Stop Fossil Fuels

Unist’ot’en Camp

Unist'ot'en Camp checkpoint

Photo from subMedia

Direct actionists fighting for social and environmental justice favor tactics of occupations and blockades. Usually these actions are primarily symbolic; their employment within a strategy of attrition minimizes their material impact. Tree-sitters occasionally win the preservation of a remnant grove in an otherwise clear-cut moonscape. Pipeline blockaders occasionally delay a project for a season or two until the police clear them out and construction is completed. Occupy Wall Street lit enthusiasm and drew global attention, but the balance of power between the 1% and the 99% has worsened.

The Unist’ot’en Camp is different. A handful of members of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en, in what Canada now calls British Columbia, has blocked construction of multiple tar sands and shale gas pipelines since 2011. They didn’t even leave home to do so, merely occupying their land year-round and full-time directly on the GPS coordinates of the proposed pipelines. They began by moving into a seasonal hunting cabin on the clan’s trapline. In the years since, they’ve added more rooms to the cabin and built a pithouse, a bunkhouse and a healing centre. They’re augmenting their traditional subsistence activities with a garden and root cellar.

The tactic has been unusually successful for several strategic reasons:

It’s impossible to put an exact number on how many people and resources have been required for the blockade’s success. Over the years, hundreds of visitors and volunteers have participated in work and action camps, with supporters donating perhaps half a million dollars in cash and supplies. Most of the activity and money has gone towards educating settlers, assisting healing, and networking settler citizens and activists with indigenous resisters. This work is tangential to the blockade, but without the resultant broad support for the occupation, the government might have brutally suppressed it.

A relatively small portion of time and money built the core infrastructure for and directly maintains the blockade. Perhaps half a dozen indigenous residents anchor the ongoing tasks of guarding the bridge checkpoint, patrolling for aerial intrusion, providing for the camp via subsistence activities, and meeting and presenting in opposition to the pipelines, doing some of it directly plus organizing up to a dozen full-time equivalent volunteers.

This tiny group has blocked multiple pipelines for 7 years and counting, a prime example of minimum intervention for maximum impact.

A Caveat

It’s misleading to categorize the camp as “civil disobedience,” since its success depends on its legal claim to territory. No other environmental civil disobedience campaign has come close to comparable success, because police forces sooner or later overpower them. We should take inspiration from the Unist’ot’en, but temper it with realism as to where similar tactics might be successfully replicated.

For more details on the background, early years, and culture of the camp, read “Standing On the Land To Stand Up Against Pipelines.”