The Wet'suwet'en in battle over B.C.'s gas-pipeline


Map of the site of protests near the Morice River and of the proposed Coastal GasLinks pipeline.

On Monday, January 7, RCMP broke down a protest checkpoint on the traditional territory of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation and arrested 14 protestors. Around 9am the RCMP erected a road block and had turned away media and members of the public citing 'public safety issues'.

Two checkpoint camps had been set up along the route of a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through the territory of Wet'suwet'en First Nation located in northern British Columbia.

According to APTN, the Mounties were enforcing a Dec. 14 court injunction giving Coastal GasLink, a subsidiary of TransCanada Corp., access to the road where Wet'suwet'en people opposed to the pipeline had erected a checkpoint. The second checkpoint - Unist'ot'en, built in 2010 and further down the road, are said to be on "high alert" for similar RCMP actions to enforce the injunction.

The Wet'suwet'en's elected band council had approved of the pipeline, but the checkpoints are backed by the hereditary leaders of the Wet'suwet'en's five clans. The hereditary leaders are opposed to the pipeline, saying it could damage the watershed and wildlife.

In December 2018, a B.C. Supreme Court ruling gave the builders of the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline an injunction so they could use the road unimpeded. The Unist'ot'en camp warned that any attempts to remove them by force would be "an act of war."

The move was denounced by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, whose president, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, called out the Canadian and B.C. governments for their past commitments to reconciliation with First Nations.

The $6.2-billion pipeline is being built by CoastalGasLink, a subsidiary of TransCanada Corp., and would ship natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a coastal terminal in Kitimat, B.C. It is part of a $40-billion LNG project announced by the B.C. and federal governments last fall. Its route goes about a kilometre south of the Unist'ot'en camp.

Coastal GasLink received its environmental certification for the pipeline in 2014, and TransCanada has signed project agreements with 20 First Nations groups along the route. But in order to do pre-construction work, TransCanada says its only access route is the bridge over the Morice River, which is the area where the two Wet'suwet'en First Nation checkpoints are.

Disagreement over the pipeline hinges on a key Supreme Court of Canada ruling from 1997, the Delgamuukw decision, which upheld Indigenous peoples' claims to lands that were never ceded by treaty. B.C. has only a handful of treaties, and most of the province is unceded territory subject to various unresolved land claims. In the case of Gidimt'en, the RCMP issued a statement ahead of the Jan. 7 arrests arguing that "aboriginal title to this land and which Indigenous nation holds it, has not been determined," and a trial is needed to settle the question.

The dispute also heightens the political differences within the Wet'suwet'en nation. In B.C., disagreements are common between elected leaders (who oversee on-reserve matters) and hereditary leaders (who claim jurisdiction over traditional territory) much like the difference between elected leaders and the traditional leaders, Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, in Akwesasne over the Tsi:karístsisere/Dundee Land Claim.

According to APTN, the hereditary chiefs, for their part, say they will continue to oppose the pipeline, though any attempts to confront TransCanada's workers may lead to more arrests in the area. TransCanada has said it is not asking for the camp at the bridge to be dismantled, only for access to its pipeline right of way.

In a Facebook post, the Wet'suwet'en stated, "Wet'suwet'en territory is under siege by RCMP tactical forces, who are working with TransCanada to force a pipeline through our territory. Yesterday Gitdumt'en people and supporters were forcibly removed from our homelands for upholding our Wet'suwet'en laws. Militarized police confronted unarmed Indigenous people with assault and sniper rifles and made 14 arrests. As of now, Gitdumt'en Clan spokesperson Molly Wickham remains in state custody along with several others. We have never signed treaties with Canada or given up our rights and title to these lands. Canada is violating Anuk Nu'at'en (Wet'suwet'en law), its own colonial laws, and UNDRIP. The violent separation of our people and our lands is no different today than it was 150 years ago. We fear for our neighbours at Unist'ot'en Camp who now face a similar prospect of state violence.

As of Tuesday, all Wet'suwet'en protestors who were arrested, have been released.


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