Writing with/against/as Extraction in So-Called Canada: Poets on Poetics — Water Teaches Love and Law

I speak to you from unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territories today, but I’ve been honoured to go up and visit Wet’suwet’en territories a number of times over the years. I was born on Treaty 7 territory, also known as Calgary. Because of where I grew up, I feel like I have a responsibility to address the effects of oil on the land, and the water, and the air. The Wedzin Kwa—it is one of only two rivers in my whole life that
I’ve ever been able to drink straight out of. This water is incredibly clean, it is precious, and the land and water protectors and people up in the Wet’suwet’en Yintah are so inspiring. I want to begin by acknowledging that, and all the folks who are doing incredible work in terms of standing up against police violence and corporate violence.


As you may know, the Unist’ot’en built a Healing Centre blocking a dozen or so different pipeline proposals, and they stopped many of those pipelines from going through. This latest effort by Coastal GasLink is the only one that has gotten as far as it has. I want to acknowledge how much incredible work has been done over the years; I want to acknowledge that the work being done in Wet’suwet’en involves simultaneous healing and blocking further damage. I want to think about our responsibilities and also acknowledge how the work has brought people up to Wet’suwet’en territories from around the world.


When the Gidimt’en checkpoint came up, it was in solidarity with Unist’ot’en, it was in response to RCMP intrusion on Wet’suwet’en land, and it was a very courageous and bold move for Gidimt’en to step up. And when people go up and visit, the land up there is just incredibly beautiful, the water is still drinkable; it is an abomination and an unacceptable act of state violence that BC and Canada would allow drilling under this river when the salmon are spawning. It really raises a question about the gap between Canada’s rhetoric and what it’s actually doing on the ground in terms of financing and enforcing this destruction.


The afterword to my recent book, Current, Climate (2021), starts with two epigraphs. The first is a quote from Chief Dan George, who’s from the Tsleil-Waututh nation: “You and I need the strength that comes from knowing that we are loved. With it we are creative. With it we march tirelessly. With it, and with it alone, we are able to sacrifice ourselves for others” (George 40). The kind of sacrifice I’ve been seeing up there definitely comes from a place of love. There’s no other way you could continue that resistance without that depth of love. And then the second quote is by a 1970s Aboriginal activist group in Queensland, Australia: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” (Watson). As both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, we all have a stake in the health of the environment.


An older poem of mine, “night gift,” which was written years before I spent time in jail for all of this stuff, speaks also to these concerns with community, resistance, and liberation. The poem concludes:


as rivers & oceans fill with carcinogenic wastes from the petroleum-plastic supply chain, the political systems follow, stuffed full of suncorpse & tired old neocolonial ego that refuses to stop growing until it reaches the limits of the planet’s patience. who knows what alliances & monkey wrenches will be enough to stop the greed of the greasy machine? what I do know is the humble migrants who’ve
travelled the ocean have felt its wisdom more deeply than an arrogant elite that doesn’t heed the world’s necessary stories. jail the stories & the storytellers, but they will keep speaking the night, until empire expires, with or without the multitudes alive. in this race may we be ready to move fast, yet steady enough to encompass musicians & lake gatherings, forests & guerrilla gardens, fuelled by a love more immense than the injustices we’ve inherited. we need to live the world that is possible even while we struggle through war. respect living coasts & fluid watersheds, not murderous Imperial borders. in grief & in celebration, in fear & in courage, in anger & in compassion, the night replenishes us so that we may continue to embody her songs. (23)


To close, thinking about the modes of kinship I write towards in my poetry, I want to address the question of law, because Wet’suwet’en, Coast Salish,
and other Indigenous laws predate so-called Canada. We’re beholden to these laws first and foremost, if we’re here. As Lee Maracle taught me so many years ago, if you’re on this land, you’re beholden to these responsibilities and these laws; even if you weren’t taught them, you’re still responsible. I think about that, in terms of a rule of law based in love and based in care, based in a long-term vision for one’s community, versus a rule of law under colonial governments that’s based in fear, based in hierarchy, based in intimidation, that is not about kin-making but about alienating people from the land. We have before us two ways of thinking about kinship and law, and Indigenous law—wherever we are, according to the Indigenous communities there—is something that we need to remind people of and educate ourselves about.


Works Cited

George, Chief Dan. My Heart Soars. Hancock House, 1974.

Watson, Lilla. “A Contribution to Change.” 21-24 Sept. 2004. Uniting Church in Australia Assembly, 2020, uniting.church/lilla-watson-let-us-work-together.

Wong, Rita. Current, Climate. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2021.
—. “night gift.” undercurrent. Nightwood, 2015, p. 23.


Rita Wong lives, writes, and works in unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver) and teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Her books of poetry such as undercurrent, beholden: a poem as long as the river (with Fred Wah and the Columbia River), and perpetual (with artist Cindy Mochizuki) are dedicated to questions of water, ecosystem, and climate justice within commitments to decolonial, Indigenous-led relational ethics.

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