. Their homes, their water, and their way of life are being threatened.

Within a colonial structure in which every kind of trespass is punishable by law except, apparently, those enshrined in treaties, corporations such as Nalcor and Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company operate with impunity, protected by government and laws that are blind to planetary reality. Those in power, whether corporate or citizen, are insulated by money, distance, and usually race; they frame the conversation so that anyone who opposes their interests is a threat to the status quo, a terrorist, a protester.

In the purest sense of the word, the people of Muskrat Falls and the Unist’ot’en and Sacred Rock camps are protesting something, namely corporate projects (or, in the case of Muskrat Falls, not the project itself but specific negligence), but there is a reason for their rejection of this persistent mainstream label. In everyday parlance, the word protester is a concept, tainted, denigrated, the domain of the criminal and the uneducated. Protesters are radical and fringe-y and why can they not just get a job? Mainstream Canadians and Americans see those who block pipeline development as the enemy, and the media happily follow along for the scandalous ride.

What is less recognized and given less space in the national newspaper is that the original insult, the initial illegal move, was proceeding with the project itself when safety could not be reasonably guaranteed. Against treaty, against human rights documents given lip service by politicians, against planetary limits, the trespass continues. This is the bigger picture, but we seem to be missing it, so zoomed in on the minutia are we. Clause x and by-law y versus the reality of thousands of litres of oil and chemicals dumped into a source of drinking water.

It is with a deep understanding of this discourse, wherein the reaction of people less powerful (and, not accidentally, in all of these examples, Indigenous) is characterized as reckless, violent, and against ethical codes, that the local people ask to be named in the media as “protectors” rather than protesters. After all, they are demanding that governments respect the concept of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), uphold treaties, and respect human rights over those of corporations. They are advocating for themselves, the animals, their children. They are protecting something.

Let me pose a question. If someone urinates in the swimming pool of a rich home-owner, is the resident considered a protester when chasing the offender away or pressing charges?

The answer, of course, is no. You would suggest that the person is protecting their pool.

That is the law. That is the European-based law which most North Americans recognize. Unfortunately, many of us become murkier when it comes to treaties, the concept of unceded land, and universal human rights. Are these not abstract concepts? Obsolete contracts? Dusty and meaningless remnants of a long ago past?

No, no, and no.

What the people of the Unist’ot’en and Sacred Stone camps and Muskrat Falls are doing is letting us know that we are peeing in their pool, and they are being called protesters for protecting it. They are causing the ruckus.

But what is really ironic (sad, infuriating, pick an adjective) is that their pool is also our pool, it is just that we are farther away from the pee and think it will not reach us. They are warning us, but our area is less contaminated and we are okay with that. For now.

I will leave you with the words of the Wet’suwet’en people’s page about their Unist’ot’en camp:

“The Unist’ot’en homestead is not a protest or demonstration. Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries. Our free prior and informed consent protocol is in place at the entrance of or territory as an expression of our jurisdiction and our inherent right to both give and refuse consent. Our homestead is a peaceful expression of our connection to our territory. It is also an example of the continuous use and occupation of our territory of our territory by our clan. Our traditional structures of governance continue to dictate the proper use of and access to our lands and water.

Today all of our Wet´suwet´en territory, including Unist’ot’en territory, is unceded Aboriginal territory. Our traditional indigenous legal systems remain intact and continue to govern our people and our lands. We recognize the authority of these systems” (, retrieved October 26, 2016).