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Wet’suwet’en is ‘the same fight’ as Standing Rock

Hereditary chiefs, land defenders and allies help Wet’suwet’en fight pipeline projects and financial institutions

Brandi Morin
Special to Indian Country Today

Award-winning actor and environmentalist Mark Ruffalo is leading a campaign to help save the lands of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations in Northern British Columbia, Canada. After learning of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership and land defenders fight against a liquified natural gas pipeline being constructed in their unceded territories by Coastal Gas Link several months ago, the director and activist felt compelled to stand alongside the Wet’suwet’en.

“It had all the contours of Standing Rock,” said Ruffalo in a Zoom interview with Indian Country Today. He also stood alongside the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in 2014 to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

“It (Standing Rock) was the same fight (as the Wet’suwet’en) and it’s the same fight that’s happening all over the world with Indigenous people standing for our Mother Earth and our clean water and air and our fellow humanity,” he said. “And most importantly, the next seven generations.”

The drill pad site where Coastal Gas Link is preparing to drill under the Wedzin Kwa River which runs just beyond the treeline. (Photo by Brandi Morin, Indian Country Today)

After researching into the financial institutions backing the Coastal Gas Link pipeline project Ruffalo was stunned to discover his bank City National Bank (commonly referred to as the bank of the stars due to its large amount of celebrity clientele) is a subsidiary of Royal Bank of Canada, the main financer of the pipeline.

“And so I went to the banks first and I said, ‘Hey guys, do you realize you’re funding what most of your clients are fighting? And have you taken into account or consideration that we might have a problem with that?” he said.

He requested that Royal Bank of Canada meet with the hereditary chiefs to hear their concerns.

“I said (to Royal Bank), ‘I want you to stop this. And I want you to meet the hereditary chiefs. I want you to hear from their mouths. Look into their eyes, sit across from them and hear what your money is doing to the people that are living on the front lines of this.”

Ruffalo said he hoped the bankers would look past the gains of the “deals” they have with the pipeline company instead of focusing on making profits and consider the impacts.

“And when they heard what's right, when they lose their ignorance, that they’d do the right thing. And I was hoping to see that happen,” he said. “Unfortunately, it did not.”

Following the meeting between the Royal Bank of Canada and hereditary leaders, Ruffalo and fellow activist, musician/composer Alex Ebert rallied more than 65 Hollywood celebrities and Indigenous climate activists to sign a petition asking City National Bank to halt financing of the CGL pipeline. The “No More Dirty Banks” campaign includes A-list Hollywood signatories like Ruffalo, Leonardo Dicaprio, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr. Jane Fonda, Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Meryl Streep, Amy Schumer and Taika Waititi who is Māori.

“We put the letter out and literally I've never had such a positive response by so many people, so immediately, and I've been doing activism for 15 years now. I have never seen the outpouring of support that I've seen on this.”

Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Namoks, of the Tsayu (Beaver Clan), said the support means “the world” to the hereditary chiefs.

Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Namoks stands near the Coastal Gas Link drill pad site near Wedzin Kwa River in January 2022. (Photo by Brandi Morin, Indian Country Today)

“I really can't thank Mark enough. We had an immediate connection,” Namoks said in the same interview of working with Ruffalo. “I know how busy he is, but even with that, he has the time to do it, to be human, put it out there, gain the attention. Not only of his fellow celebrities but also the world, because in that is education. When you educate people, you cannot claim ignorance.”

Royal Canadian Mounted Police have raided Wet’suwet’en resistance camps three times along the pipeline route since 2019. Wielding AK-47 rifles, attack dogs, while utilizing helicopters and sniper personnel, arresting and jailing dozens of land defenders along with journalists. The most recent raid came in November 2021.

“It cannot be a bottom line and we cannot put a for sale, for lease or for rent sign on our people, our chiefs, land, air, or water. That is our right to defend it. You have to realize that we never, ever gave permission. We gave evictions to them. That is trespass,” Namoks said.

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The 417-mile pipeline will cut across more than 8,494 square miles of traditional Wet’suwet’en yintah, or territory. It’s slated to transport fracked natural gas across Northern British Columbia to a liquified natural gas export facility being constructed by LNG Canada near the village of Kitimat and shipped to Asian markets.

Coastal Gas Link has signed agreements with 20 First Nation Indian Act bands along the route, however, the elected leaders only have jurisdiction over reserve lands and not traditional territories. Traditional territories are geographical areas defined by First Nations as the land they and/or their ancestors traditionally occupied and used.

The hereditary chiefs have never given consent for the project to move forward. And it’s the hereditary chiefs who have jurisdiction over their ancestral lands as proven in a landmark 1997 Supreme Court of Canada case involving the neighboring Gitxsan Nation and Wet’suwet’en Nation, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia. The court established that Aboriginal title had not been extinguished there and that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are the rightful holders of title to their unceded territories.

“They call us warriors, but you gotta remember this: the heaviest burden that a true warrior will ever carry is the burden of peace. And we've never asked any of our people or supporters to be violent and look at the violence that comes with us being treated so inhumanely-to be treated like we don't exist. And yet the Supreme court of Canada says we do exist. We're in these battles because we are defending, we're not picking a fight.”

Now, Coastal Gas Link is preparing to drill under the sacred Wedzin Kwa river system that runs through Wet’suwet’en lands, a pure water source that can be drunk from without filtering. Protecting Wedzin Kwa, which is also a critical habitat for salmon, is considered the last stand for those on the frontlines.

“(Right now) they're (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) up there and they're coming into our camps, our home places, 24 hours a day, in the middle of the night. And we know it's only to escort equipment in. Any day they're gonna drill under that river. Not with our permission,” Namoks said.

Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Namoks in his regalia at the Wet’suwet’en Peace and Unity Gathering held in Smithers, British Columbia, in January 2022. (Photo by Brandi Morin, Indian Country Today)

Ruffalo noted his frustration with a lack of action coming from December’s COP26 meeting despite the urgency of the climate crisis. He believes Indigenous peoples are key to saving the world from disaster.

“The Native people right now are a national treasure. They are a climate treasure,” he said. “If you want to monetize or put a value on anything right now, put your money value on them because their wisdom, their relationship, their work, worldview is what we need to save the world and save humanity.”

It was through spending time with the Lakota, Haudenosaunee, and other Indigenous nations and participating in ceremonies such as sweat lodges in which Ruffalo said he was transformed. Learning from Indigenous peoples on how to combat the climate crisis keeps him grounded, he said. His newfound relationship with the Wet’suwet’en has “reawakened” his passion for this work.

“The (Native) people taught me so beautifully and it’s where I gained so much of my heart for this work. That we're in relationship to everything and what we do to the world we're doing to ourselves. That's what I've been reminded of every moment that I've been spending with them. And I appreciate it so much,” he said. “It so deeply moves me because it's so easy to forget it. The world tells us every day to forget that, to forget our connectedness.”

There isn’t much time left to save the Wet’suwet’en yintah, however, Namoks said he and fellow hereditary chiefs, land defenders and allies will continue to stand to save it. For the Wet’suwet’en, the land is embedded into who they are, Namoks said. When the earth is threatened, it threatens all of humanity.

The Wedzin Kwa River in unceded Wet’suwet’en territories is a pure and sacred water system. Coastal Gas Link plans to drill under Wedzin Kwa this spring. (Photo by Brandi Morin, Indian Country Today)
Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Namoks overlooks a canyon near his home community of Hagwilget First Nation in Northern British Columbia. (Photo by Brandi Morin, Indian Country Today)

“We're actually the answer when you're protecting clean water, clean air for everybody, and we're in a climate crisis. We didn't bring on this crisis, but we're more than willing to put our lives on the land to assist. To not only slowing it down but hopefully eradicating it,” Namoks said. “The more violent they (Coastal Gas Link and police) are, the more bullish they are, the weaker they are. They don't have the strength of us. They don't have our heart; they don't have our soul and they definitely are not thinking thousands of years in the future.”

Ruffalo said most battles to protect the environment happen on Indigenous land and believes it’s crucial to align with Indigenous peoples due to their in-depth traditional knowledge systems that haven’t been corrupted by western ideology.

“Their (Indigenous peoples) priorities have never been perverted by capitalism. Their priorities have never been perverted by consumerism. And their hearts are still deeply intact and the relationships to each other and the world and the water and the air and the animals are still intact and working with them. That’s what gives us meaning, that’s what makes this (work) bearable,” Ruffalo said. “These fights are essential for our humanity.”

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