Wet’suwet’en Strong: The Ongoing Fight for Indigenous Sovereignty on Wet’suwet’en Land

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This article appears in our upcoming Spring issue of the Earth First! Journal. The authors of this piece are long-term supporters of the Unist’ot’en camp and the continued struggle of the Wet’suwet’en nation to defend their territory against the State and industry.

The majority of this information can be found on the Unist’ot’en Camp Facebook page, the Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidimt’en Territory Facebook page, and the Tsayu Land Defenders Facebook page. Get consent before putting on a fundraiser, then raise some funds, donate online at unistoten.camp/support-us/donate, or skill up and apply to go to the camp! People with backcountry camping and carpentry skills, or people comfortable talking with police while on bridge duty, will be very welcome. A spring construction camp will be held in May on Unist’ot’en territory.

Timeline of Events:

  • Time immemorial Wet’suwet’en people continuously occupy their traditional territories.
  • 1871 British Columbia becomes part of Canada, which claims title to stolen land.
  • 1977 As part of the Gitxan-Carrier Tribal Council, the Wet’suwet’en issued the 1977 Gitxan-Carrier Declaration, asserting their continued Indigenous sovereignty and title to traditional territories.
  • 1987 Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia court case begins as Wet’suwet’en and Gitxan nations file for recognition of rights and title over their traditional territory, with the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruling that aboriginal rights and title were automatically extinguished when settlers arrived on Indigenous territory.
  • 1993 British Columbia Court of Appeals rejects the 1987 decision that aboriginal rights and title have been extinguished.
  • 1997 In Delgamuukw/Gisday’wa vs. The Queen, the Supreme Court of Canada rules that Indigenous rights and title have never been extinguished on Wet’suwet’en and Gitxan territory, after oral histories demonstrate uninterrupted occupation of the land under a hereditary chief and clan system.
  • 2007 The United Nations General Assembly adopts the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which upholds Indigenous rights and title and prohibits the forceful removal of Indigenous people from their territories.
  • 2010 Freda Huson establishes a permanent re-occupation of Unist’ot’en territory.
  • 2015 – 2018 A three-story Healing Centre is constructed on Unist’ot’en territory. Representatives from multiple pipeline projects and the RCMP make numerous attempts to enter the territory. All attempts are denied due to a lack of consent from hereditary chiefs.
  • Nov 24, 2018 Coastal GasLink representatives try to access Unist’ot’en territory.
  • Dec 14, 2018 The Supreme Court of Canada approves an interim injunction for Coastal GasLink to conduct pre-construction activities.
  • Dec 16, 2018 All five clans unanimously agree to support the establishment of the Gidimt’en access point at Kilometer 44.
  • Dec 17, 2019 Coastal GasLink representatives attempt to visit the Unist’ot’en territory to serve the injunction, but are denied road access at the Gidimt’en checkpoint.
  • Dec 21, 2019 In response to the Gidimt’en checkpoint, Justice Marguerite Church amends the existing injunction to criminalize “all blockades south of Houston [BC].”
  • Jan 7, 2019 Militarized police raid the Gidimt’en checkpoint, arresting 14 land defenders and injuring and traumatizing dozens of Indigenous warriors.
  • Jan 10, 2019 Wet’suwet’en chiefs agree to comply with the interim injunction, to avoid the risk of injury or death from a police raid on the Unist’ot’en camp, but reassert that Coastal GasLink does not have consent to build a pipeline.
  • Jan 11, 2019 Police and industry take advantage of cultural traditions during the funeral for a Wet’suwet’en matriarch to invade Unist’ot’en territory.
  • Jan 23, 2019 Coastal GasLink contractors bulldoze a Unist’ot’en trapline and prevent trappers from accessing their territory.
  • Jan 27, 2019 The Unist’ot’en House Group demands that Coastal GasLink Ltd. cease work immediately due to non-compliance with permits and ongoing violations of Canadian and Wet’suwet’en Law.
  • Jan 28, 2019 RCMP protects Coastal GasLink workers as they destroy cultural infrastructure and $10,000 of personal property at the Gidimt’en checkpoint.
  • Feb 13, 2019 While bulldozing a worksite to build a man camp, Coastal GasLink contractors unearth ~3000 year old cultural artifacts.
  • Feb 15, 2019 Archaeologists from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations trespass on Unist’ot’en yintah and steal artifacts from a worksite.
  • Feb 26, 2019 BC Environmental Assessment Office issues a stop work order to CGL in the vicinity of the Unist’ot’en trapline.
  • Feb 2019 Re-establishment of Gidimt’en occupation at Kilometer 44 and establishment of Tsayu trapper camp
  • March 2, 2019 Coastal GasLink security is evicted from Tsayu territory.
  • March 19, 2019 BC Oil and Gas Commission issues a permit amendment allowing CGL to conduct heli logging in sensitive caribou habitat to construct an access road through old growth forests.
  • March 19, 2019 RCMP arrest Tsayu chief Rob Alfred for allegedly violating the injunction and prohibit him from returning to Tsayu territory.
  • May 2019 Construction camps will be held on Unist’ot’en territory.

Background

On Wet’suwet’en land, in northern so-called “British Columbia,” a nation has risen up to defend their territory. The Wet’suwet’en have united to protect their ancestral homeland from ongoing colonial violence at the hands of Coastal GasLink Pipeline (CGL) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

Wet’suwet’en territory is a landscape of snow-capped mountains and massive, glacially carved lakes, which flow to the Pacific down some of the world’s most pristine and abundant salmon streams. The 22,000 square kilometers of Wet’suwet’en territory is divided into five clans and 13 house groups. Each house group holds a distinct territory, and the hereditary chiefs of each house have full jurisdiction to control access and use of their territory. Wet’suwet’en land has never been sold or surrendered, and is still governed under ’Anuc niwh’it’en (Wet’suwet’en law), administered by the Dinï ze’ and Ts’akë ze’ (hereditary chiefs) in an unbroken chain of Indigenous sovereignty that has existed on this land since time immemorial.

While this territory remains unceded, it nevertheless bears the scars of colonialism and resource extraction. Clearcuts cover the mountains amidst dead lodgepole pines, killed by beetle epidemics fueled by climate change. Industry and sexual violence pervade the string of logging towns along Highway 16, known as the “Highway of Tears” for its role in the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

It is here that TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) and its subsidiary Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd. are attempting to build a pipeline—to transport fracked gas from northeast BC to the coast. This pipeline, and an accompanying planned export facility, are part of a $40 billion LNG Canada proposal; the largest infrastructure development project in Canada’s history. All five clans have unanimously opposed all pipeline proposals and have not given consent for CGL to work on their territories—which is their right as provided by Wet’suwet’en law and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).

Since 2010, Freda Huson of the Unist’ot’en House (Gilseyhu Clan) has reoccupied a camp in the direct path of the pipeline corridor, 66 kilometers down a logging road from Houston, BC. As a spokesperson for Chief Knedebeas and a member of the Unist’ot’en, she exercises free, prior, and informed consent to control access to the yintah (traditional territory). This permanent Indigenous re-occupation of unceded Wet’suwet’en land has become known as the Unist’ot’en camp.

The Unist’ot’en camp marks the only access point into their territory. For the safety and preservation of both the land and its inhabitants, a bridge checkpoint is maintained at the camp’s entrance above the river Wedzin Kwah. Under Freda Huson’s supervision, supporters have helped build up the camp’s infrastructure over the last several years to include a traditional pit house, multiple cabins, a bunkhouse, and a three-story Healing Centre.

The Unist’ot’en Camp is not a blockade, a protest, or a demonstration—it is a permanent, non-violent occupation of Unist’ot’en territory, established to protect our homelands from illegal industrial encroachments and to preserve a space for our community to heal from the violence of colonization.” -Freda Huson

Our clan discussed this dream of a healing centre that would be land based, with all of the programming stemming from our teachings and our ancestral ways of wellness that are much more holistic and that recognize the impacts of colonization and of trauma on our youth and our families and communities.” -Dr. Karla Tait

Conflict with Coastal GasLink

On November 20, 2018, CGL representatives attempted to enter Unist’ot’en territory to conduct pre-construction pipeline work. Without consent from the hereditary chiefs, the representatives were turned away at the checkpoint. In clear disregard for Wet’suwet’en law and the UNDRIP, CGL sought an injunction from the Supreme Court of British Columbia to force access to Wet’suwet’en territory.

In the injunction application, CGL specifically targeted Freda Huson and her former partner Dinï ze’ Smogelgem (Warner Naziel) for blocking road access and interfering with pipeline operations:

The injunction application and civil litigation filed by TransCanada [and] Coastal GasLink aims to criminalize Unist’ot’en Camp and forcibly facilitate pipeline construction across unceded Unist’ot’en territory … Instead of naming the Unist’ot’en house group and hereditary chiefs (Dinï ze’ and Ts’akë ze’), who collectively hold title and govern Unist’ot’en territory according to Anuk Nu’at’en (Wet’suwet’en law), these legal actions criminalize individuals who have laboured to protect our territories in an expression of our collective will. TransCanada continues to ignore the jurisdiction and authority of our hereditary chiefs and our feast system of governance, which was recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1997 Deglamuukw-Gisday’wa court case.”

-Unist’ot’en Healing Centre

This injunction seeks to delegitimize Wet’suwet’en sovereignty by individualizing resistance efforts and undercutting traditional governance structure. Colonial entities have long relied on divide-and-conquer tactics to undermine Indigenous resistance and exploit Indigenous lands. CGL’s methods follow a classic pattern: extractive industries using colonial courts and police to force access onto unceded lands, wherein the autonomy of Indigenous rights and title is wholly ignored and trampled by corporate interests.

This violation is especially unlawful in the case of the Wet’suwet’en. In 1997, the historic Supreme Court case Delgamuukw/Gisday’wa vs. The Queen ruled that aboriginal title—based on the traditional clan governance—has never been extinguished on 58,000 square km of Wet’suwet’en and Gitxan lands, encompassing “the right to exclusive use and occupation.” In an area the size of West Virginia, a complex and highly stratified system of hereditary law, established by chiefs in bahlats (feast halls) and upheld across clearly defined territories, continues to be the law of the land. This territory is irrefutably not Canada, nor should it be subject to Canadian laws.

Wet’suwet’en Governance: Hereditary Law vs. Elected Band Councils

Coastal GasLink has attempted to circumvent the consultation process by dangling economic incentives in front of chronically underfunded and underdeveloped First Nation elected band councils. Elected band councils were created by the Canadian state under the Indian Act to manage reserves, but they hold no jurisdiction over the traditional territories, which remain the responsibility of hereditary chiefs. The establishing of band councils represents the State’s attempt to forcibly restructure Indigenous governments. In an empty display of “consultation,” CGL boasts that it has signed project agreements with all 20 First Nations along the pipeline route, including the elected Witset Band Council, despite opposition from hereditary chiefs and grassroots Wet’suwet’en water protectors. In refusing to respect the decision of the hereditary chiefs and instead partnering with the elected band council, CGL has mobilized divisionary tactics to gain leverage and spread confusion; to force this pipeline through despite massive opposition.

Court Battles

On December 13, in Prince George, BC, hereditary chiefs were prohibited from wearing traditional regalia in the courtroom as the Supreme Court granted CGL an interim (temporary) injunction. Citing the potential for significant harm to the company if work was delayed, the judge ruled that pre-construction activity may proceed until a second court hearing could be held. As a 72-hour window was given for the defendants to dismantle their gate over the Wedzin Kwah, land defenders at Unist’ot’en dug in, refusing to capitulate to illegitimate courts and working to uphold Wet’suwet’en law and defend the territory. As the clock counted down, police and industry helicopters circled low over camp, and supporters braced for a militarized raid by the RCMP.

But the expected raid didn’t materialize. In a move that took the RCMP and CGL by surprise, the neighboring Gidimt’en clan erected their own checkpoint on the Cas Yikh House territory, blocking access for police along the only road leading to Unist’ot’en. The establishment of the Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidimt’en territory was announced in the bahlats on December 16, with all chiefs reiterating that the Unist’ot’en were not alone in defending their territory. Whereas Canadian police, intelligence agencies, and extractive industries had long tried to invisibilize Indigenous sovereignty by depicting the Unist’ot’en as a fringe group of “Aboriginal extremists,” the solidarity shown by the Gidimt’en checkpoint clearly demonstrated that the Wet’suwet’en nation stood together in defense of their lands. As CGL scrambled to react to the nation united, and lawyers debated whether the injunction could be applied to the new checkpoint, police enforcement was paralyzed and pipeline work came to a standstill.

Unsurprisingly, the colonial courts found the Gidimt’en checkpoint subject to the same injunction, and a group of industry representatives arrived at the camp to post a copy of the injunction. There, the representatives were met by Molly Wickham of the Cas Yikh House, spokesperson for the Gidimt’en checkpoint, mother, land defender, and founder of the Indigenous Life School. Molly spoke to the flustered representatives in Wet’suwet’en, a powerful gesture of uncompromising sovereignty. Having failed to acquire consent, the representatives were denied access to Gidimt’en territory.

Invasion

On the morning of January 7, 2019, residents of the Gidimt’en checkpoint were confronted by militarized police. Over 40 RCMP vehicles and several paddy wagons packed the snowy logging road on the other side of a bridge entering Gidimt’en territory, cutting off access for press and community members to witness the coming raid. Members of the Aboriginal Police Liaison unit of the RCMP approached the gate first, claiming to seek “peaceful negotiation” with the Gidimt’en land defenders.

When members of the Gidimt’en checkpoint refused to yield access, the RCMP responded with tactical police equipped in military fatigues, body armor, and assault rifles. Police climbed over the gate, indiscriminately injuring land defenders, arresting elders, and throwing people to the icy ground in clear disregard for Indigenous life. Indigenous women held the first line of defense, singing the warrior women’s song, carrying eagle feathers, and laying down tobacco.

As flames and smoke filled the sky, a giant cottonwood tree was felled across the road. The RCMP were unable to advance across the bridge as a land defender dangled from a cantilever, suspended over an icy river in subzero temperatures. Others locked to the axle of a bus parked on the bridge, holding it down atop a layer of snow and ice. As large brush piles were lit aflame, land defenders retreated by snowmobile, dropping trees across the logging road to block the police from reaching Unist’ot’en camp, and causing a three-day delay while the road was cleared.

By the end of the day, 14 people were arrested and dozens more injured, traumatized, and near-hypothermic. Despite the empty rhetoric of reconciliation, Canada had clearly demonstrated it would forcibly remove Indigenous people from their land if they impeded resource extraction. The RCMP moved to occupy the Gidimt’en checkpoint after the eviction, setting up a field command station, burning through the camp’s firewood, eating their food, and refusing to allow Molly and her family to return to their home beyond the checkpoint following her release.

After losing communications with Gidimt’en during the raid, supporters at the Unist’ot’en camp tensely waited for the advancing RCMP. As accounts of police brutality filtered in from traumatized Gidimt’en warriors, the chiefs were concerned that a police siege against Unist’ot’en was looming, accompanied by a serious risk of arrest or injury for Healing Centre residents and supporters. The mood was somber at evening circle as wet bandanas and earplugs were distributed to offer protection against the use of tear gas and flash-bang grenades during a police raid.

Under this threat of police violence, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs reached an agreement with the RCMP to comply with the interim injunction, while still emphatically denying consent for police or industry to access the territory.

While the chiefs have a responsibility to protect the land, they also have a duty to protect our land defenders. Our people faced an incredible risk of injury or death and that is not a risk we are willing to take for an interim injunction. The agreement we made allows Coastal GasLink to temporarily work behind the Unist’ot’en gate. This will continue to be a waste of their time and resources as they will not be building a pipeline in our traditional territory.”

-Unist’ot’en Healing Centre

Violation of Unist’ot’en Territory

On the morning of January 11, while community members in Witset were gathering for the funeral of a Wet’suwet’en matriarch and chief, Sky’ze Misiti’y (Janie Naziel) of the Laksamshu clan, the RCMP were escorting workers to invade Unist’ot’en territory. This move by industry and police represents a consistent assault on Wet’suwet’en families and culture, as it is not the first time industry has chosen to exploit critical family events and mourning times. As Wet’suwet’en funeral customs prohibited members of the Unist’ot’en from drumming or singing, CGL contractors went to work tearing down a gate and toppling a tripod, before pushing into Unist’ot’en territory.

Culturally we’ve been taught that when someone’s grieving and there’s a death, especially with a matriarch, through our traditions they tell us that we can’t conduct business, and we can’t do anything when there’s a death … We’re respecting our traditions because if you conduct business or you keep going on when a family is grieving, a bad omen comes on your family … A matriarch is being buried today, so that’s why we had to do what we’re doing, according to our culture. Our culture is still alive and well and we need to respect our culture.” –Freda Huson

Despite the chief’s agreement with the RCMP, which stated that, “there will not be any RCMP interference with our members regarding access to the territory for the purposes of trapping and/or other traditional practices,” Unist’ot’en trappers discovered a wreckage of their traditional trapline on January 23. CGL contractors, who had claimed to be performing preliminary survey work and who failed to provide notice that they would be working in the area, had bulldozed through a lawful trapline, breaking their agreement and violating the Wildlife Act. Trapping is part of the Healing Centre programming, where residents can return to the land and connect with cultural traditions to heal from the trauma of colonization. Police threatened trappers with arrest if they attempted to visit their traplines, as CGL bulldozers roared in the distance.

Ignoring clear testimony from the Unist’ot’en that traplines and ancestral sites were in the area, and in clear violation of the Heritage Conservation Act, contractors continued to bulldoze an area known as Site 9A to prepare for a man camp. On February 13, two stone tools were recovered from the exposed ground, which were dated at roughly 3,000 years old, demonstrating a longstanding relationship between Wet’suwet’en people and their ancestral territories. Two days after this discovery, inspectors from the Archaeology Branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations trespassed on Unist’ot’en yintah and stole artifacts from the disturbed area.

Yet the RCMP showed no interest in enforcing Wet’suwet’en, Canadian, or international laws violated by CGL, electing instead to blindly protect the company. They prevented Wet’suwet’en people from returning to their territory by establishing new police checkpoints along the logging road, and threatened trappers with arrest. Officers stood by as contractors destroyed cultural structures and stole personal property remaining at the Gidimt’en checkpoint, continued a militaristic occupation of the site, maintained an ambiguous “temporary exclusion zone” to “keep the peace and ensure everyone’s safety,” and allowed industry workers to violate the yintah and destroy culturally-significant sites without interruption.

Even as the BC Environmental Assessment Office found CGL to be non-compliant with pre-construction permits at six inspected locations, failing to complete a required site habitat assessment, and lacking an adequate Archaeological Impact Assessment, the RCMP continued to defend CGL contractors and enforce a blatantly illegal occupation of Wet’suwet’en land.

Tsayu Trappers Camp

Following the raid on the Gidimt’en checkpoint, Chief Na’moks of the Tsayu Clan re-asserted an unequivocal stance that no pipelines will cross into his territory: “This is not over, it is far from over. They have not won … I am Na’moks, my territory is next. They still have to deal with me.” CGL is now scrambling to perform as much construction as possible before the interim injunction expires—constructing new roads through old-growth forests, building new bridges to access the pipeline route, and making rapid headway through Unist’ot’en territory to the border with Tsayu territory.

In response to CGL encroachment on their unceded territory, Tsayu land defenders established a camp on their pristine yintah. This remote area, accessible only by foot, has never had roads or logging cross its borders. The Tsayu camp is placed in a strategic position, which blocks the development of a second man camp and a vital supply route for pipeline construction. Tsayu land defenders have already evicted CGL surveyors who trespassed onto the territory on snowshoes, while police and industry helicopters continue to monitor the remote Tsayu camp.

On March 19, the BC Oil and Gas Commission issued a permit amendment that allows CGL to clear a planned road necessary for pipeline access. While helicopter operations were previously restricted due to the presence of threatened caribou herds, CGL now has until April 29 to conduct hand felling and helicopter logging along a six kilometer stretch, which would link a second man camp, Site 9B, with the pipeline right-of-way.

That same day, the RCMP arrested Tsayu chief Rob Alfred for allegedly violating the interim injunction and prohibited him from returning to the Tsayu yintah. Unfazed by the clear collusion between RCMP and industry, the Tsayu clan refuses to back down and trappers continue to occupy the territory. In the coastal mountains of Tsayu territory, where persistent snowpack and old-growth forests prevent easy access by pipeline workers or police, CGL is under pressure to finish construction before seasonal wildlife closures take effect, which would cause significant delays to the project.

Looking Forward

To date, Coastal GasLink has not undertaken proper consultation or made any agreement with hereditary chiefs. The unanimous opposition of the hereditary chiefs cannot be ignored by CGL, and the fierce solidarity displayed by #ShutDownCanada has been a rowdy reminder that colonial violence against the Wet’suwet’en will be met with highway and port shutdowns, office disruptions, bank occupations, and physical support on the frontlines.

Though the interim injunction remains active until a second court hearing is held at the end of May, the Environmental Assessment Office has directed CGL to “immediately cease activities” in the vicinity of the trapline. Still, CGL “continue[s] to use their court injunction as a legal bludgeon to force their way into the territory while violating permits and protocols,” (Unist’ot’en Camp). Continued Wet’suwet’en opposition and widespread solidarity has left investors worried about the future of the project, with consistent delays and rising costs. On January 29, it was revealed that TransCanada was seeking to sell its majority share of the CGL project.

On May 28, the Supreme Court will hold a second hearing to decide whether to grant CGL an interlocutory or permanent injunction for the construction of the man camp and pipeline, which could escalate industry aggression and police violence. Construction camps will be held on Laksamshu territory in late April , and on Unist’ot’en territory throughout May.

A court date for the 14 Gidimt’en defendants who will be facing criminal charges has been set for April 15th. Meanwhile, members of the Gidimt’en clan have reclaimed their camp at Kilometer 44, rebuilding a new lodge and hosting cultural events to bring Wet’suwet’en people to the territory, including workshops on hide tanning, language classes, and play forts for kids. Even with constant police harassment and industry violations, the Gidimt’en have remained adamant in their defense of their home territory, and grounded in their cultural resurgence and celebration, creating space for Indigenous youth to celebrate their identity and interact with their traditional territory.

Despite millions of dollars spent to surveil and police Wet’suwet’en land protectors, the nation is united in opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline and in defense of their hereditary laws. While pipeline projects across the continent have all faced fierce resistance, the irrefutable sovereignty of the Wet’suwet’en nation, united to uphold ’Anuc niwh’it’en and defend their yintah, may prove to be a death blow to Coastal GasLink and the continued settler project of the Canadian state.

Resources:

Supporter toolkit unistoten.camp/supportertoolkit/

Unist’ot’en facebook facebook.com/unistoten/

Unist’ot’en website unistoten.camp/

Tsayu Land Defenders facebook facebook.com/Tsayu-Land-Defenders-145084489749640/

Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidumt’en Territory facebook facebook.com/wetsuwetenstrong/

Gidimt’en Yintah Access website yintahaccess.com/


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