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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Protests erupt in support of Wet’suwet’en land defenders

BY Ben Powless Dec 22, 2021

Responding to a 2019 British Columbia Supreme Court injunction, RCMP officers have arrested over 30 Wet’suwet’en community members, supporters and even journalists in BC in the past few weeks. This action has led to protests across the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en and their efforts to block a fossil-fuel pipeline from entering their territory. 

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and community members first began to block access to their territory in 2019, which led to the initial court order. They say the $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline, proposed by TC Energy, threatens to harm their traditional lands and the salmon populations, and had issued an eviction notice to the company in January 2020.

“All Wet’suwet’en clans have rejected the Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline because this is our home,” spokesperson Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham) said in a statement posted on the website of the Gidimt’en Checkpoint, the group controlling access to the territory. “Our medicines, our berries, our food, the animals, our water, our culture are all here since time immemorial. We are obligated to protect our ways of life for our babies unborn.”

On November 19, the RCMP arrested 15 people at a place called Coyote Camp, where Wet’suwet’en members had set up a small hut and camp to stop access to the lands. Two journalists were also arrested. 

A video by journalist Michael Toledano shows the RCMP officers approach the hut with firearms, a police dog, and using a chainsaw to break down the door, before arresting those inside.

Tom Engel of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association told the Toronto Star the use of force seemed “unnecessary” and “excessive”. “You combine the canine, you combine all these police officers and then you combine the guns being pointed and the way the [emergency response team] is dressed,” said Engel. “This is all a show of force and therefore it’s a use of force.”

In Montreal, news of the arrests sparked a November 27 protest organized by the Convergence des luttes anticapitalistes that drew hundreds to the RCMP’s Quebec headquarters, where protesters decried what they called racism by the police organization. 

The rally began with drums by Marlene Hale, a Wet’suwet’en community member now living and studying in Montreal. From there, it continued downtown until the police declared the protest illegal, firing tear gas and arresting four people. 

Hale was angry because her brother and his wife were among the ones arrested. “There’s absolutely no respect from the RCMP or anyone dealing with Indigenous peoples today,” she told the Nation

Hale has been active in anti-pipeline protests since a 2019 rally in support of the Wet’suwet’en. She showed up with her drum, introduced herself as being a community member, and she’s been doing it ever since, keeping in touch with her family back home regularly. 

Her brother, a carpenter, was helping to build the cabin for Wickham, while his wife was a cook. Hale says the RCMP blocked them from getting medication when she began experiencing heart issues, and she eventually had to be taken out of the area by ambulance.

Now, Hale is pushing for divestment from fossil fuels at McGill University, speaking out against fossil-fuel expansion and old growth forest destruction across BC. She points to the fact that McGill has $6 millions invested in TC Energy. 

“[Liquefied natural gas] is going to be a big disaster the way the climate is going today,” she said, pointing to the recent wildfires and floods across BC. “They’re poisoning the air and contaminating the water and soil and imperiling lives already imperiled by the pandemic.

“We have to act now to end fossil fuels and subsidies, asking the government to put lives and livelihoods before corporate profits,” Hale said. “We’re fighting this from all angles. Where the hereditary chiefs from Wet’suwet’en have spoken, it’s in our cultural ways – we’re not going to give up.”

Coastal GasLink signed deals with 20 First Nations band councils along the proposed 670-km route, including the Wet’suwet’en band council, but the hereditary chiefs claim their traditional territory is their responsibility. 

“It is Cas Yikh territory. That means we’re the stewards,” Chief Woos, a hereditary chief, told CBC News. “We’re the ones that make decisions as to who can go on our territory. And it’s not up to [Coastal GasLink]. It’s not up to a court system to decide that. It’s not up to them.”

In response to the arrest of two journalists, Canada’s Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino stated on Twitter that journalists “must be able to work free from threats, intimidation, or arbitrary state action. The role of the RCMP is to uphold the law, ensure public safety and respect the rights of Canadians, including journalists.”

The 5,000-worker project is now half-complete, as the company seeks access to Wet’suwet’en land to drill under the Wedzin Kwa River to build a tunnel for its pipeline. The pipeline seeks to connect natural gas fracking operations in northeastern BC with a newly constructed, $40 billion liquefied natural gas terminal in Kitimat, on the coast, where it could be shipped to buyers abroad. TC Energy has said that the pipeline could eventually be used to transport bitumen, likely from tar-sands operations in Alberta.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.