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The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability
ISSN: 1354-9839 (Print) 1469-6711 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cloe20
Blocking pipelines, unsettling environmental
justice: from rights of nature to responsibility to
To cite this article: Leah Temper (2018): Blocking pipelines, unsettling environmental
justice: from rights of nature to responsibility to territory, Local Environment, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2018.1536698
Published online: 19 Nov 2018.
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Blocking pipelines, unsettling environmental justice: from rights
of nature to responsibility to territory
Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada;
Universitat Autonoma de
Barcelona –ICTA, Ballaterra, Spain
Indigenous peoples are among the most aﬀected by environmental
injustices globally, however environmental justice theory has not yet
meaningfully addressed decolonisation and the resistance of Indigenous
communities against extractivism in the settler-colonial context. This
paper suggests that informing environmental justice through decolonial
analysis and decolonising practices can help transcend the Western
ontological roots of environmental justice theories and inform a more
radical and emancipatory environmental justice. The Unist’ot’en
Resistance and Action Camp blocking pipelines in northwestern British
Columbia, Canada, their “Reimagined Free Prior and Informed Consent
protocol”and the Delgamuukw case are described to discuss limitations
of the state and legal framework for accommodating a decolonial and
transformative environmental justice. A decolonial analysis informed by
these two moments of Wet’sewet’ten history suggests limits and
adaptations to the trivalent EJ framework based on recognition,
participation and distribution. It is argued that a decolonising and
transformative approach to environmental justice must be based on self-
governing authority, relational ontologies of nature and epistemic justice
and the unsettling of power through the assertion of responsibility and
care through direct action. This discussion is placed in the context of the
expansion of the concept of ecological rights, for example through the
enshrining of the “Rights of Nature”in the constitutions of countries
such as Bolivia and Ecuador, to highlight the Inherent tensions in the
translation of Indigenous cosmo-visions into legal systems based on
Received 10 October 2016
Accepted 4 October 2018
Resistance; epistemic justice;
politics; relational ontologies;
fossil fuel infrastructure;
relational ontologies; fossil
The Wet’suwet’en First Nation territory spans for over 22,000 km in North-West British Columbia (BC),
Canada, and lies directly in the path of several proposed gas and oil pipelines. Since 2010, the Uni-
st’ot’en clan, members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, have been reoccupying and re-establishing them-
selves on their ancestral lands in opposition to these projects. They have set up a camp on the GPS
coordinates of the pipeline route as a way to impede the construction of any pipelines from crossing
their territory, which is occupied and un-ceded as the tribe has never signed a treaty with the Gov-
ernment of Canada.
This resistance is part of a long history of struggles for territorial self-determination. In 1984, the
Wet’suwet’en, together with the Gitksan, went to Court to assert their sovereignty, legal jurisdiction
and aboriginal rights over the 58,000 square kilometres of their combined territory in BC. The case
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Leah Temper email@example.com
eventually made it to the Supreme Court of Canada (Delgamuukw v. British Columbia,1997) and was a
landmark in several respects. It established that the Tribe’s territorial sovereignty, pending proof of a
surrender, by treaty, is a legitimate and outstanding constitutional question that still remains to be
resolved by the Court. It was also signiﬁcant as the ﬁrst case that admitted oral histories as principal
These two moments can best be understood by drawing on Indigenous scholars of resurgence
theory such as Alfred (2005), Coulthard (2014) Simpson (2011), who view settler colonialism not as
a past historical event to be reconciled but as an ongoing structure of relations predicated upon
the elimination of Indigenous life and culture. They thus attack “politics of recognition”and reconci-
liation as a remedy for colonial injustices and call for the revitalization of Indigenous values, practices
and relationships as pathways towards self-determination and decolonisation. In this paper I aim to
bring this literature into conversation with that on environmental justice, employing the struggle of
the Wet’suwet’ten tribe for self-determination and the transformative signiﬁcance of the Unist’ot’en
camp resistance as an informative case to probe some of the limits of EJ and social justice theory for a
decolonial environmental justice. Through an analysis of the historical and current struggle of the
Wet’suwet’en I examine what happens when Western law clashes with Indigenous law and
cosmo-visions in the courtroom and in the territory and asks, what if environmental justice was to
take decolonisation seriously? In doing so, I aim to advance both multidimensional theories of
justice and the environmental justice literature.
The potentialities and the limits to decolonising environmental justice will be explored in this
article through ﬁve moves. Following this ﬁrst introductory section, the second section discusses
methods and positionality, the third section reviews the literature on EJ and Indigenous peoples
and engages with Nancy Fraser’s trivalent theory of justice and her distinction between aﬃrmative
and transformative remedies in conversation with other social justice theorists (Young 2011) and
gives some background on the Wet’sewet’en and Indigenous territorial perspectives. The fourth
section introduces the two case studies, initially examining the deployment of spatial tactics,
direct action and performance in the Unist’ot’en camp as an example that transcends a state-cen-
tered and rights-based approach and secondly, the legal battle for recognition of territorial authority
through the Delgamuukw court case as a means to trace the limits and potential of Western legal and
political institutions to meeting Indigenous demands.
In the discussion, I propose three dimensions that can inform a decolonising environmental
justice. I suggest that beyond distribution, participation and recognition, EJ must consider relational
ontologies of nature, self-governing authority, and epistemic justice. The ideas developed here con-
tribute to the thorny questions of overlapping sovereignties, as well as broader questions over how
relationships, ontologies and worldviews on nature can inform an ongoing transformation towards
ecological and environmental justice (Temper et al. 2018a).
2. Methods and positionality
This work is part of a long history of scholar-activism on environmental justice issues, which includes
the production of social justice documentary ﬁlms, the creation of an online global atlas document-
ing resistance struggles globally and other journalistic and academic work within a praxis that com-
bines engaged scholarship and activism. As an expatriate settler-Canadian, this project also
represented a re-encounter for me with my own role as a settler and a renewed engagement with
Indigenous solidarity work in Canada after many years living abroad, and thus entailed a process
of “resettling and unsettling”myself within a space of solidarity described by Tuck and Wang
(2012)as“an uneasy, reserved and unsettled matter that neither reconciles present grievances nor
forecloses future conﬂict”.
Fieldwork at the camp was carried out in the summer of 2014 while ﬁlming a social justice docu-
mentary ﬁlm as a support and testimony for the camp. Five in-depth interviews were conducted with
camp members and Indigenous and settler activists at the camp. The resulting 20-minute ﬁlm,
Corridors of Resistance,
entailed minimal mediation so as to let the community speak for themselves.
It has been circulated, used at solidarity events and translated to Spanish. Publications, documents
and declarations from the camp were analysed, as well as documents and legal articles on the Del-
gamuukw case and this material and the interviews were later coded and analysed for key themes
and concepts –including territory, justice, rights, and nature.
Protocols followed included the reclaimed free prior and informed consent protocol designed by
the Unist’ot’en as described in section four. This entailed an iterative process of questioning inten-
tions, contributions and methods, repeated several times, ﬁrst by email, upon arrival at the camp,
and again during the process of drafting and reworking the text. The work has been further informed
by work on the decolonisation of methodologies (Smith 2013) and by guidelines for “political rigour”
and radical reﬂexivity being developed by a collective of scholars within the auspices of the ACKnowl-
EJ (Activist Academic Co-Production of Knowledge for Environmental Justice) project (www.
acknowlej.org) (Temper et al. 2018a). Drafts of this article were shared and discussed with the
camp members who provided critiques and feedback that were integrated into the text. This led
to further questions from the camp and a process of reﬂexivity on the use of the work, intentions
behind it, the perceived audience and how it would beneﬁt their struggle. Beyond beneﬁt to the
camp, it is hoped that the documentation of this transformative praxis will serves to inform and
inspire other struggles and that this paper and accompanying video and materials can contribute
to networking and sharing knowledge between marginalised communities engaged in similar
battles for environmental and social justice.
3. Literature review
This work aims to disturb EJ literature by bringing it into conversation with epistemologies of the
south, Indigenous theorists and critical and Indigenous legal studies. Scholarship on environmental
justice has expanded from its initial U.S. roots and emphasis on the spatial distribution of toxics, to
increasingly recognise multiple spatialities and dimensions of environmental justice (Walker 2009;
Holiﬁeld, Porter, and Walker 2009; Newell 2005).The literature has also expanded geographically
and thematically to examine a range of issues and justice claims within trans-national and interge-
nerational perspectives (Sikor and Newell 2014; Chatterton, Featherstone, and Routledge 2013;
Schlosberg 2013). However, we may explore whether environmental justice theories are able to
respond to the subordination of Indigenous normativities and whether they are compatible with a
decolonising politics of justice.
This is important because Indigenous communities are at the forefront of struggles against land
dispossession and environmental degradation globally. For example, in the Global Atlas of Environ-
mental Justice (www.ejatlas.org) which documents 2500 cases of ecological conﬂicts, Indigenous
populations are present in 40% of cases (Temper, del Bene, and Martinez-Alier 2015; Temper et al.
2018b). An emerging body of literature in EJ research grapples with the unique political and cultural
dynamics of Indigenous communities (Warner 2015. Whyte 2016; Westra 2012; Vermeylen and
Walker 2011) addressing issues such as collective claims to sovereignty; the need for new under-
standings of communal health and spiritual well-being related to the loss of sacred and cultural
resources (Ranco et al. 2011); and the need for a community-based, capabilities-centered conception
of environmental justice (Schlosberg and Carruthers 2010).
Scholars from a Latin American perspective have put forward the need for a decolonial environ-
mental justice, often focusing on the need for intercultural communication (Rodríguez and Inturias
2018, Escobar 2011), ontological politics (Blaser 2013; Escobar 2012) and the decolonisation of knowl-
edge and social relations. However, environmental justice literature in the Global North has engaged
less with the colonial and epistemic roots of injustices, with some exceptions (Keeling and Sandlos
2009; Whyte 2016). Whyte (2016, 192) for example, describes Indigenous environmental injustice
as occurring “when one society robs another society of the institutional and ecological conditions
required for members of another society to experience the world in ways that motivate their
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 3
engagement in the operation of systems of responsibilities”. He suggests that such an Indigenous
conception of EJ serves to suggest very diﬀerent solutions for remedying environmental injustices
but does not clearly lay out what these are. This paper contributes to moving beyond colonial con-
structs in proposing remedies for environmental justice as experienced by Indigenous communities.
This paper thus explores the opportunities and limitations of environmental justice theories for
transformative politics and decolonising practice in the settler-colonial context. To do so we
engage with the trivalent framework of justice (distribution, recognition and participation) ﬁrst devel-
oped by Fraser (1995) and extended to EJ by Schlosberg (2007), which has become canonical in the
literature. It provides a useful framework for examining how these dimensions address or fail to
address the demands put forward by a decolonising environmental justice perspective and what
dimensions need to be included or adapted to lead to transformative change.
3.1. Beyond distribution, recognition and participation
Fraser (1995) initially put forward a bivalent theory of justice, pointing out that claims for recognition
of cultural diﬀerence and group identity was supplanting class interest and calls for socio-economic
redistribution as the chief medium of political mobilisation. She argued that cultural domination and
material inequality should be seen as analytically distinct yet imbricated paradigms of injustice, with a
dialectical relationship between them. Later, Fraser (2008) acknowledged the inadequacy of the
binary recognition/distribution paradigm and added a third pillar –“representation”, arguing that
representation-related injustices driven by “political voice-lessness”, were becoming increasingly
important in struggles for justice and democracy in a globalising world and represent, through par-
ticipation, the ﬁeld of action upon which the other claims play out on.
In Fraser’s view, the three types of injustices may be resolved in one of two ways: aﬃrmatively or
transformatively. Transformative remedies are associated with “correcting inequitable outcomes pre-
cisely by restructuring the underlying generative framework”(Fraser 1995, 82), while aﬃrmative
remedies try to reduce inequalities without challenging the underlying social relations.
For example, aﬃrmative redistributive remedies correct income inequality by transferring material
resources to the maligned groups, for example through the social welfare state. However, these
remedies tend to leave intact the conditions, such as the capitalist mode of production, that were
responsible for generating income inequality in the ﬁrst place. In contrast, transformative redistribu-
tive remedies are aimed at eradicating the origins of economic injustice and eliminating the root
causes of economic inequality. They would include the transformation of basic economic structures
and reorganisation of the division of labour (Fraser 1995).
In terms of ecological distribution (Martinez-Alier et al. 2010), an EJ which aims for “equal rights
and exposure to risk and pollution”such as the perspective advocated by the Environmental Protec-
tion Agency in the U.S. is aﬃrmative because it fails to explicitly demand a radical improvement in
everyone’s treatment and to address the social, political, economic, and cultural forces that
produce environmental pollution (Pellow 2009). In contrast, the 17 principles of Environmental
Justice declared by the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit which
demands, among other things, “the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes,
and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to
the people for detoxiﬁcation and the containment at the point of production”(www.ejnet.org) rep-
resents a transformative remedy.
Recognition is concerned with who is given respect and who is and is not valued, as well as ques-
tions such as “Who has standing? On what concerns? What are the legitimation processes by which
social and symbolic meaning are attributed to these questions? What constitutes power, and what
are the contexts with respect to those with power and those without?”(Agyeman et al. 2010, 8). Scho-
lars have often highlighted the importance of the recognition paradigm as a way to understand the
cultural impacts of Indigenous environmental injustices (McGregor in Agyeman et al. 2010; Figueroa
2005; Porto and Pacheco 2009). However, recognition as an EJ issue is complicated as there are a
range of claims regarding what should be recognised (Young 2011) as well as the contested meaning
of recognition itself in practice, and the need for subjective experience therefore in deﬁning it (Kom-
Recognition can refer to the need for the injustice or form of violence itself to be recognised as
such, by both those who experience it, as well as by others (Young 2011). Claims for recognition
have also been made for territorial sovereignty, for ecological integrity (Pimentel, Westra, and
Noss 2000; Neimanis, Castleden, and Rainham 2012) and “the recognition that all aspects of Creation
are interrelated”(McGregor 2009, 36). While some argue for the need to extend recognition and par-
ticipation to nature itself (Schlosberg 2007), it has not been clearly delineated how this would operate
in practice and how liberal conceptions of justice can be transcended to incorporate such broader
understandings of recognition.
A major gap in EJ literature on recognition concerns dominant conceptions of knowledge. This
points to the absence of shared understandings of the grammar of justice (the what, who and
how) and acts as a fundamental impediment to operationalizing justice. This has been referred to
as “epistemic justice”–which entails making visible and politically relevant ways of knowing that
have been marginalised as a result of the imposition of a dominant knowledge system over others
(Widenhorn 2013, 380).
Epistemic justice thus goes beyond procedural justice or participation as it entails deﬁning the
concepts and problems themselves and reminds us that knowledge itself is not neutral or objective
but connected to power and must be seen through a historically distinct analysis to be understood.
For example, liberal notions of justice and the legal system, are founded on “universal access”to
rights grounded in a western knowledge system based on “objective”knowledge. However, these
rights are linked to a speciﬁc understanding of the “good life”, freedom and happiness, and can
close oﬀother understandings and related emancipatory possibilities.
The epistemic and ontological violence perpetrated against non-occidental cultures operates
such that even where the physical control of territories has ended, the cultural logic of colonialism
still operates, and silences other ways of doing, being and knowing (Mignolo 2007; Escobar 2016;
Maldonado-Torres 2007). Santos et al. (2007) call this the “coloniality of knowledge”: the hegemonic
conception of modern scientiﬁc knowledge. Epistemic justice thus takes two main forms: testimo-
nial and hermeneutical (Fricker 2007). Testimonial injustice occurs when a hearer discounts the
credibility of a person’s testimony on account of their social identity. More relevant here is herme-
neutical injustice which arises when society lacks the interpretative resources to make sense of a
speaker’s experience, because that speaker has been marginalised in meaning-making activities.
As Vermeylen (2013) highlights, stories and narrative are dialectic processes, imparted in a
context of a transforming relationship between the elicitor and the narrator, the success of
which will depend on the hearer’s capacity and willingness to understand and respond to the val-
idity claims raised.
As regards recognition, Fraser (1995)associates aﬃrmative remedies with “mainstream multi-cul-
turalism [ …] which aims to redress disrespect while leaving intact both the contents of those iden-
tities and the group diﬀerentiations that underlie them”. In contrast she associates transformative
remedies with deconstruction and redressing disrespect by transforming the underlying cultural-
valuational structure. For example, she uses the example of “queer politics”to explain how by desta-
bilising existing group identities and diﬀerentiations, such as the homo/hetero binary, such remedies
not only raise the self-esteem of members of currently disrespected groups, they change everyone’s
sense of self.
Finally, for Fraser, the normative foundation of justice is participation equality. According to this
norm, justice requires a social arrangement that permit all (adult) members of society to interact
with one another as peers (Fraser 2000, 113). Fraser advocates for “a politics aimed at overcoming
subordination by establishing the mis-recognized party as a full member of society, capable of parti-
cipating on a par with the rest”. This entails representation so as to overcome barriers to political
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 5
Potentially more relevant to Indigenous peoples claiming sovereignty is what Fraser refers to “mis-
framing”, or meta-political injustice which result due to issues with the (geographical) scales which
delimit the bounds of justice and to “the division of political space into bounded polities that are
drawn in such a way as to wrongly deny some people the chance to participate at all in its authorised
contests over justice”(Fraser 2008, 408). Yet her focus here remains on the global poor and those who
are stateless. She does not address speciﬁcally the case of those who oppression is tied to the exist-
ence of the state itself.
This brief review, by bringing EJ into conversation with Indigenous scholarship and perspectives
on nature and territory, suggests the need to revise several widely held tenets within environmental
justice theories and test their adequacy for settler-colonial contexts. The ﬁrst is that the rights para-
digm (and the legal arena) is the appropriate mechanism for seeking remedy for environmental
justice. Another is the assumption that a politics of recognition (directed towards the state) is a
necessary and sometimes suﬃcient pre-condition to participatory and distributive environmental
injustice (Turner 2006; Whyte 2011). Third is the universalist assumptions that inform political philos-
ophy on environmental justice.
The following sections present the ontologies of nature and territory of the Wet’sewet’en and their
engagements with the state and the legal regime to inform the discussion on how EJ can more mean-
ingfully address these issues.
3.2. Background –visions of territory and governance of the Wet’sewet’en
The Wet’sewet’en are an Athapaskan culture related to inland Carrier groups, and the name Wet’se-
wet’en (Witsuwit’en) means “the people of the lower drainage”referring to their occupation on the
tributaries of the Skeena River in the Bulkley Morice Watershed (Mills 1994, 37). The Wet’suwet’en
people are governed by two primary systems: a hereditary system (represented by the Oﬃce of
the Wet’suwet’en) composed of ﬁve clans: Gilseyhu (Big Frog), Laksilyu (Small Frog), Gitdumden
(Wolf/Bear), Laksamshu (Fireweed) and Tsayu (Beaver clan). As well as a band-level system which con-
sists of six bands (Moricetown Band, Burns Lake Band, Hagwilget Village Council, Nee Thai Buhn Band,
Skin Tyee Nation, and Wet’suwet’en First Nation). The Unist’ot’en are members of the Gilseyhu (Big
Frog Clan) and Moricetown band.
The Wet’suwet’en are a matrilineal society whereby clans are further divided into kin-based groups
known as Yikhs, often referred to as house groups, which function autonomously and have jurisdic-
tion over their house territory. For the Wet’suwet’en, this jurisdiction is considered a responsibility
rather than a right, with the hereditary chiefs entrusted with stewarding and caretaking the territory
to ensure it will continue to produce game, ﬁsh, berries, and medicines to support the subsistence,
trade, and customary needs of house members (Mills 1994). The responsibilities of the chief to
manage and harvest resources are validated through the feast system, the central governance insti-
tution of the Wet’suwet’en (Mills 1994). “It is in the feast that people are given their titles, their robes
and their crests and the authority over the territory associated with those titles.”
Similar to many First Nations in BC, the Wet’suwet’en have never signed a treaty with Canada and
this means their territory remains unceded. In the Royal Proclamation of 1763, King George III
declared that title to Indian territory was not to be considered extinguished or transferred merely
by conquest or occupation but only through voluntary cession. This Proclamation retains the
status of constitutional law in Canada and means that the land title question for First Nations in
BC remains to be settled.
However, the territorial question brings to the fore the profound diﬀerence in vision between Indi-
genous territorial relations and state forms of property (Thom 2014). Indigenous notions of territori-
ality unsettle the concept of territory in geography, which has recently been a focus of analysis
(Painter 2010) and has been conceptualised as a “political technology”for the occupation and
control of space and exercise of state power (Elden 2010). Such a conception does not account for
the diversity of Indigenous relationships between people and place. The disruption of Indigenous
relationships to land and the “epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence”continually re-asserted
through colonisation as land is remade into property (Tuck and Wang 2012, 5) is the cornerstone of
the ongoing processes and structure of settler-colonialism.
Conversely, decolonisation entails the reclamation of such relationships and the actual repatria-
tion/unsettling of land. As Simpson (2014) asserts for the Mohawk “Their own object was and is ter-
ritory in a material sense, their land –but also ideas, the past, the present, the future, their
membership within the polity itself”. Similarly, political ecologists in Latin America describe how
the “territorial question”is being debated and inscribed in a tense political process as the confronta-
tion of power strategies for the appropriation of nature
(Porto-Gonçalves 2004). They point to how
cultural rights guide these processes of re-territorialisation, leading to new material and symbolic
forms of appropriation of nature and new meanings that stem from the local cosmogonies and
socio-economic practices. Under this light, the territory is redeﬁned as the summa of nature/
culture power relations. Such contrasting ontological understandings of territory raise considerable
challenges on how territorial jurisdiction with the state can be negotiated, without abstracting and
articulating Indigenous perspectives in a way that erases them, as we shall address in the next
4. The politics of Indigenous pipeline resistance
4.1. The Unist’ot’en “checkpoint”
We will not remove our Gateway (not a blockade). A gateway into understanding truth and meaningful decolo-
nization. (Unist’ot’en Camp)
The ﬁrst confrontation of the Unist’ot’en Clan with the Paciﬁc Trails Pipeline (PTP) natural gas pipeline
dates from November 2011 when camp members escorted drillers and other PTP employees oﬀtheir
territories. Hereditary Chief Toghestiy again evicted surveyors from their territory on 20 November
2012, by presenting them with an eagle feather, the ﬁrst and only traditional notice of trespass.
The surveyors were ordered to leave the territory and the road entering into the territory was
closed to all industry activities.
On 27 November 2012, solidarity protests for the camp and against fracking were held in 13 cities,
from California to Toronto and across BC, and representatives of the Wet’suwet’en delivered eviction
notices to Apache Oil and Enbridge stating that the companies
are not permitted onto unceded lands of the Wet’suwet’en; are not permitted to place their greed ahead of Indi-
genous self-determination; are not permitted to destroy and exploit the lands; are not permitted to disregard the
safety and health of communities;[and] are not permitted to disregard [our] Law! (Statement from Laura Holland
Freda Huson, spokeswoman for the clan, had written a letter to the illegitimate colonial governments
of Canada and BC, and to all parties involved in the proposed PTP project that stated
This letter is to issue a warning of trespass to those companies associated with the PTP industrial extraction
project and against any aﬃliates and contractors infringing upon traditional Wet’suwet’en territory …any
further incursion into their territory [will be interpreted] as an act of aggression against their sovereignty and
that violators will be held accountable.
Following this, the ﬁrst cabin of the camp, home of Freda Huson, a member of the Unist’ot’en house
of the Gilseyhu, (Big Frog) clan, and her husband Toghestiy, of the nearby Likhts’amisyu (Fireweed)
clan, was built directly on the GPS coordinates of the proposed route of the PTP, which they refer to as
“the trailblazer of the prospective energy corridor”.
The struggle of the Unist’ot’en must be seen in a broader context of politics of resistance against
pipeline projects in Canada and in BC led by First Nations (Scott 2013; McCreary and Milligan 2014).
The Unist’ot’en are one node in a networked resistance movement opposing these pipelines, petro-
infrastructure and “fossil capitalism”in Canada composed of environmental organisations, aﬀected
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 7
citizens and First Nations (Scott 2013). These struggles, fought on many fronts, including in the courts,
through legislative means, in the streets and on the land, are claiming victories. The most recent
being the cancellation of the Enbridge pipeline after the courts ruled that the government failed
in upholding its constitutional duty to consult First Nations who would be aﬀected by the pipeline.
Considerable geo-political stakes and multi-billion dollar investments are at play here, as pipeline
infrastructure is key to Canadian Government and industry plans to unlock the vast energy resources
in the Alberta tar sands and the fracking ﬁelds in North Eastern BC and deliver them to global markets
through ports in Kitimat and Prince Rupert on BC’s West coast. This is part of plans on the part of the
province of BC to become a major exporter of shale gas from Hydraulic Fracturing ﬁelds in the Horn
area of BC through a liquiﬁed natural gas (LNG) economic strategy estimated to be worth some
U.S.$78 billion. On the line are billions of dollars and 19 LNG projects, including ﬁve natural gas pipe-
lines, and three LNG facilities planned to be in operation by 2020. These projects make up what has
been termed a planned ‘energy corridor’, designed ultimately to unlock the tar sands and allow them
to be marketed globally without ﬁrst passing through the U.S. (McCreary and Milligan 2014).
While the Enbridge oil pipeline has generated heated opposition from many of the 50 Indigenous
territories whose lands it would cross, opposition to “natural”gas pipelines has generally been more
muted. This may be partly because their concerns regarding the distribution of risk have been
assuaged as many communities are told that in case of a spill the gas would simply evaporate. In con-
trast, the position of the Unist’ot’en camp is counter to a NIMBY approach that transcends concerns
for distributive impacts on their territory alone (Neville and Weinthal 2016). According to them, their
resistance is in solidarity with communities in the North-East of the province where the extraction
would take place, coastal communities impacted by export terminals, as well as communities from
the tar sands, as well as other marginalised communities impacted by climate change. Further,
they see the defense of territory within a broader process of healing the trauma of colonisation
for Indigenous peoples within Canada and within a broader global perspective, as described
further in Section 5. This positioning and their complete opposition to all pipelines –existing, pro-
posed or approved to expand –means the camp has wide support, and has become a symbol
against extractivism (Acosta 2013).
The camp’s presence seems to have contributed to several signiﬁcant victories in terms of dis-
couraging investment with up to ﬁve of seven proposed pipeline projects being cancelled or on
hold as of October 2017. The PTP project was initially shared by EOG Resources, Encana Corp., and
majority owner Apache corp. of Houston, Texas. In 2013, EOG and Encana sold their shares in the
project to Chevron Canada, a subsidiary of Chevron Corporation, which moved into a 50% ownership
position along with Apache. In 2014, Apache also pulled out and PTP is currently on hold as Chevron
does not have a new partner and the project does not have Asian buyers lined up. This recent with-
drawal of Apache was heralded as their victory on the Unist’ot’en website, feting that all of the orig-
inal investors (Encana, EOG and now Apache) have now bailed on the project. Several competing
projects are still in the “pipeline”and trying to gain access to the territory –foremost among
these is Coastal Gaslink, a 650 km natural gas pipeline that TransCanada is building connected to
the CA$12 billion “LNG Canada”terminal in Kitimat, in parntnership with Shell, PetroChina, Korea
Gas and Mitsubishi.
4.2. Reimagined free prior and informed consent
The checkpoint in the Unist’ot’en camp is controlled via a wooden bridge across the Wedzin Kwah
(Morice River), 66 kilometres up a logging road from Houston, BC. This river serves as a border
between Canada and the traditional territory of the Unist’ot’en. The blockade is marked by a large,
painted-plywood sign that reads “STOP. No access without prior consent”.
To cross the bridge and enter the camp, every person who enters must go through a “Reimagined
Free Prior and Informed Consent (RFPIC)”protocol that has been established by the Unist’ot’en camp
collective. According to the Unistot’en website
In ancient times and even today …in community resistance building gatherings, there exists Protocols where vis-
iting peoples have shown who they are in relation to asking permission to enter the Traditional Lands from the
Traditional Chiefs and Matriarchs of the hosting lands. (Unist’ot’en ND)
The protocol entails ﬁve questions that are sent to visitors when they give advance notice of their
(1) Who are you?
(2) Where are you from?
(3) What is your purpose in coming here?
(4) Do you work for Industry or Government that is destroying our lands.
(5) How will your visit beneﬁt the Unist’ot’en people?
According to the camp members, the RFPIC should be seen as an act of reclamation of the FPIC
process that has been “taken …strangle hold by the Corporations, NGO’s, Governments and other
Colonial Bodies”(Unist’ot’en ND). This is because FPIC is increasingly used as a mechanism to facilitate
and legitimate development projects “where the ‘C’in FPIC is increasingly redeﬁned as ‘consultation’,
precisely because the principle of consent, if taken seriously, does imply the right to say ‘no’and the
power to veto”(Franco 2014). Counter to this appropriation, the Unist’ot’en claim that it is not a new
process but based on Traditional Laws that were asserted via protocols like this on the lands for thou-
sands of years.
The Wet’suwet’en also had to present themselves as such when travelling to neighbouring peoples’lands to
conduct trade, protocols, build and maintain peace, assist with allies’battles, and attain resources or trade
work. Visiting nations would be required to dance their stories to show to the host nations that they truly are
who they say they are (as the dance would have been seen through historical trade relations). (Unist’ot’en ND)
In this way, the RFPIC is a living breathing (re)assertion of the Traditional Laws of the Wet’suwet’en.
According to their website (Unist’ot’en ND):
Free Prior and Informed Consent is not gone, lost or eroded. It has been asleep. The knowledge of conducting
them is still active. It must be asserted by the Indigenous Peoples’of these lands. It is not a mere document at
the UN oﬃce awaiting to be implemented by statism. It is living breathing protocols that must be asserted by
peoples who live oﬀthe land, connecting to the spirit of the ancestors and upholding Natural Laws.
The RFPIC protocol is part of a long history of land defence through physical means, through the use
of checkpoints and controls, which has been a feature of cultural norms and values for First Nations in
Canada for a long time (Borrows 2005). The checkpoint or blockade is a spatial tactic of direct action
resistance, that is both instrumental as well as symbolic. Instrumentally, “The blockade is …used to
regulate movement where movement itself is in dispute.”Blockade is frequently seen as a means of
physically halting “the massive and unsustainable out-movement of capital and commodities from
traditional territories”(Blomley 1996, 14). Blockades are particularly eﬀective in this regard in
Canada (Wilkes, Corrigall-Brown, and Myers 2010) due to the particular geography of colonisation
in Canada, whereby its low-density population and rugged terrain mean that pockets of unprocessed
resources such as timber or metals are hauled out long distances over few transport connections
(Blomley 1996). First Nations territories maintain privileged access to these arteries of economic
ﬂows and exercise incredible leverage to put at risk the “critical infrastructure”that transports
natural resources and manufactured goods from mines, oil ﬁelds, hydro-electric facilities and factories
to international markets (Pasternak and Dafnos 2018). The assertion of territorial control that disrupts
capitalist extractivist activities should also be seen as a struggle against the extractivist model itself.
Blomley (14) argues, that blocking the ﬂow of resources is what invests the blockade with its tre-
mendous strategic power and that the blockade also holds a symbolic eﬀect “to the extent that it
marks out two spaces …” (mapping) out a boundary and, in so doing, distinguishes an “Indian”
space from a “Euro-Canadian”space. This demarcation is an act of deﬁance, yet beyond the
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 9
disruption of the ﬂows of capitalism and the denial of the movement of resources out of the territory,
the blockade can (temporarily in most cases but in some cases for extended periods) create a space
for the control and practice of Indigenous economic and political authority in the face of the cultural
and economic dislocation forced upon them. In the case of the Unist’ot’en it has enabled the creation
of a “safe haven”(Anguelovski 2013) where they may enact their shared aspirations and identity, and
assert their sovereignty over their lands.
The process of RFPIC as enacted in the camp should also be considered what Kennedy (2002), a
legal scholar critical of rights-based approaches, has described as the disruption of the oppressive
exercise of legal power through engaging in a series of small scale, ad hoc transgressive perform-
ances, in an attempt to subvert or dismantle existing social structures (Kennedy 2002). This form
of “tactical guerrilla warfare”at the same time opens pathways to Indigenous aﬃrmation and
“self-recognition”. It forecloses the continual expansion of state authority to designate speciﬁcally
bounded forms of Indigeneity, opening up new “Indigenous ways of becoming”.
Moreover, the assertion of unilateral sovereignty that the RFPIC entails redraws the frames of rep-
resentation –in this case shifting the “who”is granting recognition/access to the territory and acting
as a sovereign. By establishing consensual relations on their own terms, the RFPIC stakes out a space
for political sovereignty deﬁned by their own legal interpretations and authority. This process of
assertion of sovereignty thus oﬀers a more transformative remedy to the marginalisation of Indigen-
ous peoples and perspectives than the participatory parity oﬀered by Fraser. We return to this in the
Finally, the RFPIC questions the ontology of what consent is and posits it as a process that each
community must construct. In this way, they address the procedural questions of justice –what
consent is and what it means and the need for the community itself to deﬁne consent.
4.3. Delgamuukw and the legal approach
We are not interested in asserting aboriginal rights. We are here to discuss territory and authority. When this case
ends and the package has been unwrapped, it will have to be our ownership and our jurisdiction under our law
that is on the table. (Delgam Uukw)
The resistance of the Unist’ot’en needs to be seen within a long history of creative resistance of the
Wet’suwet’en against colonialism. Along with the Gitxsan First Nation they blockaded logging in their
traditional territory in the late 1980s, an action which culminated in the groundbreaking Delga-
muukw court case whereby in 1984, the Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en went to Court to assert their sover-
eignty, legal jurisdiction and aboriginal rights over some 58,000 square kilometres of their territory
in BC (Borrows 1999).
In Delgamuukw, the Gitxsan and Wetsuwet’en demanded recognition of their unextinguished jur-
isdiction over the land. This claim was based on the fact that they had never signed any land treaties
with the governments of Canada and therefore that they had never ceded title to their traditional
territories as per the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
In the absence of a ratiﬁed treaty and having
never been conquered in war, the Gitxsan and Wetsuwet’en thus retained title and jurisdiction
over their land, according to Canadian law.
Begun in 1984, the case ﬁrst went before the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1987 (Del-
gamuukw v. British Columbia 1991), where it was dismissed by Chief Justice Allan McEachern in
1991. The ruling was then appealed in the British Columbia Court of Appeal (Delgamuukw v.
British Columbia 1993) and eventually went to the Supreme Court of Canada (Delgamuukw v.
British Columbia 1997). The ﬁnal decision was handed down by Supreme Court Chief Justice
Antonio Lamer in 1997 and is considered a landmark ruling for Indigenous land claims. Despite
its very qualiﬁed aﬃrmation and diverging views on what was accomplished (Borrows 1999; Paster-
nak 2014; Napoleon 2005), it established that the Tribe’s territorial sovereignty, pending proof of
surrender, by treaty, is a legitimate and outstanding constitutional question that still remains to
be resolved by the court.
10 L. TEMPER
Perhaps the most signiﬁcant outcome of the case was that after initial objections, the Gitksan and
Wet’suwet’en were able to use their oral histories as principal evidence in the case. In order to demon-
strate their “long-time use, occupation, possession and administration”of the contested land, they
relied on “tremendous quantities of intensely detailed evidence of their languages, genealogies,
customs and oral histories”, which demonstrated their deep and enduring social, cultural and histori-
cal connections to their territory (Daly 2007; Vermeylen 2013).
In the case of the Wet’suwet’en, the oral history is transmitted through the “Kungax”, a spiritual
song or dance or performance where the “recital[s] of the most important laws, history, traditions
and traditional territory of a House …is repeated, performed and authenticated at important
feasts”. In the case of the Gitxsan, it is through the adaawk. It was in the feast hall where for millennia
they would tell and retell their stories, pass on important histories, songs, crests, lands, ranks, and
properties from one generation to the next, and identify their territories to remind themselves of
the sacred connection that they have with their lands (Napoleon 2013; Borrows 1999).
Richard Overstall (2004) explains how in the case of the Gitsxan, these histories serve as an
embedded law that evolved as the result of people observing the consequences of their behaviour
over time. Behaviour that was disrespectful of spirits, animals, and the others, and the consequences
of it were recorded in adaawk, especially if the behaviour alters a lineage’s relationship with its ter-
ritory. The adaawk thus served as legal precedents to inform later conduct.
The plaintiﬀs argued that understanding the Gitxsan and Wetsuwet’en argument for jurisdiction
requires an understanding of their cultures’views of the world through these oral histories. While
property does exist in Gitxsan and Wetsuwet’en culture, it is expressed in terms that may be lost
in translation for an observer not intimate with the territory. These histories lay out a series of relation-
ships with the territory, rather that one of simple ownership as understood by Western property
rights. Aboriginal property rights concern use, not exploitation or extraction (Mills 2010). As she
explains: “The Witsuwit’en believe that people may kill the animals as long as they treat them with
respect. If they do not, the animals will not reincarnate or allow people to take them”(Mills 1994,
157). Laws laid down in the Kungax and the Adaawk also record when houses can pick berries,
ﬁsh, among others. (Morden 2015)
By creating a space within the courtroom where Indigenous narratives were able to gain equal
legitimacy to settler narratives, through the use of their traditional spellings, regalia and songs, the
Delgamuukw trial served to deconstruct the courtroom in a performative way, recreating and redraw-
ing the boundaries of the colonial system that is the courtroom (Napoleon 2013; Borrows 1999). While
on one hand, the Delgamuukw trial served as a transformative vehicle for cultural politics and opened
up a space for decolonising practices (Mills 1994). On the other, it also revealed some of the limit-
ations of the formal justice system as regards the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty as well as
the recognition of a relational ontology with nature as the next section argues.
5. Discussion –unsettling environmental justice
This paper aims to contribute to a disturbance of Western ontologies and epistemologies of Environ-
mental Justice. While the theories of EJ proposed by Schlosberg and Fraser have made tremendous
contributions towards a more pluralist understanding of justice; such frameworks in their attempt to
be inclusive and universal can also lead to foreclosing other understandings of what justice is, who
the subjects of justice should be and how it should be delivered.
A decolonial analysis informed by the two moments of Wet’sewet’ten history explored here
suggest limits and adaptations to the trivalent framework based on recognition, participation and dis-
tribution. I propose three pillars of a de-colonial environmental justice. I argue that rather than simply
participation, justice must include self-governing authority; that rather than distribution (of nature),
environmental justice calls for breaking down the dualism between humans and nature, and beyond
recognition, what is needed is epistemic justice and self-aﬃrmation. I question the capacity of the
state and legal framework for accommodating such a decolonial and transformative environmental
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 11
justice and instead propose that direct action, and assertion of responsibility and care may serve as
more eﬀective tools of resistance.
These insights are not only relevant for an environmental justice that takes decolonisation and the
claims of Indigenous peoples seriously but can also contribute towards a more radical and potentially
emancipatory environmental justice that can inform struggles, help hone tools of resistance and
transformatively rethink human–nature relationships (Temper 2017).
5.1. Beyond participation –self-governing authority
The standard narrative in EJ is that justice requires fair and meaningful participation by those
aﬀected. For Fraser (2008) this entails the need for “participatory parity”–which entails inclusion
of all “subjects of justice”understood as those jointly subjected to a structure of governance,
which sets the ground rules that govern their interaction (Fraser 2008, 65).
Participatory parity therefore primarily concerns itself with how to build inclusion within exist-
ing governance structures. Fraser’s theory contains important elements of reﬂexive openness
which allows discussion around who the subjects of justice are in each context. However the fra-
mework is still rooted in Western thought and experience and is designed to deal primarily with
claims of exclusion –those where the denial of participation is the main complaint. It is a less
appropriate ﬁt for the settler-colonial context, whereby the problem is precisely that Indigenous
peoples have to address their claims within a sovereignty they do not recognise. Rather than
participation, what they are seeking is political and social exemption. They are not seeking par-
ticipation but recognition of their sovereignty and their self-governing authority. Westra (1999)
illustrates this by pointing to the distinction between black communities in the U.S. who
demanded an end to segregation as a result of being forcibly excluded from society –to be
treated as equals –and aboriginal peoples in Canada who have been forcibly included and
assimilated into society through discriminatory laws. In this case, she argues, granting rights is
not only insuﬃcient, but simply wrong.
The limits to participatory parity are well demonstrated by the Delgamuukw case where the state
framework was unable to provide a mechanism for resolving the demand for Indigenous self-deter-
mination. As Coulthard (2014, 36) argues, the settler state does not constitute a legitimate framework
within which Indigenous peoples may be more justly included. Instead, the Delgamuukw case
brought into question the court’s very authority. Borrows (1999) refers to this as “Sovereignty’s
Alchemy”, asking “What alchemy transmutes the basis of Aboriginal possession into the golden
bedrock of Crown title?”(558), referring to the fact that the underlying injustice is the assumption
of the sovereign power as the foundation of the legal order itself (Muldoon 2008). As Coulthard
(2014, 36) argues; participation within the Canadian legal system leaves intact two primary features
of colonial domination that Indigenous assertions of nationhood call into question: the legitimacy of
the settler state’s claim to sovereignty over their territories and the normative status of the state-form
as an appropriate mode of governance on the other.
Instead of participation and inclusion, justice for occupied and Indigenous peoples calls for inter-
rogating the mapping of political space and inclusion within the frame of the territorial state itself.
The terms of participation, and the subjects of justice are mis-framed. This implies the need to deco-
lonise law and to deconstruct the state’s grounds to inaugurate law on lands acquired through colo-
nial settlement (Pasternak 2014). It also calls for decolonising participatory parity, which entails
reframing and questioning the authority of the state itself as the governance framework and
looking beyond standard liberal frames of justice to acknowledge that the existing international
system of nation-states cannot meet Indigenous demands for self-determination, and that a commit-
ment to justice for Indigenous peoples may entail calling those state-systems into question (Young
2000). Because the state is often the key actor pushing extractive projects, decentring the state and
envisioning governance beyond its conﬁnes is an important contribution from Indigenous thought
that can productively unsettle EJ.
12 L. TEMPER
5.2. Beyond distribution –destabilisation of the human/nature dualism
Environmental justice from the outset was concerned with the distribution of environmental
resources and burdens. This perspective relies on a conception of nature as a passive object that
can be more justly and equitatively distributed among human populations through diﬀerent prop-
erty rights, allocations, etc. Such a perspective on distribution is incompatible with Indigenous con-
ceptions of nature and on human-ecological relationships that call into question the view of the
environment as a commodity that can be owned or traded.
The Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan cosmology views humans as being fundamentally interconnected
with their ecology. The plaintiﬀs, Gisday Wa and Delgam Uukw, describe in their opening address a
view that understands the world to be a diﬀerentiated unity, of which humans are only one part.
There is no strict human/nature dualism in this view (Wa and Uukw 1992). They wrote:
The Western world-view sees the essential and primary interactions as being those between human beings. To
the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en, human beings are part of an interacting continuum, which includes animals and
spirits. Animals and ﬁsh are viewed as members of societies, which have intelligence and power, and can
inﬂuence the course of events in terms of their interrelationship with human beings.
This relational perspective on nature sees human and non-human living beings as well as inanimate
objects, within a matrix of relations, “backward and forward in time, laterally in the present”(Kneen
2015, 33). A relational ontology, summed up by the Indigenous prayer phrase “All my relations”restores
agency and subjectivity to nature. In Indigenous legal tradition it is often expressed as “natural law”:
laws that are in keeping with the laws of the natural world (Westra 2012). According to natural law,
relationships with nature are what deﬁne one’s responsibilities to them. Thus instead of distribution
of nature, the emphasis is on mutual relations based on reciprocity and care.
Such an understanding of nature is extremely diﬃcult to integrate into Western legal institutions
charged with delivering environmental justice. The natural law of Indigenous legal tradition, as well
as Western law, are both based on a worldview and an understanding of how humans are (e.g. indi-
vidual, competitive, communal, etc.) and how they relate to the larger world, as well as to non-human
life forms (Napoleon 2013). The testimony of Delga Uukw and Nisgay Wa Uukw in the Delgamuukw
case aimed to unsettle the Western idea of ownership and jurisdiction over land and resources (Bryan
2000) and demanded a destabilising of the nature/culture binary that Western law is built on. This
destabilisation ﬁts closely to the deconstructive cultural politics as described by Fraser (1995). It con-
tributed to transforming the underlying cultural-valuational structure by destabilising identities and
our own understanding of what it means to be human.
However, the court was not able to “recognize nature and the Other”in the relational perspective
that the plaintiﬀs asked underscoring how the legal liberal tradition is unable to recognise Indigenous
relationship to land and nature other than through its own conceptions. This point is underlined by
Indigenous legal scholar Val Napoleon (2005) who explains that
The Court was not able to hear or accept the adaawk as presented –a legal and political institution rather than a
simple cultural artefact or chronological history record. The forms of expression, symbolism, and inter-connec-
tions between the worlds of spirits, humans, and animals proved to be beyond the grasp of the trial judge.
Yet, beyond this, it may call into question western notions of property and distribution altogether. As
Smith (2011,61–62) argues, “Indigenous peoples are forced to argue in courts that it is ’their’land.
What they cannot question within this system is the presumed relationship between peoples and
land. That is, should land be a commodity to be controlled and owned by peoples?”
5.3. Epistemic justice
Epistemic justice entails overcoming barriers for alternative forms of being and seeing the world to be
recognised as valid and valuable knowledge and includes the even greater challenge of translating
this into real policy and practice and social justice.
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 13
For example, relational ontologies and a destabilisation and reconceptualisation of the nature-
culture binary (Plumwood 2004) are increasingly ﬁnding a place in initiatives to imbue Mother
Nature with rights such as in the Bolivian and Ecuadorean constitutions. Yet there remain consider-
able challenges in theory, policy and law to dissolving this “ontological divide”
and numerous ten-
sions emerge in the translation of Indigenous ethics of care into legal and policy frameworks, as
several authors have documented in the case of rights of nature (Arsel 2012; Fish 2013).
The integration of Indigenous philosophies into hegemonic institutions can often lead to distor-
tion, erasure and co-optation, a new form of epistemic extractivism and violence. For example,
Widenhorn (2013) examined the mobilisation of diverse actors of the concept of Buen Vivir,
ﬁnding that the political act of translation served to transform “buen vivir into an object of knowledge
detached from the knowledge holder”. Through this, “the inherently relational character of Andean
cosmovision was lost …whereas modern rationality was reaﬃrmed”. She points to the gap between
concept and reality and the tension between the need to make marginalised knowledges politically
relevant, and the danger of erasing, co-opting and distorting these knowledge systems through the
very act of doing so.
On the other hand, Valladares and Boelens (2017) explore the rights of nature discourse as an
“epistemic pact”that can serve as a tool for re-politicizing the environmental debate by challenging
the dominant mono-cultural, functionalist and extractivist notion of nature, deﬁned by capitalism and
science”. They suggest that the political radicalism implied by this act of intercultural translation can
lead to the creation of new alliances for territorial defense.
This leads to the question of how the recognition and participation of nature that some scholars
(Nussbaum 1997; Schlosberg 2007) have been claiming for can be done in an epistemically just way?
Can public policy “translate”concepts such as rights of nature, Indigenous self-determination,
responsibility, into real justice? What are the limitations for these claims as tools of resistance and
how can epistemic justice be enacted by those claiming it?
These questions would require more space to treat in depth, yet the case study suggests that
moving towards epistemic justice requires on one hand, the opening up of concepts of nature
and meaningful intercultural communication. The challenge for transformative epistemic justice
here is not in translating Indigenous concepts into terms comprehensible to liberal legal traditions
but rather further developing through education, intercultural communication and listening, the
interpretative “hermeneutical”resources to make sense of Indigenous experience and perspectives.
From here may emerge the possibility to transcend colonial and liberal constructs and open other
worlds and other relationships with land, territory and nature.
The Unist’ot’en enactment of epistemic justice rests on questioning the knowledge structures
through which decisions are made themselves; and creating and asserting their own processes
and practices relying on their own knowledge, language and ways of seeing and being the world.
This includes both politics of refusal (Simpson 2014) as well as healing and sharing to transform
the capacity of others to hear. Most importantly beyond discourse it involves action and lived
5.4. Beyond recognition: rights v. geographies of responsibility
These are not resources –these are life-forms that we have access to. Our laws are our responsibilities. The way we
harvest salmon is our living law. (Unist’ot’en Camp)
The Unist’ot’en checkpoint demonstrates a very diﬀerent approach to the politics of recognition.
Instead of appealing outwards, its aim is to create a space for what Coulthard (2014) refers to as “self-
recognition”and Indigenous re-aﬃrmation. In this newly reclaimed space, the Unist’ot’en camp
members have been able to assert their own legal understandings, and to live their concept of
justice through practice, through enactment and through antagonistic politics that disrupt the econ-
omic and social logic and production of settler-colonial power.
14 L. TEMPER
The Unist’ot’en camp members reject a rights-based discourse that can only be accorded to them
by what they perceive as an occupying power, and actively assert their responsibilities to the territory
and their ancestral and natural law. According to the camp members, as warriors, they hold a sacred
responsibility for all life in their territories. This is based on the concept of stewardship, whereby the
warriors are managing the land because of their dependency on it, because of its intrinsic value as
well as on behalf of the unborn future generations. Rather than speak about “rights”to ﬁsh they
refuse to let their responsibility to the river to be diminished.
This assertion of responsibility through active presence is premised on self-actualisation, direct
action and the resurgence of cultural practices through antagonistic politics. Environmental justice
has always been about resistance, about continual repolitisation of the environment, of redeﬁning
and expanding the concept of nature, and about reconnecting to place and territory. The space
created by resistance camps such as the Unist’ot’en camp becomes a fervent space for transforming
the collective imaginary and the hermeneutical capacity of the many visitors.
This paper has drawn from the Delgamuukw case and the Unist’ot’en camp to challenge hegemonic
theories of environmental justice and propose ones that can be mobilised for decolonisation prac-
tices. Through examination of the Delgamuukw case, the possibilities and limits to recognition
through the mechanisms of the state, as previously laid out by Indigenous scholars (Muldoon
2005; Borrows 1999; Coulthard 2014) were discussed in the light of EJ. In this paper a proposal for
a decolonising Environmental Justice in the settler-colonial context was put forward, based on the
pillars of self-governing authority, the undoing of the ontology of land as property, and epistemic
You may justly ask, as a white settler on stolen land, who are you to write about this? Or to return to the ﬁfth
question of the protocol –how will my visit and this work beneﬁt the Unist’ot’en? As a non-indigenous researcher,
can this work contribute to actual and meaningful decolonization?
The honest and somewhat uncomfortable answer is perhaps not much or not directly. Beyond the
theoretical, this paper argues for the need for direct action and endeavours to prompt readers to take
action. Camp members say that the camp is not a blockade, but instead a gateway to understanding
truth and meaningful decolonisation. This work aims to reﬂect my own journey through this gateway
and my personal transformation, and the continuing unlearning and undoing of my own settler-colo-
nial mentality. At the Unist’ot’en camp, I became more conscious of my own accountability as a settler
and cognizant of concrete actions I could take in solidarity and support of the political goal of deco-
lonisation. On the Wedzin Kwa with the Unist’ot’en and their supporters, decolonisation moved from
the theoretical to a lived reality that appeared possible to achieve and actionable in the present. My
aim in this paper is to contribute to building this imaginary. Decolonisation calls for an abolition of
property relations as we know them and a renewal of our relationship with nature. It would be
uncomfortable and unsettling, but it is imperative. The question now is how to listen and how to
learn from Indigenous struggles such as the Unist’ot’en to assert our own responsibility as Indigenous
and non-indigenous allies to make it happen.
2. The council system was set up with the Indian act of 1876 to govern the reserves. The Unist’ot’en clan repudiates
their authority, and while Delgamuukw aﬃrms the traditional system of hereditary chiefs as those who can take
decisions over the Wet’suwet’en territories, energy companies often negotiate with band councils even though
they don’t have the power to consent to development projects beyond the reserves. For example, Chevron has
formed The First Nations Limited Partnership (http://bcfnlp.ca/) with band councils as the basis for an agreement
on PTP. On 23 January 2015, the Moricetown band became the 16th band along the pipeline route to sign on to
LOCAL ENVIRONMENT 15
the partnership. Touted as a “$500 million + commercial partnership by and for First Nations”, the 16 bands will
share 32 million Canadian dollars (U.S.$24.6 million) once construction begins, as well as CA$10 million ($7.7
million) per year while the pipeline is operating. Meanwhile on 6 August 2015, all ﬁve Unist’ot’en chiefs, along
with four other Wet’suwet’en chiefs, signed the Unist’ot’en Declaration declaring that the land was unceded
and that their consent was needed for any project on their territory.
3. This is perhaps best expressed in the words of the seringeuros of Brazil, quoted bv Porto-Goncalves: “nosotros no
queremos tierra, nosotros queremos territorio”. We don’t want the land –we want the territory.
4. The force and legitimacy of the Royal Proclamation had just recently been re-aﬃrmed by its incorporation into
section 35 the Canadian constitution in 1982.
5. See O’Neill (2006) for a discussion on The question of “who speaks for nature”for a discussion of the political
implications of representing nature’s interests as well as Castree’s(2003) discussion on moving towards a politics
of politics of socionatural hybridity.
An earlier version of this article was presented at The Plurality and Politics of Environmental Justice workshop at the Uni-
versity of East Anglia. I would like to thank the Unist´ot´en for welcoming me, for their hospitality, knowledge, wisdom
and vision. I would also like to thank Saskia Vermeylen and two anonymous reviewers for comments which have signiﬁ-
cantly improved the text. I take full responsibility for any errors.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
This research is supported in part by the ACKnowl-EJ project, Transformations to Sustainability Programme [Grant
Number TKN150317115354] and International Social Science Council.
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