An announcement yesterday by the US Army Corps of Engineers that it would not allow further work on the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) near the Sioux reservation at Standing Rock has been hailed by many as a victory.
Following the announcement by the Corps, made at the direction of the Obama administration, jubilant images of celebrating water protectors circulated in news media and online. Such imagery was accompanied by prayers and statements of thanks from Sioux elders and from activists at the sprawling Standing Rock camp.
However, a press release by the companies constructing DAPL, responding to the Obama administration and the Corps, cannot but temper the mood. They suggest stalling construction is merely political maneuvering by the Obama administration, which prefers the incoming Trump administration to take any flak for the project. Trump’s transition team recently expressed its support for the project, and further claimed that the president-elect’s ownership of shares in one of the companies building DAPL has nothing to do with this support.
And while many Indigenous groups and allied organizations opposed to DAPL have taken the halt in construction as a victory, other resistance groups have been less jubilant. The Unist’ot’en Clan, for one, expressed support and admiration for the bravery and persistence of the Standing Rock camp, but also warned that “a reroute is not a victory,” since expanding oil infrastructure, no matter where that infrastructure expands, means more environmental degradation.
The Unist’ot’en have recently achieved something of a victory themselves, when the Trudeau government announced it will not allow the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, a project that the Clan have opposed through an active and ongoing resistance camp in their traditional territory.
When Trudeau made the announcement that the Northern Gateway project would not proceed, the Unist’ot’en responded that the project had already essentially been stopped, by them and by other forces of resistance, and so the announcement from the Canadian government was merely the coup de grace.
In the same breath, the Trudeau government sanctioned the equally controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline extension, so it seems more correct overall to say it was less a victory for those opposed to an expanding oil infrastructure and more a case of one step forward, two steps back.
Lessons from Muskrat Falls
Resistance movements to megaprojects might also learn a lesson from the supposed victory that was claimed by land protectors opposed to a hydro project at Muskrat Falls in Labrador. Following a meeting between the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador, whose crown corporation Nalcor is building the hydro dam, and the three Labrador Indigenous governments (Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut, and NunatuKavut), significant figures within the resistance movement claimed an outright victory had been achieved. However, as the details of the deal between the province and Indigenous governments were examined in greater detail, many felt that in fact there was little to celebrate.
Indeed, in the weeks after the deal and the initial claim of victory, construction of the Muskrat Falls hydro project continued apace, and Labrador land protectors again began to engage in acts of civil disobedience. However, after the initial claim of victory, the intense focus on Muskrat Falls and the popular support for the resistance by the rest of the country dissipated.
Part of the reason a broad audience stopped paying close attention is simply because other issues captured the headlines, but it must also be said that for many supporters and outside observers the supposed victory was where the story ended, and so any continuation of struggle beyond that point did not easily fit within the narrative of winners and losers.
— AmnestyCanada (@AmnestyNow) October 26, 2016
This simplistic narrative of winners and losers, victors and vanquished, is something resistance movements need to be wary of. It is a functional tool for governments, corporations, and really any sort of power and authority that intends to subvert resistance.
In fact, resistance movements may find it helpful to develop a more nuanced understanding of why power and authority feels compelled to use this tool, which is often only used as a last resort.
Power seldom wants to give up anything approximating a victory to resistance movements, because this is a sign of weakness.
In the case of Muskrat Falls, the provincial government made conciliatory gestures, including the meeting with Indigenous governments, in desperation when the security forces in Labrador had been stretched to the limit and overwhelmed: the police and the provincial government had simply lost control of the situation. Land protectors had occupied the construction site and had a well-supplied base camp at the main gate, while numerous arrests and other tactics by the police were having little effect other than to spur on the resistance.
It was in this situation, facing total defeat, that the provincial government was compelled to concoct a deal that might appear to the resistance as something like a victory.
Unfortunately, it must also be said that the Labrador Indigenous governments played a significant part in presenting this deal as a victory and to subverting the resistance movement (for complex reasons that cannot be explained here).
It was difficult, as someone who has been an ally and supporter of the resistance to Muskrat Falls, to watch this all unfold, especially because the land protectors could have achieved a real and total victory at the moment the government and security apparatus was overwhelmed.
Successes and victory
The question behind much of this, with respect to Standing Rock, to the expanding pipelines in Canada and the U.S., and indeed the question with respect to resistance to megaprojects like hydro dams and other projects generally is this: what does victory actually look like?
The simple fact is that governments and industry can always play the long game – they can always stop a project today and then start it again in a few months (or years) once no one is paying attention; they can wait for the political climate to change; and they can offer up minor concessions or even just what appear to be concessions to mitigate resistance.
It is important for activists to celebrate their successes – actually, since activists are very often humble, selfless people, celebrating success is something that doesn’t come naturally, even as it is important for morale and recruitment.
However, I think it is also possible to celebrate success without making claims of outright victory. It is a matter of taking a similar line as the Unist’ot’en Clan, saying yes, we have achieved something, but the struggle is nowhere near won.
In whatever manner resistance movements understand success, there is good reason to be skeptical of claiming outright victories without asking the question of what victory really looks like and means.
Jon Parsons is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on cultures of resistance. Catch up with him on Twitter @jwpnfld