It was all over social media and the news: a pre-dawn raid, organized and committed by RCMP officers, into the Indigenous camps set up to protect and defend the territory of the Wet’suwet’en. Since January 2019, the Indigenous people, their homelands and waterways have been under threat by the encroachment of Coastal GasLink (CGL), which plans to connect fracking operations in Northern B.C. with a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facility in the town of Kitimat. In response to the threat, four Indigenous groups set up camps there, and on February 6, 2020 at 4:30 a.m., heavily militarized RCMP invaded the camp with dogs and assault rifles. Six land defenders were arrested in the raid as people were forcibly removed.
For Indigenous peoples, this event felt traumatically familiar, as pre-dawn raids have been a tool utilized under colonialism for over 500 years in our country’s history of genocide and forced land displacement strategies. Yet, in reaction to this violence, a strong sense of allyship developed amidst the crisis and chaos. Earlier this year, hundreds of supporters stood by the people of Wet’suwet’en. There were mass protests, including railroad blockades, and awareness marches in cities across the country. National and international media coverage highlighted the severity of the crisis and contextualized it within the bigger battle against colonialism. Allies and defenders fought in unity to protect the lands and waterways for future generations, and ultimately the RCMP vowed to leave the area.
Then COVID-19 hit and, understandably, the public’s attention was diverted. But the conflict in Wet’suwet’en is still ongoing and despite their claim the RCMP has still been present. Yet for the past several months the media and non-Indigenous allies have been virtually silent. It’s time to bring our attention back to this very important issue, so we spoke with Jen Wickham, a Cas’yihk house member and the media coordinator for the Wet’suwet’en camp, to find out what’s been happening on the Wet’suwet’en territory since March, and why we all still need to be paying attention.
What’s happening now at Wet’suwet’en?
According to Wickham, the conflict continues to swell between the Indigenous community and CGL as the gas giant illegally forges ahead with pre-construction work on the traditional homelands and territory of the Wet’suwet’en people. Wickham explains that “a camp [for temporary workers] is currently being constructed by CGL in the area without permission or consent received from the Hereditary Chiefs and the people of the traditional territory.” Historically, any decisions regarding this land have gone through the hereditary chief system, as the chiefs themselves have not ceded the 22,000 square kilometres of land that makes up the Wet’suwet’en territory. Under ‘Anuc niwh’it’en (Wet’suwet’en law) all five clans have unanimously opposed all pipeline proposals. CGL, however, refuses to honour the sovereignty of the Chiefs, and is moving ahead despite the protests.
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This is especially troubling considering the impact of camps on the safety and well-being of Indigenous women. As highlighted by Brandi Morin in a May 2020 article for Al Jazeera, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya told the National Inquiry into MMIWG that his research revealed a connection between the influx of transient workers and violence against Indigenous women. In the article, Anaya is quoted as stating, “Over the last several years, I have carried out a study and reported on extractive industries affecting Indigenous peoples. It has become evident through information received within the context of the study that extractive industries many times have different and often disproportionately adverse effects on Indigenous peoples, and particularly on the health conditions of women.” Historically, man camps and extractive industries have been a lethal combination for Indigenous women—add to that the fact that CGL is operating illegally, and the threat increases.
In addition to not having permission from the Hereditary Chiefs, CGL also lacks the required permits to complete their work from the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) in B.C., a neutral agency within the provincial government that they can’t as easily dismiss. According to Wickham, “CGL has not completed the appropriate environmental assessments (assessments which ensure that environmental, economic, social, cultural and health effects are thoroughly looked at before a project begins) through the body of the EAO to receive the tickets to work on the wetlands.” This applies to the entirety of the pipeline project, so although CGL has received overall approval by the EAO, without these permits, and without consent from the Hereditary Chiefs, CGL cannot legally do test drilling—something CGL has planned for September—both within colonial and traditional Indigenous laws. In addition, Wickham explains that “in the colonial legal system the test drilling needs to be approved by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission (BCOGL), yet that approval hasn’t been given yet. However, CGL still plans to do the test drilling in September without the permits and approval by BCOGL, and even with stop-work orders issued by the provincial government in June following a recent failed environmental assessment.”
Why aren’t the Canadian government and RCMP putting a stop to this?
In December 2018, CGL filed judicial reviews through the B.C. Supreme Court for an injunction that would allow the RCMP to clear the area of the Wet’suwet’en where work on the pipeline would begin. Because of this, arrests can be made and camps can be forcibly taken down. By allowing the injunction, the B.C. government acted in violation of the 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court of Canada decision recognizing the unceded territory by the Indigenous peoples of Wet’suwet’en. (Unceded land means that the land was never given to Canada, or the province. It means that traditional processes by the Indigenous peoples of that land overrule colonial laws there.)
It’s important to understand that historically the Canadian government has played an integral role in maintaining practices of colonialism and genocide against Indigenous peoples and their lands in this county, and they continue to play that role today. Where Wet’suwet’en is concerned, even though five of the six band councils in the Wet’suwet’en Nation have signed the agreement for the project with CGL, it is the Hereditary Chiefs who ultimately make the decisions when it comes to the land and the waters in the area. (Band councils are made up of officials elected by those with “Indian status” under the Indian Act, an imposed jurisdiction that many claim is illegitimate. The Hereditary Chiefs, on the other hand, hold an inherited position that pre-dates colonialism.) To reiterate, there has been no free, prior, and informed consent given to CGL by the Hereditary Chiefs, so by leaning on the consent of the band councils and ultimately dismissing the stance of the Hereditary Chiefs (the provincial government has stated that is is working to compromise with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, but nothing has come from their attempts), the Canadian government is continuing to uphold colonialism at the expense of traditional laws.
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The current status of the RCMP involvement at the camps is duplicitous. As noted in a June 29 press release from the Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidmt’en Territory’s Facebook page, “since January of 2019, RCMP have conducted several large-scale militarized assaults on Wet’suwet’en territory.” They publicly stated that they would remove themselves in February 2020, however trail cams show a different story. Wickham says that Indigenous people camped at Wet’suwet’en twice witnessed heavily armed RCMP officers going into the Wos smokehouse in the middle of the night in June. In the June 29 press release, it was stated that “the smokehouse belongs to the Cas Yikh people and is critically located in the headwaters of the Wedzin Kwa river to harvest fish and feed Wet’suwet’en families.” CBC discovered that the RCMP claimed they were members of a Quick Response Team assigned to a nearby detachment to do regular patrols and daily checks of the area. This response to their violent intrusion follows the dangerous and destructive history of the RCMP on the lands of Indigenous peoples, committing acts of forceful and violent entry onto the ceremonial and traditional lands of Wet’suwet’en, further creating a distrustful relationship between all parties.
Wickham says that CGL has shared that they plan to have people working in their unlawful man camps by the end of August—despite the 41 violations against their environmental assessments conducted by the EAO. While CGL stated to the people of Wet’suwet’en that they are currently doing all of the required assessment work and submitting reports to the environmental assessment office and environmental mitigation plans for each territory, Wickham says there is very limited faith from the Indigenous land protectors that they will follow through on their claims based on past experiences. That CGL hasn’t followed the traditional legal systems and processes of the Wet’suwet’en people, nor have they honoured UNDRIP’s Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) and the legal systems of the province, doesn’t bode well.
According to Wickham, various Indigenous clans and house groups are fighting back by launching legal action both within the colonial courts and their own traditional legal systems. Per a press release from April 27, these proceedings “are not public, however, we can expect the success or failure of the ratification process to be announced by the nations within the next few months.”
All Indigenous camps remain in place, although because of COVID the participation of community members is lower. Yet, small groups of people remain in the fight to keep the lands and waterways clean. Their presence is just one of the ways the Wet’suwet’en peoples are pushing back against the continued threat of RCMP and private security, and the destruction of their environment. They are also honouring traditional activities, such as gardening, hide tanning, making and setting fish traps, and birch bark basket-making workshops for general community members. These activities have played a role in the ongoing commitment to land-based practices, and have been instrumental for those in camps to maintain a sense of collectivity.
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How can settler Canadians help?
With the lack of media coverage, it would be natural for anyone outside of the Wet’suwet’en area to assume that things have calmed down, which is why it’s important to make an effort to stay informed. The best way to do this is by accessing first-hand reports provided by front-liners at Wet’suwet’en via yintahaccess.com and the Facebook group Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidimt’en Territory.
The Facebook group is also a good resource for finding out about virtual rallies you can attend. Although no rallies are currently scheduled, there are petitions to the investors of CGL and LNG Canada that can be signed.
Another way non-Indigenous allies can help is by lobbying government representatives of the Bulkley Valley Regional District to address the RCMP and CGL contributions to the spread of COVID-19 in the communities. Allies are also encouraged to write to their local MPs about the violations occurring in Wet’suwet’en: Reiterate the fact that each clan within the Wet’suwet’en Nation has full jurisdiction under their law to control access to their territory, and that this permission has not been granted.
If you are able to contribute financially, there is a GoFundMe set up to help support the Wet’suwet’en land defenders, with all donations supporting the front-liners in the camps and assisting with legal fees.
It is important that as we do our best to support from afar, even—especially—during the pandemic. Supporting the Wet’suwet’en is ultimately an act of protecting the systems that will keep our families, communities and nations alive for as long as possible.