On a logging road near Smithers, B.C., the Unist’ot’en people occupy their traditional land in order to stop work on the 11 pipeline projects that would run through the area. Located beside Wedjin Kwa (Morice River), the camp is one of the only places left in the world where it is safe to drink directly from a natural body of water. Add to this the rustling trees, abundant huckleberries, countless wildlife and more, and it is clear why it is worth fighting for this land.
The Unist’ot’en maintain a checkpoint where all visitors must answer a series of questions posed by a member of the clan to assess the level of support for the clan’s action before being allowed into the territory. Supporters and allies have been allowed into the camp, as well as loggers with preexisting contracts; however, pipeline workers and helicopter crews arrive often and are reminded that they have not followed the appropriate channels to be permitted to do work on the land.
During my visit, the camp was on high alert after a tip that police planned to raid and demolish the camp, and arrest people living there. Stories around the campfire included many accounts of police misinformation and aggressiveness from veterans of the land defence struggle since the Oka crisis in 1990. There were also accounts of police following members of the camp when they went in to town, and of helicopters and surveillance drones flying overhead more than six times a day.
As those telling stories began to reminisce about siblings and parents in the residential school system, I saw the patterns of trauma visible in my own family and community emerge. The way that pain is passed through generations reveals an eerie overlap. I see remnants of the Holocaust in the way my grandparents raised my parents, my family’s relationship with food and eating, and the way they remember and guard their identity because someone once tried to take it away. With new research into genetics and epigenetics, we now know that trauma during a person’s lifetime can be passed to their children through their genes. This means that both habits and practices built during a lifetime, as well as genetic responses to stress, can be passed on.
An authority that once promised to keep them safe has betrayed both my ancestors and the people at the camp. When one elder spoke about watching as his siblings and childhood friends disappeared at the residential school, it echoed the blank pages that are so many Jewish family trees since the 1930s. I also see similarities between the Holocaust and the genocide of First Nations peoples through the reserves and the residential school system, the devastation caused by smallpox and alcoholism, much of which was propagated by the state. Not to mention continued racism.
I understand that the situations are not identical but there is enough commonality that it warrants a deeper look. I do not understand why peoples who have gone through cultural and physical genocide don’t come together in dialogue and support for each other’s survival. Throughout the last 70 years, we have promised repeatedly to “never forget,” but First Nations peoples still suffer discrimination, and this should command our attention. When there is injustice for some, there is no justice for anyone, and who better to stand in support of equal rights and freedoms, than a people who also has a long history of being oppressed and having to fight for survival.
Ariel Martz-Oberlander is a theatre artist, activist and poet living in Vancouver, Coast Salish territories. She is grateful every day for the people who work to make the world a more lovely place to be.