Canadians have lived through many confrontations over Indigenous rights and resource development, but few have had such high stakes as the one that erupted last month and is still unfolding, with a proposed deal newly announced after weeks of rail blockades across the country as Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have protested the Coastal GasLink pipeline that would run through their territory in British Columbia. Hanging in the balance, depending on one’s perspective, are not only the rights of particular First Nations but the coastal environment, the livelihoods of people travelling or shipping by rail, Canada’s reputation as a reliable trading partner, the survival of the federal minority government and the future of reconciliation itself.
Also at stake are the hearts and minds of the Canadian public. Some worry that the prolonged blockades of roads and railways has put public buy-in to the reconciliation agenda at risk — and with good reason. A look back at survey data from 1990 shows that the Oka crisis did erode public support for Indigenous land claims. While few Canadians approved of how the federal and provincial governments handled the crisis, there was little sympathy for the Mohawk barricaders, either. Tellingly, the only actor in the Oka dispute whom the public did support was the army. Two-thirds of Canadians backed the decision to call the army in to deal with the situation.
But Canada is a very different country than it was 30 years ago. Using excessive force to bring down the barricades would likely have been seen by many Canadians as a strategy that is three decades out of date. It would also have set back the clock on years of slow but steady bridge-building.