If you’ve been online or watched the news over the past few days, it’s impossible that you haven’t heard about the conflict on Wet’suwet’en territory. On February 6, in the early hours of the morning, RCMP officials outside of Houston, B.C., conducted a pre-dawn raid on one of three camps set up on the territory. These camps are occupied by Indigenous land defenders who are blocking construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in Northern B.C. Since the initial raid, the RCMP have reportedly arrested 28 unarmed people, with officers reportedly even going so far as to drag a naked woman out of her vehicle.
It’s important that Canadians pay attention to what’s happening in Northern B.C. But if you’re anything like us, you probably have a few questions about what exactly is happening, why it’s happening and why it’s so problematic. Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Wet’suwet’en territory?
Wet’suwet’en territory is a large traditional territory about 300 kilometres west of Prince George, in Northern British Columbia, that is occupied by members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, which comprises five clans. According to the Vancouver Sun, the territory is about 22,000 square kilometres. The nation is unceded territory, meaning it is not covered by treaty, and according to lawyer Dr. Pamela D. Palmater, the Wet’suwet’en people have been living on and governing those lands under their laws for generations. “[They’ve decided] through their system of hereditary governance and talking to the people that they don’t want any pipelines or any projects on their territory that could possibly contaminate water or the land or make people sick,” she says. “So they made that decision, [and] they’ve been successful in keeping other pipeline projects out of their territory.” That is until now.
So, what’s happening on Wet’suwet’en territory?
Since at least the end of 2018, there has been a back and forth between the federal government and the people of the Wet’suwet’en nation over access to their territory for the purpose of building a pipeline. The natural-gas pipeline, known as the Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project (more on that later), would run through the territory.
In October 2018, B.C. Premier John Horgan announced provincial support for the pipeline project, likening it to the moon landing for the province. In response, members of the Wet’suwet’en nation have been standing their ground at checkpoints and blockades along the Morice West Forest Service Road—a throughway in their territory—in order to protect their land from oil companies trying to access it. This initially came to a head in January 2019, when RCMP advanced on a blockade set up in Unist’ot’en territory (which is part of Wet’suwet’en territory) after a December 2018 court injunction was granted in favour of Coastal GasLink, ordering protesters to remove the blockade.
But on December 31, 2019, the dispute heated up once again, when the B.C. Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an expanded injunction, allowing them to access the land and remove anyone in their way. In response, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs issued the company an eviction notice in early January, saying the company was violating traditional Wet’suwet’en laws.
As well as the individuals stationed at checkpoints and blockades along the Morice West Forest Service Road, there have been reports of felled trees along the route. (The RCMP has launched an investigation into this.)
And what does this have to do with a pipeline?
At the heart of this conflict is the decision by the provincial government to support the construction of a 670-kilometre-long Coastal GasLink pipeline. At a cost of $6.6 billion, the pipeline would run from Dawson Creek to just outside Kitimat, transporting natural gas that would then be exported.
Per CBC, the natural-gas pipeline would be the largest private-sector investment in Canadian history—but it would also cut the Wet’suwet’en territory in half. While Coastal GasLink has been consulting with Indigenous communities since 2012 on the project, and the pipeline was approved by 20 First Nations band councils (including five of the six councils in the Wet’suwet’en nation), the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs claim that band councils are only responsible for the territory within their individual reserves (meaning they have no say over what happens on the greater Wet’suwet’en territory).
The hereditary chiefs say that they never consented to the pipeline and that a project like this will jeopardize the area’s natural resources and restrict access to their territory; and land defenders say that the Coastal GasLink project specifically poses a risk to the land, the water and their way of life.
In a statement released on Thursday, they wrote: “The Dinï ze’ and Ts’akë ze’ [the hereditary chiefs] continue to resist colonial and gendered violence against Wet’suwet’en people, and to protect Wet’suwet’en lands for future generations.”
In many ways it’s a discord between traditional and democratic governance. It’s important to note that hereditary chiefs—who are the leaders of the nation’s governance system in place before the imposition of the Indian Act—inherit their roles through the matrilineal line. They can also be appointed.
On the other hand, band leaders are elected every two years, and while these leaders are elected by people within their community, they’re accountable to the federal government, which can be a point of contention for some Indigenous people. As Bob Joseph, the founder of Indigenous Corporate Training, a company that helps companies and organizations work better with First Nations, told CBC in a January 2019 article: “The federal government thought the way communities were governing themselves was backwards. [The implementation of band councils] was a direct imposition on already self-governing Indigenous communities.”
So the government consulted with and was given permission by elected band leaders but not hereditary leaders. Which was probably Coastal GasLink’s intention. “I’m told by the Wet’suwet’en that both the hereditary chiefs and the elected band councils have worked in unity [in the past],” says Palmater. “The federal and provincial governments and corporations always try to undermine whatever operating system is saying no.”
What do the RCMP have to do with it?
On February 6, after claiming to have held off on following the injunction orders for as long as possible in order to resolve the dispute peacefully, the RCMP started clearing land defenders from Wet’suwet’en territory, arresting at least 28 people (as of publication time) from various blockades along the road (including Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chief Freda Huson).
Arrest totals from RCMP/CGL invasion on unceded Wet’suwet’en territories:
6 arrests @ 39km, Feb 6 (released w/ no charges)
4 arrests @ 44km, Feb 7 (court date Mon, Smithers)
11 arrests @ 27km, Feb 8 (inc. Legal Observers)
— Unist’ot’en Camp (@UnistotenCamp) February 9, 2020
It’s a move that people online and across Canada are not happy about. And neither is Palmater. The lawyer, who is a Mi’kmaw citizen and specializes in the areas of Indigenous law, politics and governance, classifies the RCMP’s actions as unlawful, specifically because they’re not living up to their job description—which is to be neutral.
“In theory, [the RCMP] are supposed to be neutral enforcers of several laws in this country,” says Palmater. This includes First Nation laws, which are protected under section 35 of the constitution. “So the RCMP is supposed to keep order and peace,” she continues. “But what they are not supposed to do is act as a security force, a sheriff or any kind of eviction marshall for private corporations.”
Which is kind of what they’re doing, she says—because neither the provincial nor the federal government has asked the RCMP to go in and remove land defenders. “The people actually live there,” Palmater emphasizes. “This isn’t a protest camp—this is [where] people live. And so the RCMP are acting as a private security force for Coastal GasLink pipeline.” And if this is the case, Palmater says that their actions are unlawful because they breach Aboriginal rights—specifically, Aboriginal title records (which Palmater says are protected in the constitution) and their core human rights, which protect them from being arbitrarily detained. In addition, Palmater says, these actions violate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People to Free Prior and Informed Consent, which posits that Indigenous people will never be removed from their lands if they have the right to govern them.
“The RCMP has something that’s called discretion,” Palmater says. “They can look at a situation and say ‘Well, this is really a private interest between a corporation and this First Nations group with constitutionally protected rights. We’re going to stand down and allow them to work out this issue through the courts or otherwise. And then when the provincial or federal governments ask us to intervene, if we need to, we will.’ But instead they always jump to enforce court judgements.”
If the roles were reversed, Palmater says, Indigenous people and their interests probably wouldn’t be treated with the same approach (if Canada’s abhorrent history when it comes to the treatment of Indigenous people is any indication). “I could set up a private corporation and try to sue people, [but] I would never be able to call the RCMP. But the extractive industry has a very inappropriate relationship with the RCMP,” she continues. “So the RCMP monitors First Nations as potential threats to national security, [with a] direct information flow back and forth between the extractive industry and the RCMP. [But] no such information flow goes back and forth between us—the ones that have the constitutional rights—and the RCMP to see if the extractive industry is going to harm us.”
And we should be concerned about how they’re treating the media, too
And while the RCMP’s treatment of Indigenous peoples on their own land is questionable, equally questionable is their conduct towards the media. Since the February 6 raid, numerous journalists have reported being turned away from Wet’suwet’en territory and threatened with arrest for trying to report on the situation.
— Jesse Winter (@jwints) February 6, 2020
“We have been, for the last four years, railing about Donald Trump‘s interference with the right of the media to report [in the United States], and we have this happening right here,” says Palmater. “Journalists being arrested and arbitrarily detained, transported out of the territory and not allowed to report.”
PRESS RELEASE: Journalist Jerome Turner’s detention by the RCMP yesterday is a serious infringement of press freedom, and we hope it will be covered widely to prevent future such abuses. Particularly in the case of two journalists still at #Unistoten. #bcpoli #cdnpoli #Wetsuweten pic.twitter.com/yzv4Efn0fc
— Ricochet (@ricochet_en) February 8, 2020
“No one questions the right of the media to report on what’s happening in the government or on the ground or in the public,” adds Palmater. “That’s just a fundamental right, [and] it’s unbelievable that this could happen in this country.”
Palmater says that in prohibiting journalists from reporting—or at least limiting their access—Canada is rapidly assuming the characteristics of an authoritarian police state that acts above the law. “[This is] one of the most significant things that’s ever happened,” she continues. “And I’m not just saying that because this is another RCMP invasion of native territory—that’s happened many times. But for the RCMP to block the media is an attack on our charter. The most fundamental basis of a democratic country is access to open media.”
What has the response been across the country?
In large part thanks to Twitter, people across the country and globally have been speaking out and showing solidarity with the people of the Wet’suwet’en nation. Across the country, blockades and sit-ins have popped up in support of the Northern B.C. territory, with protestors blocking railway lines and sitting in legislature.
— Harrison Johnston (@Harrison_RJ99) February 7, 2020
Internationally, Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has directly called out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his hypocrisy on climate change. (Per some reports, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs asked for a meeting with Trudeau. He allegedly declined.)
In a statement to FLARE about these reports, the office of the Prime Minister said: “Our government is committed to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership. This project went through a provincial review, and BC has taken many steps to work together towards a solution. We encourage all the parties to continue that important work.”
”If an alcoholic assured you he was taking his condition very seriously, but also laying in a 40-year store of bourbon, you’d be entitled to doubt his sincerity.” By @billmckibben https://t.co/DXLm4mA2Gt
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) February 5, 2020
And on February 8, Thunberg shared a photo of an occupation outside the B.C. legislature, tweeting: “Indigenous rights = Climate Justice #WetsuwetenStrong.”
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) February 8, 2020
So why should we be paying attention to what’s happening on Wet’suwet’en territory?
Just because the standoff isn’t happening in our own backyards doesn’t mean we can sit back and not worry about it. “I think it’s important [that Canadians pay attention] because you’ve got a scenario where Canada’s been found guilty of genocide by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” says Palmater. “You’ve also had the United Nations committee for the elimination of racial discrimination—a human rights treaty body which Canada is bound by—plead with Canada, ‘Stop this, withdraw the RCMP, withdraw the weapons, ensure there’s no violence and work on a process where you can sit down and negotiate this.’ Canadians should know that the world is looking at Canada and saying ‘What you’re doing is wrong. It’s a breach of human rights and Indigenous rights.’”
And, the lawyer continues, almost more importantly, all Canadians should care, because it could be any of us next. “If Canada will do this for a corporation now with Native people, they can and will do it when extraction is required in one of the other sleepy towns.”
We should be especially concerned about how the RCMP is disallowing the media from reporting on what’s going on in Wet’suwet’en territory. “That should affect all Canadians,” says Palmater, “because what’s going to happen now when they have an issue that they want to bring forward or have a protest on? It could be children’s rights, it could be workers’ rights, it could be climate change, it could be anything—and they can be violently arrested and the media won’t be allowed to report on it.”
“[It] affects all Canadians to have a country that’s sliding into authoritarianism and out of democracy, because this whole country was built on democracy.”
[FLARE reached out to British Columbia’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation for comment but has not heard back as of time of publication.]