Canada: Wet’suwet’en defend land and sovereignty

February 26, 2020
Solidarity rally with Wet'suwet'en struiggle on January 15. Photo:

When completed, the TransCanada Energy Coastal Link Pipeline (TC Energy) will transport natural gas fracked from northeast British Columbia (BC), across Indigenous land, to the town of Kitimat for export.

The 670 kilometre pipeline will cost CAN$6.6 billion and is set to release a “carbon bomb” of 3.5 million tonnes a year of carbon dioxide from the processing plant alone. This is equivalent to the annual carbon emissions from all residential buildings or cars in BC.

To build the pipeline through Indigenous land, TC Energy is required to obtain permission from First Nation Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who hold Aboriginal title to the territory now involved in the dispute.They have refused to give permission.

TC Energy asserts it has permission from the Wet’suwet’en based on benefit agreements signed with local clan leaders to whom they have promised monetary compensation. The benefit agreements allegedly contain confusing language and are not favourable to the Wet’suwet’en, as they are conditional on silencing dissenters and limiting future rights to land.

More importantly, this compensation is coming out of public funds, which are being channelled through the gas company as a corporate subsidy, and are contingent upon support for the pipeline by the Wet’suwet’en. 

By going to local clan leaders for authorisation, the BC government and TC Energy have caused public confusion about who has say over Wet’suwet’en territory. Nevertheless, by law, permission must come from Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who have jurisdiction.

Sovereignty and land rights

For thousands of years, the Wet'suwet'en have lived on 22,000 kilometres of unceded land in the western coastal area of BC. The Wet'suwet'en proved their sovereignty in Canada’s Supreme Court in the Delganuukw-Gisday’wa case in 1997.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial of Discrimination (CERD) recognise the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the Wet’suwet’en people over their land. The ruling structure of the various clans gives hereditary chiefs authority over land use, as they are its legal custodians.

In December, CERD called on Canada to “halt construction … of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline in the traditional and unceded lands of the Wet’suwet’en people… immediately cease forced eviction of … Wet’suwet’en peoples… guarantee that no force will be used against … Wet’suwet’en” and ensure that “the Royal Canadian Mounted Police [RCMP] and associated security and policing services will be withdrawn from their traditional lands”.

CERD also called on Canada to “prohibit the use of lethal weapons, notably by the RCMP, against Indigenous peoples”.

The Federal and provincial governments and the RCMP have overridden the UN Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedure and their own laws protecting the rights of protesters and Indigenous people, citing that law enforcement action is necessary to maintain “the rule of law”.

Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is on a world tour lobbying for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Women and the pipeline

The BC government continues to ignore Canada's National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The inquiry found “substantial evidence” that natural resource projects increase violence against Indigenous women, children and LGBTI individuals.

The inquiry’s final report found that “‘work camps’ or ‘man camps’ associated with the resource extraction industry are implicated in higher rates of violence against Indigenous women — at the camps and in the neighbouring communities”.

“Increased crime levels, including drug and alcohol-related offences, sexual offences, as well as domestic and ‘gang’ violence, have been linked to ‘boom town’ and other resource development contexts.”

The report found there was an urgent need to consider the safety of Indigenous women in all stages of project planning.

Despite these findings, the BC government’s Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) denied the Wet’suwet’en’s request for judicial review and extended TC Energy’s permit to begin construction of the pipeline.

The EAO overlooked TC Energy’s 50 outstanding compliance violations and the inquiry report, which would be considered “new, significant and adverse impacts of the project”.

TC Energy intends to build a 400-person worker camp 13 kilometres from the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre. Workers will use the Morice River bridge, which provides the only access to the centre — a safe haven for Indigenous women victims of violence, abuse and drug addiction.

The “man camp” will be located 66 kilometres from the Highway of Tears, a road notorious for its connection to murdered or missing Indigenous women. The centre was invaded by the RCMP to enforce a court injunction against Indigenous people defending their territory against the pipeline.

The Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, run by the matriarchs of the Wet’suwet’en, displays red dresses as symbols of the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

The RCMP appears to be deploying enormous resources to enforce the court injunction, but not on investigating the murders of Indigenous women, locating missing women or their remains.

Unist’ot’en Healing Centre psychologist and director of clinical services Karla Tait said: “We are a matrilineal culture, so our women are our strength.

“The women make the decisions about the land, because we know our children depend on the land, they inherit our territory after we’re gone and that’s all through the mother’s line. So it really feels like it’s a deep responsibility for us as women to make sure there’s territory intact, there’s a safer future for our children that are coming and that these lands will remain here and remain a sanctuary for our people."

Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement

A heavily-armed RCMP conducted a multi-day raid of the protest camps to remove activists on February 6, after land defenders blocking the pipeline construction evicted construction workers from the territory and established a road blockade, cutting off access to a TC Energy Coastal Link worksite.

The RCMP arbitrarily created a 27 kilometre exclusion zone around the Gidimt’en clan’s protest camp and the Morice River forest service road on Wet’suwet’en land. No one, including journalists, could come within 10 metres of any TC Energy personnel or vehicles. No map of the zone was provided to the public.

BC Civil Liberties Association executive director Harsha Walia said: “There is absolutely no legal precedent, nor established legal authority for such an overboard policing power associated with the enforcement of an injunction.

“The RCMP have given themselves the power to clear more than 60 kilometres of roadway [belonging to] all people: a power which is not granted to them under the enforcement order.

“This is a clear exercise of overboard policing power, with the impact of unlawfully criminalising Indigenous people on their lands and perpetuating the colonial doctrine of terra nullius [empty land].

Gidimt’en clan matriarch and land defender Molly Wickham told Democracy Now! that 60 heavily-armed officers with dogs raided the clan’s camp. The RCMP continue their presence on Wet’suwet’en territory.

Following the raid, solidarity action by Indigenous and non-indigenous groups established blockades across Canada that halted train services.

Mohawks established a blockade on the railway tracks near Belleville, Ontario, which shut down the Canadian National Railway for days, halting travel between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and eastern parts of Canada.

Forty-seven peaceful protesters were arrested throughout the country on February 10. Canada’s minister of transport, Marc Garneau called the blockades illegal, citing the Railway Safety Act.

Despite the arrests, solidarity protests and blockades continue. Climate Justice Toronto tweeted on February 15: "[The] second largest rail classification yard in Canada blockaded.

"Folks have blockaded US-bound Canada National rail tracks in North York in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en!" meaning all trains to Hamilton, London (Ontario), New York and Michigan are now blocked.

The latest blockade of the Canadian National Railway line was erected by a group of 20 people in Edmonton, Alberta, on February 19.

These solidarity actions could be a turning point for Indigenous rights in Canada and for the global climate movement. They have effectively shut down rail freight and commuter travel, leading to global recognition of the repression of the Wet'suwet'en.

Vancouver Island-based Mohawk scholar Gerald Taiaiake Alfred said: "I can remember saying 15, 20 years ago, that if we ever had a development in our movement, where the power of Indigenous nationhood and Indigenous rights could be melded and brought together with the power of young Canadians who are committed to the environment and social justice, it would be revolutionary."

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