By Denise Leduc
Organizing on social media brought a group of Saskatchewanians together to travel south to North Dakota to visit Standing Rock earlier this month. Amongst this group were several union members and labour activists. Speaking with four from the group – Cat Gendron, Darin Milo, Nathan Schneider and Chelsea Taylor-Flook, they share why they went, some of their experiences and what they bring back home.
All expressed the desire to learn as one reason to make the trip. Darin Milo added that the human rights and environmental issues were reasons he went. “Does an oil company get the ultimate say,” he asks, “Can they override democracy?”
Milo, a member of COPE Local 397 also explains that in the original plan for the pipeline, it was to be built closer to Bismarck. When people in the town rightly voiced their concerns about the pipeline it was rerouted closer to Indigenous land. Additionally, the pipeline would travel beneath the Missouri River which is the water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of approximately 10,000 people.
One cannot ignore the question of racism when a mostly white town can get the pipeline moved but the concerns of Indigenous people are not met with the same consideration. Furthermore, construction of this pipeline in the planned location would also break the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.
Milo adds that the AFL-CIO and USW have supported this pipeline project, yet individual American trade unionists are taking a stand, and even defying union leadership for what they believe is right. In fact, many have become frustrated by the mainstream union support for pipelines. Many workers have come to the camp on their own and together have established a labor camp as part of the larger protest. Milo said it was surprising the number of American workers that were there from the building trades. He admits many of these workers are between a rock and hard a place-on one hand their concerns over what they believe is right and just, while on the other hand having concerns over good jobs and feeding their families. Even here in Saskatchewan, frictions can be caused over the Dakota Access Pipeline as the actual pipeline would be manufactured at Evraz in Regina.
Milo is troubled over the use of dogs, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters. Yet, he says, “As trade unionists we have to stand up for union jobs, but we also have to stand up for human rights.”
Cat Gendron a labour and climate activist admits that she wasn’t expecting the frequency of helicopters, drones, and the number of police she witnessed while at the camp. Nathan Schneider, also a member of COPE went for a walk one of the evenings of the trip. As he strolled across the highway and over a hill, behind barricades he viewed dozens of police and military vehicles. He was surprised and concerned over the heavy hand the state was using against peaceful protestors.
Despite the militarized environment, there was also a feeling of hope at the camp. Gendron went to learn and help out and within minutes of arriving at the camp the Saskatchewan group found themselves unloading supplies delivered to the camp. She claims that the Octei Sakowin Camp which is the largest camp at the protest was well-coordinated, very organized and inclusive. Thousands of people were there. She also appreciated that it was respected throughout the camp that this was an Indigenous-led movement. There was also a legal camp, a place for healing, as well as treaty and direct action classes, and building crews for the winter construction.
Gendron describes a candlelight vigil put on by the Youth Council. A thousand people walked through the dark with candles guiding their way to the Missouri River. Once at the river prayers were offered for the water and for the water protectors. Then prayers were also offered to the construction workers in spite of a construction worker pulling a gun on members of the camp that same day. There was acknowledgement that construction workers were just there trying to do a job and provide for their families. Gendron believes it is the system that pits people against each other.
Of the people at Standing Rock she says, “Where you are expecting anger and frustration, instead you get compassion and empathy.” She adds, “We have a lot to learn.”
Chelsea Taylor-Flook agrees. Although she has a lot of experience in labour, environmental and Indigenous Rights activism, she said the vigil was one of the largest and most powerful marches she has been a part of. Despite the constant police and military presence she enjoyed the atmosphere of the camp. It was a safe place where everyone was looking out for each other. There was support, healing and the understanding that people on both sides of this issue were facing challenges. In the evenings there were drummers, singers and an emcee. Taylor-Flook feels it was the asserting of local traditions that were carrying the camp. She also believes that labour and Indigenous group are natural allies.
Of treaties she says, “Labour should understand why First Nations are fighting for these ‘contracts’ to be upheld.”But she concedes, “Industry has been good at baiting workers into divisions between environmentalists and First Nation groups.”
These four activists agree that some of the reasons for the trip was to stand in solidarity, make connections, and learn. They plan on bringing what they have learned back to Canada as all believe what we are witnessing in Standing Rock could easily play out here. Nathan Schneider says that this is an important cause reflects on how Saskatchewan saw earlier this year the risks firsthand when the Husky pipeline leaked into our rivers. This oil spill affected Treaty 6 land and left thousands of people subject to unclean water.He believes labour should be pushing for more green jobs and green manufacturing. Saskatchewan and Alberta have some of the best solar and wind energy potential Canada yet there still remains reluctance by many to shift away from oil. He would like to see more labour unions step up to the plate on Standing Rock and other environmental issues.
Gendron says, “It is vital for labour to take a stand for environmental justice and Indigenous justice if we are to expect justice for ourselves.”
Taylor-Flook talks of a 2009 report by Tom Flanagan on threats to the oilsands.In this report he identifies various groups who have been opposition and the tactics they have employed including boycotts, occupations and litigation. One conclusion made in the report is “However, extra-legal obstruction is unlikely to become large-scale and widespread unless these various groups make common cause and cooperate with each other. Such cooperation has not happened in the past and seems unlikely in the future because the groups have different social characteristics and conflicting political interests.”
Taylor-Flook thinks working together is key and muses, “What he has given us here is a blueprint for our success, and labour has a role to play in this.”
Gendron concludes, “We must take our understanding of ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ and put those words into action – beyond unionized workers. We need to expand it to Indigenous people and to future generations of workers – the only way we can all achieve fairness is to build, learn, and fight for what’s right together.”