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Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders

Wet'suwet'en rally photo

The Wet'suet'en and the Coastal GasLink pipeline

Can you imagine what it would be like to have a group of people from another place tell you that you cannot speak your language, practice your culture and religion or spirituality, and steal your land, polluting the water and air in the process?

Can you imagine not being able to practice your traditions and use your knowledge that has been handed down orally through stories told by your ancestors? Stories that tell you to take care of and respect the land, animals, fish and water because they are your relatives; that you have a responsibility to take care of the earth for seven generations into the future?

When white settlers came to so-called Canada, this is what Indigenous people experienced. Many are now trying to heal their communities by standing up for their rights, embracing their culture and protecting their land and water. The Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders have been trying to protect their Yintah (land) and their sacred river, Wedzin Kwa, from destruction through construction of the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline. By taking action, the Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous Land Defenders recognize the impacts that extracting and transporting fossil fuels like oil and gas have on the land, water and air, and how this is contributing to the climate crisis.

The following is a synopsis of historical and more recent events concerning the Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders.

Supreme Court of Canada 1997 ruling (Delgamuukw)

The Supreme Court of Canada 1997 ruling recognized that the Indigenous Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan nations had never agreed to give up their ancestral territory (Yintah) in northern British Columbia. The Delgamuukw ruling, as the decision was called, said that the province could not extinguish their rights and recognized the Wet’suwet’en’s historical possession of the land and their oral traditions in identifying title. Given the history of colonialism, the Indian Act, land theft, residential schools and the “Sixties Scoop”, Indigenous leaders said it was a step forward for Indigenous sovereignty.

Coastal GasLink pipeline and the hereditary chiefs

TC Energy started construction of the 670 kilometre fracked gas Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline in 2018, starting near Dawson Creek in northern BC and ending at a liquefaction plant in Kitimat. Its purpose is to supply so-called “natural” gas to several Asian energy companies and is being constructed on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. Wet’suwet’en band councils, which are elected in accordance with the Indian Act, supported TC Energy’s project. However, the hereditary chiefs, who follow their traditional governance rules, oppose it. This is a human rights issue since the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs never gave “free, prior and informed consent” to the pipeline plan. These rights are enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.o, 2015.

Injunctions, Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders and RCMP violence

In December 2018, an injunction was approved to stop the Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders from blocking access to construction camps. A year later, an interlocutory injunction was approved which includes enforcement provisions. Since then, the federal and BC governments have used the injunctions to justify the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) raids that survey, harass, forcibly remove, and arrest the Land Defenders, including hereditary chiefs and matriarchs.

Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders' resistance

In 2020, after the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs delivered an eviction notice to Coastal GasLink and were raided by the RCMP with assault weapons, the Land Defenders asked for nation wide solidarity actions. Indigenous groups and their supporters organized mass demonstrations, sit-ins, and blockades of major railway lines, ports, and city streets across Canada. The Mohawks in Ontario and Quebec, and the Gitxsan in northern BC, mobilized to support the Wet’suwet’en. Indigenous youth in particular emerged at the forefront, demanding that Canada recognize and respect Indigenous rights. Instead of calling themselves “protesters”, many prefer to use the term “Land Defenders”.

Criminalization of the Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders

From 2019 to 2021, in three large-scale police raids, a total of 74 people were arrested and detained, including legal observers and members of the media. In July 2022, the BC Prosecution Service charged 19 Land Defenders with criminal contempt for allegedly disobeying the interlocutory injunction order to stay away from pipeline construction sites. This criminalizes Indigenous people who are trying to protect their Yintah and sacred river, Wedzin Kwa. Since then, five Land Defenders have pleaded guilty due to the constraints placed on their movements. The rest will be tried later this year and could be imprisoned if they are found guilty. (Amnesty International, 1 March 2023)

Since the federal and BC governments have not taken responsibility to consult meaningfully with the Wet’suwet’en and the hereditary chiefs to resolve their concerns over land title after Delgamuukw, it has made the community vulnerable to illegal violations of their rights by pipeline companies and the RCMP. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), has rebuked the federal and BC governments and the RCMP three times for their increased use of force, surveillance and criminalization of the Wet’suwet’en and Secwepemc Land Defenders. (CBC News, 11 May 2022.)

Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, explains that “the issue is this clash of non-constitutional rights of corporations, using the RCMP as their security force, to violently put down Native people who are defending their constitutionally protected rights.” (“Ruin Our Territory – for What?”, The Nation, 5 March 2020), 2015.