Why I signed the Let BC Vote pledge

Last week I signed the Let BC Vote pledge. You could say I’m late to the party. More than 200,000 British Columbians signed before me. I’ve been aware of the Dogwood Initiative-led campaign since it launched, and I’ve watched the numbers grow. But I wanted to reason it through before deciding with conviction that it is part of my path forward.

For the last few years I’ve worked in my community and beyond to help build the momentum we need to stop Enbridge Northern Gateway. I’m not trained as a leader or organizer. I came to this work before I felt ready, and I learned on my feet. I’ve made my share of gut decisions in the heat of battle, and learned to be grateful when I have the luxury of examining every angle of a campaign before I commit to it.

Now that the federal government has approved this project, we could be in for a long fight. I believe pipeline opponents have been laying the groundwork for sustained action since day one, but what carries us through will be smart strategies, high levels of organization, and commitment. I may have taken my time, but Let BC Vote has my commitment. Because this is more than a drive to build a list and collect signatures. It’s an opportunity to build capacity, demand accountability, and strengthen alliances – and all of those actions are critical at this stage of the fight.

Two systems of law and governance
Smart organizers invest in a diversity of tactics, and lead with the strongest in any situation. The tactics available to us in this fight are complex, because the communities who are organizing are interacting with two very different systems of law and governance.

Let me explain: I am Indigenous, and I am Heiltsuk. The Heiltsuk have a set of laws and customs that goes back to our First Generation, and that system is the one that primarily guides my actions. Heiltsuk people also maintain an original system of government that organizes how we function as a society. I’m not talking about the federally-imposed system of Indian Act governments; I’m talking about our hereditary chiefs who are groomed from birth to be rights-holders who uphold the ways of our people.

More broadly, Canada has a set of federal and provincial laws and governance that is primary to my Settler allies. I respond to it as well, but for me, it comes second.

Those two systems of law and governance make three sets of tactics available to us. Think of them as two circles. I want to talk about those circles, and the space where they overlap.

In one circle, you have the Indigenous system. This system is what empowers our hereditary chiefs to say no – no, on the basis that this project is inconsistent with our laws and customs. No, on the strength of their authority as chiefs. In the other circle, you have the Settler system. This system includes federal and provincial legislation that is meant to impartially vet and regulate projects like Northern Gateway.

Let’s be frank. My laws and customs as an Indigenous person are my highest truth, but I live in a country that sidesteps the power of that truth. And Canadians are living under a regime – at least federally – that systematically dismantles inconvenient legislation and regulations so projects like Northern Gateway can barrel ahead.

So what is possible where the Indigenous and Settler circles overlap? One clear example is in the courts. As the recent Tsilhqot’in decision reinforced, Indigenous rights and title hold real, tangible power within the Canadian legal system.

This is the battle plan that pipeline opponents have had in their back pocket since day one: Indigenous people fighting and stopping Northern Gateway in Canadian court, on the basis that this project would intrude onto territories to which we hold title, and infringe on our rights. As these cases proceed there is a supportive role for Settler allies to play in areas like fundraising and communications, but with this tactic the burden of leadership rests with Indigenous people.

Where is the burden of leadership for Settler people? A majority of Indigenous groups in British Columbia have rejected Enbridge Northern Gateway under their own systems of law, while a majority of British Columbians reject this plan for their home province too. Based on those two facts, what power can non-Indigenous people seize? I believe the answer lies in the citizens’ initiative.

By organizing in ridings across the province, by stepping up as leaders within their own communities, and by drafting and proposing legislation that fits their values, citizens have a powerful opportunity – available only in British Columbia – to hold their provincial government to account. For as Ottawa acknowledged the day it approved the pipeline, B.C. still has the power to stop it. Without 60 permits from Premier Clark, Enbridge may not proceed.

I don’t want my Settler brothers and sisters to point to the Indigenous legal battle and say “We believe you’re going to win.” I want to hear them say they’re ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder, with each of us seizing the power that best enables us to win together. If diverse tactics are available, let’s be wise enough to consider all of them. Preparing for a citizens’ initiative does not undermine title or rights. Rather, it builds our collective political power.

Final thoughts
For me, the core of this issue is simple: leaders must be accountable to their people, regardless of the scale of leadership. If leaders forget who they represent, then the people need to organize. I know this truth from my own leadership in a community that is not afraid to correct my course if there is a better way for me to carry their interests forward.

Scale that spirit up to the provincial level. Elections are not our only opportunity to remind leaders whose interests they’re meant to represent in office. Trooping to the ballot box every four years is not enough to hold Christy Clark accountable. Let’s use every means available to hold her to the truth that her mandate comes from the people of B.C., and the people of B.C. expect her to join us in stopping Enbridge.

When it comes to being allies, let’s remember we are in this fight together. It is no longer enough to show solidarity. I am humbly asking my Settler allies to be solidary. It’s the difference between a finite action and a way of being. We need to work strategically in the space where our values and power overlap. I am committed to upholding the truth of my laws and stories, to helping my chiefs defend our rights and title in the courts. And I am committed to supporting my Settler brothers and sisters who choose to organize around an action that puts power back in their hands too.

By signing the Let BC Vote pledge, I am gesturing my willingness to be solidary with my Settler brothers and sisters. It’s time for all of us to rise up, build our organizing capacity, and exercise it in actions that advance us toward our goal of stopping this pipeline. I’m with you until we win.

I came into my role as a leader and community organizer because of Enbridge Northern Gateway. My elders taught me that you don’t get to choose the moment when you’re called to leadership; the only thing that’s up to you is courage and conviction. That teaching has guided me through many moments of uncertainty, and it’s the message I’ve most often shared with Indigenous and Settler people alike: respond to what this moment is asking of you. This fight is too big for us to do otherwise.

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5 responses to “Why I signed the Let BC Vote pledge

  1. Thank you, Jess, for speaking to how we can move forward together, indigenous and non-indigenous alike. This is the path of collective resistance– and the path of peace.

  2. Julia Madison

    Well said. We will stand together, each one of us doing what we can (and that’s allot) to win this fight!

  3. Right on the button! And beautifully said. Thank you, Jess person. I’m honoured to stand shoulder to shoulder with you, and, as a Dogwood volunteer in the Kootenays, to be a part of empowering all our communities: “Because this is more than a drive to build a list and collect signatures. It’s an opportunity to build capacity, demand accountability, and strengthen alliances – and all of those actions are critical at this stage of the fight.”

  4. So beautifully written, teaching us, simplifying our stand for respect and fairness. Thank you.

  5. I’m writing from an island in Puget Sound in the lower 48, close to Seattle and involved in our own struggles with schemes for transportation and export. It may encourage you to know that through the narrative and documentation in Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything,” Jess Housty’s wisdom and eloquence are being broadcast far beyond coastal B C. I’m inspired, and I wish you all success.

    Jon Quitslund, Bainbridge Island

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