Exception: Wet’suwet’en Nationhood, COVID-19, and Canada’s Colonial Soul

As Canada and its provinces respond to Wet’suwet’en assertions of jurisdiction and allied blockades over the past week, I couldn’t help be see parallels between the state’s actions on this matter and the public’s reactions over coronavirus COVID-19. In both, we see a state of exception being made, through which patriarchal settler colonialism is reproduced.

In a short piece published February 26, 2020, Giorgio Agamben critiques Italy’s response to COVID-19 for the way it allows the state to normalize incursions on freedoms based on what he sees as very limited public health risk. As he puts it, fears over the virus are permitting governments to intrude on the lives of citizens, thereby manifesting “[a] growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm.” On this platform, bodies are barred from movement and enforcement measures are stepped up, which in turn renew the state’s claims to authority and the public’s willingness to accept those claims.

But in Canada, it just so happens that responses to COVID-19 and Wet’suwet’en land defence are taking place at the same time. While this bottleneck could not be predicted, it does provide us with a lens through which to see how both of these issues permit the state and the public to create a state of exception through which settler colonial power not just reproduces itself, but comes into view.

On the one hand, courts and police have deployed “a tidal wave of injunctions” to remove blockades erected in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en and, indeed, Wet’suwet’en people themselves from their own unceded land. As my Yellowhead Institute colleagues have shown, injunctions have become a tool of state-making that clear the land of Indigenous peoples so that extractive capitalism can continue status quo. We see the normalizing effects of this in the words of conservative politicians who seemed to be supporting vigilanteism, and in the actions of “hero’s” who dismantled solidarity blockades, both of which have led some to caution that Canada should prepare for “a surge in white supremacist vigilantes.” This seems to be a fitting analysis considering that, as Audra Simpson reminds us, settler colonialism in Canada is a joint effort between government and its citizens.

But on the other hand, COVID-19 is releasing its own torrent of exceptionalism. Stirring xenophobia and racism at points around the world, it seems to be broadening hegemonic power in ways similar to Simpson’s analysis of violence: both the state and its citizens are getting involved in the regulation of some bodies in the service of protecting other bodies. In Russia, for example, it appears that citizens are openly discriminating against Chinese individuals; in Canada, Chinese-owned businesses are reporting significant declines in business.

The crux of all this – that is, where these issues come together for me – is in the public’s apparent fear of things beyond state control. Indigenous sovereignties lay beyond the state’s jurisdiction, which is why flashpoint events over land conflicts continue to pop-up every year or two in this country. This might be scary for some because it questions the very idea of Canada and its claims to natural resources – apparently no one can mess with the settler society’s access to Indigenous lands. The reactions to this in the past weeks have included not just injunctions and police enforcement, but a spike in anti-Indigenous racism and heteropatriarchy as seen in part by the fact that Indigenous individuals broadly are reporting feeling unsafe, and in the production of a decal in Alberta apparently depicting Greta Thunberg (a child) in a sexual act.

But COVID-19 might be beyond the state’s control, too. While this remains the be seen, the spectre of coronavirus chaos has proven scary enough already for some to target Chinese individuals and communities globally.

But here is the kicker: Fear is one thing. Anger is another. And the combination of fear and anger spells bad things for Indigenous communities when we realize that settler colonialism is upheld by government and citizenry. As Twitter user Claude pointed out in response to rail blockades, “if you put my family’s well being and safety at risk you’ll turn me into an angry settler.” Well, at what point might COVID-19 put Claude’s family at risk anyway? Who pays then?

In looping back to Agamben’s comments, the fears being stirred by the coronavirus coupled with the state’s responses to Wet’suwet’en assertions of nationhood are clearly creating a state of exception where settler colonial power re-asserts itself. But for Indigenous communities that have been resisting Canadian colonialism for so long, this is not an exception – it has been the daily experience for generations. Instead, the exception of this moment is that it has created an opening: Canada’s settler colonial soul has been laid bare for all to see.

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