'Violations of Wet'suwet'en law'

Dalton Walker

The Wet'suwet'en Nation is opposed to Coastal GasLink and asked the company to leave citing traditional laws being broken

A First Nations council that didn’t give a natural gas company approval to build a multi-billion dollar pipeline that would run through its traditional homelands remains on the front lines in stopping its construction.

The Wet’suwet’en Nation are opposed to Coastal GasLink and its $6.6 billion, 416-mile pipeline and asked the gas company to leave their unceded territory citing traditional laws being broken.

In late January, the British Columbia Supreme Court issued an injunction on the gas company’s behalf to proceed with the project. It’s a fluid situation with real-time updates being posted on social media, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police have enforced the injunction near the construction site and at a well-known checkpoint, the Unist’ot’en camp.

The camp checkpoint was set up years ago and has grown in numbers as Coastal GasLink got closer. The camp is on the lone road that has access to the pipeline construction spots.

On its Facebook page, which has more than 85,000 Likes, the Unist’ot’en camp reported multiple arrests and condemned the police action in a statement issued Feb. 8. The camp also has a website that’s updated regularly.

“Unist’ot’en condemns the violations of Wet’suwet’en law, Canadian law, and of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples committed by the (police) on Feb. 6, 7, and 8, 2020 on Gidimt’en Clan territory against camps located at 27, 39, and 44 kilometers on the Morice Forest Service Road,” according to the statement.

The center of the dispute falls on jurisdiction and that the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en was never ceded. For the Wet’suwet’en, the land has always been home and invisible boundaries don’t apply.

One barrier for many First Nations people is to get governments to understand the differences between Canadian law and the laws of Indigenous peoples, according to Karen Drake, Métis, an associate professor at York University’s law school in Toronto. Drake teaches Métis and Anishinaabe law and has watched from afar of what’s happening in Wet’suwet’en territory.

“For many Indigenous people, their Indigenous law is incommensurable with Canadian law,” Drake said. “Currently, the differences are so foundational and so significant that it’s almost impossible to find an actual bridge between them.”

Canada continues to rely on the idea of private property rights based on the Doctrine of Discovery to enforce and justify laws affecting First Nations while ignoring the communal property rights of the many Indigenous population already living on the land before European invaders.

The United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted in 2007 -- Canada eventually participated in that action -- establishing a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world. The declaration free, prior and informed consent by those impacted by development projects.

It’s unclear how many are currently at the camp, which is home to a land-based healing center. The camp is one of at least three established along the road. On Feb. 10, the Facebook page reported that three matriarchs were forcibly removed during a ceremony.

“Our matriarchs were arrested while holding a ceremony to call on our ancestors and to honor missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. We, the Unist’ot’en, know that violence on our land and violence on our women are connected. During ceremony, we hung red dresses to remember the spirits of the murdered women, girls and two spirit people taken from us,” the Feb. 10 statement read.

Coastal GasLink promises millions of dollars in contract opportunities for First Nations and local business in the path of the pipeline. The gas company touts “strong relationships” with Indigenous partners and cites a 2018 agreement with 20 First Nation band councils that gave approval of the pipeline project. The list of bands included five of the six Wet’suwet’en Nation councils.

The camp’s page posted photos of police activity at the gate entrance, a helicopter flying over and a running list of unmarked vehicles and industry vehicles that entered the space.

The wooded-area camp can be difficult to reach because of heavy snow and its secludedness. The camp is along Morice West Forest Service Road, southwest of Houston, British Columbia. Houston is about a 12 hour drive north of Vancouver.

Over the last week, many across Canada held demonstrations in solidarity of Wet’suwet’en and messages of support over social media have poured in. On Feb. 11, Demonstrators blocked the entrance and exits to the British Columbia Parliament Buildings in Victoria in solidarity, according to a CBC report. A rail service was disrupted between Toronto and Montreal by Tyendinaga Mohawk citizens and promised not to end their demonstration until the police leave Wet’suwet’en territory, according to the CBC.

Journalists have been reporting from the Gidimt’en checkpoint and at least one had reported being detained by police. A Ricochet journalist said he was detained for eight hours on Feb. 7. The Canadian Association of Journalists and the Native American journalists Association condemned the police for its action against journalists Jerome Turner. In a news release, NAJA said it stands in solidarity with Ricochet Media and supports the Canadian Association of Journalists.

“Turner wasn’t the only journalist detained by the RCMP last week. A ‘Vice’ freelance reporter and videographer were threatened and detained, put in a police car and driven more than 12 miles to a parking lot in a nearby town and released. These actions by federal Canadian police prevented thorough reporting on the raids on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory and hindered media from documenting police activity,” according to the news release.

Ricochet media has posted photos from the Gidimt’en checkpoint. Photos show a large wooden scaffold with a banner that says “Forever Unceded.” Other photos show uniformed police and at least one police dog on site.

On Jan. 7, 14 people were arrested at the Gidimt’en camp when police enforced the injunction, according to CBC, and the incident led to an agreement between the nation’s hereditary chiefs and police to allow pipeline works to the construction site. The news organization also reported that resolution talks failed on Feb. 4 between the hereditary chiefs and the pipeline company. On the same day, Indigenous youth peacefully occupied the office of Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal in Winnipeg, Manitoba demanding federal action in support of Wet’suwet’en, according to the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde issued a statement on Feb. 7, urging peace and condemning violence against Wet’suwet’en Nation and their supporters. The Assembly of First Nations advocates on the behalf of First Nations citizens.

“The use of force against peaceful people is a violation of human rights and First Nations’ rights,” Bellegarde said. “The RCMP is sworn to uphold Canada’s law, but Canada must respect First Nation laws and Wet’suwet’en laws.” To read the full statement, click here.

The Unist’ot’en camp has provided a tool kit to better explain what’s happening on site. To see the kit, click here. In a 2017 YouTube video that sheds some light on how long the Wet’suwet’en people have been against this pipeline shows what would be lost if the pipeline is built. The video is of the people nad happenings at the camp over the music of First Nation’s A Tribe Called Red’s electronic music sound. The video has 53,000 views.

Indigenous people across Turtle Island continue to advocate against pipelines even as elected officials make them easier to build. The Dakota Access Pipeline protest movement most notably at Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017 elevated the Native voice to a world stage.

In Massachusetts, the federal appeals court sided with the state this month over the Narragansett Indian Tribe in a dispute over a natural gas pipeline. The tribe said the pipeline would go across land with sacred significance. The tribe is in neighboring Rhode Island and the petition was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, according to the Associated Press.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker or email him at dwalker@indiancountrytoday.com

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