An escalating protest movement has brought international attention to the fight of Wet’suwet’en First Nation hereditary chiefs and land defenders against a natural gas pipeline that would cross through their traditional territory in northern British Columbia.
While the 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline has been disputed for years, tensions have soared since the RCMP began enforcing a BC Supreme Court injunction to remove the Wet’suwet’en blockades earlier this month. On February 10, a convoy of armed RCMP broke apart a barricade painted with the word “reconciliation” to arrest Unist’ot’en matriarchs – one of five clans within the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
The response across Canada has been swift and unprecedented. Just hours after the first RCMP assault, Tyendinaga Mohawks blockaded railway tracks near Belleville, Ontario. That was soon followed by several other blockades across the country, resulting in Canada’s longest railway shutdown.
“At no point did I feel fear because we all recognized that what we were doing was the right thing to do,” recalled Karla Tait, one of seven people arrested that day including her mother Brenda Michell and aunt Freda Huson, who are both hereditary chiefs. “We needed to be present to call out to the land and give it a voice.”
Tait described her month out on the land as an intense time, away from her young daughter and awaiting a police intervention. It was also a unifying experience filled with ceremony and deep connection to the land. When the RCMP closed in, they were singing songs around their sacred fire during the third day of ceremony.
“Our ancestors helped us that day we faced the RCMP to keep our ceremony strong,” Tait told the Nation. “We called on our ancestors and those spirits of women who have been lost across Canada to the resource extraction industries that bring in these kinds of camps.”
Red dresses gifted to Unist’ot’en women have fluttered around the protest camp in the months since they learned an industrial worker camp for 450 men was planned on their territory just 12 kilometres from their healing centre. The link between these “man camps” and gendered violence is well documented – the nearby Fort St. James area experienced a 38% increase in reported sexual assaults in the first year of a recent industrial project.
“They’ve come to our unarmed land defenders with such violence, with militarized rifles, canine units, helicopters,” lamented Tait. “It’s a pretty sad indication of the failure today of British Columbia and Canada to respect us and the emptiness of their commitments to reconciliation.”
BC was the first province to pass the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into law last November, which states Indigenous people should have “free, prior and informed consent” on such projects. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recently called on Canada to immediately suspend work on the pipeline until this consent is granted.
“[This] is what happens when you don’t listen to people or when you try to go ahead and develop a project without getting their consent,” commented Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum when asked about the protests.
While opponents of the blockades and demonstrations have repeatedly emphasized the “rule of law,” these appeals generally overlook the greater complexities of Indigenous law. Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs were plaintiffs in the landmark 1997 Delgamuukw Aboriginal title case, which provided exhaustive evidence of their legal authority over their traditional territories.
“One thing that came out of Delgamuukw was the affirmation that the province on its own could not extinguish the title of Indigenous people and the Wet’suwet’en had never ceded or surrendered their title,” said lawyer Kate Gunn, who represents the Unist’ot’en. “As part of that decision, the Court said to the Crown even if there isn’t technically a legal duty [to recognize title] there certainly is a moral one.”
Although elected band councils along the pipeline route signed agreements with Coastal GasLink, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs never surrendered title to their vast 22,000-square-kilometre traditional area that lies beyond the reserves. Unist’ot’en chiefs have been actively reoccupying and revitalizing this territory over the past decade, including an expanding range of cultural activities at the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre.
“There were suggestions for alternate pipeline routes that wouldn’t impact the pristine portions of Wet’suwet’en territory as significantly as the current route does,” said Tait. “It’s really the only portion of our land that can sustain the land-based programming that we are delivering out there.”
The conflict’s deeper issues of Indigenous land rights, sovereignty and environmental sustainability have galvanized groups across the country. Some are calling the growing solidarity movement a turning point in Indigenous peoples’ empowerment.
“We can’t sleep with what’s happening out in BC,” said Paul Dixon, who organized a protest in Waswanipi on February 15. “All our protests should synchronize right across the continent, just like we did with the residential school case. Stick together – that’s the only way we’re going to survive and make this country wake up.”
Some Mohawk demonstrators said they are returning the support shown by BC First Nations during the 1990 Oka crisis. That standoff has been evoked by those advocating for cautious intervention amidst the waves of dissent disrupting the country and pressures from both sides continuing to escalate.
“That nation-to-nation dialogue is missing,” added Gunn. “Also, a commitment to recognizing that title in respect to Indigenous laws. If it’s not resolved now, we know this is going to come up again and again.”
As governments call emergency meetings and new demonstrations continue to spring up, the Wet’suwet’en remain committed to protecting their land. Tait is particularly inspired by the emboldened youth movement as it is their future that land defenders are fighting for.
“I know people are putting themselves on the line to stand with us,” said Tait. “I feel such a deep sense of gratitude, hope and unity in these stances.”