BC’s natural gas pipeline and the Wet’suwet’en Territory
Jordan Johnston, Contributor
On Monday, January 7th, the Wet’suwet’en territory was confronted by the RCMP near the Gidimt’en camp checkpoint, which led to multiple arrests, in an effort to enforce a court injunction to allow Coastal GasLink pipeline workers access to a road near Houston, British Columbia. The news coverage following the confrontation has been varied and subsequently, widely shared throughout social media. The following is an effort to break down key terms, understandings, and Canada-wide protests while outlining a chronological account of what has taken place so far, as well as the anticipated actions to follow.
The Wet’suwet’en First Nation currently occupy the forefront of pipeline struggles within Canada in their demand for the recognition and upholding of their territorial rights. Wet’suwet’en First Nation, led by Hereditary Chiefs, is located in British Columbia’s northwestern Central Interior. The hereditary authority and governance of the Wet’suwet’en, passed down through generations, is inextricably rooted within a relationship, responsibility, and connection to the land. The Wet’suwet’en have established two camps, Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en, with fortified checkpoints protesting the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in a determined effort to protect and steward their land. Prior to the arrests, both Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en denied Coastal GasLink workers access without obtained consent from the Hereditary Chiefs. The tenacious resistance of the Wet’suwet’en speaks volumes to their privileging of the sustainable management of their territory’s environmental resources and emphasizes that the cultural continuity of the Wet’suwet’en people is bound up in their relationship with their land.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline project is a subsidiary of TransCanada Corporation. The Coastal GasLink pipeline is intended to transport natural gas from northeastern British Columbia to the coast, where the $40 billion LNG Canada facility is currently under construction in Kitimat, B.C. While TransCanada states it acquired the necessary signed agreements with all First Nations occupying the proposed route, some Hereditary Chiefs argue that said agreements are not applicable to the traditional territories. In fact, the agreement came from the Nation’s elected band councils; however, as a hereditary governance system, the decision is ultimately in the hands of the Hereditary Chiefs that represent the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who have vocalized their disapproval of the pipeline. Notably, Coastal GasLink refers to the camps, Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en, established along the proposed route of the pipeline as “blockades,” whereas the Gidimt’en group explains the camps are checkpoints that are accessible, providing consent from Hereditary Chiefs has been given.
In December, an issued injunction called for the cessation of preventative action against Coastal GasLink’s access to the area in order for the company to begin pre-construction activities. Upon hearing the news, the camp members of the checkpoints anticipated the RCMP’s arrival. On Monday, January 7th, the RCMP officers of the Division Liaison Team spoke with Gidimt’en camp members concerning the removal of the checkpoint. Despite the injunction to remove the fortified checkpoint, the members of the Gidimt’en camp upheld their checkpoint and barred access to the pipeline company workers, as the workers lacked the necessary consent to enter from the Hereditary Chiefs. This talk, which occurred at 11 a.m., was followed by the RCMP’s forced entering of the fortified area at 3 p.m. when they broke down a gate at the checkpoint and engaged in a standoff with the Gidimt’en camp and the anti-pipeline protestors. As per the RCMP news release, the 14-people arrested are currently being processed. The RCMP stated that the arrests were determined by an unlikely resolution with the camp members after speaking to them. The RCMP created a “temporary exclusion zone” which permitted access solely to members of the enforcement team. The primary intentions of the temporary exclusion zone being privacy and safety for both the public and the media. The RCMP denied reports of military presence, as well as accusations of jammed communications preventing public access to information concerning Monday’s events. After an incredibly tense few days on the rural forest-service road, the Wet’suwet’en came to a tentative agreement with the RCMP on Thursday, January 10th which allows construction crews to reach the proposed natural gas pipeline site.
Following the events of Monday, January 7th, an uprising of protestors have emerged across Canada to demonstrate support of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation for preventing access to Coastal GasLink on their traditional territory. Approximately 100 people congregated on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in protest of the RCMP’s invasive action at the Gidimt’en checkpoint. The Atlantic region organized rallies on the TransCanada highway between Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. In Vancouver, hundreds of protestors marched outside the B.C. Supreme Court building. Similarly, hundreds of people marched in Toronto’s financial district. Canadians have expressed an outpouring of support for the Wet’suwet’en First Nations’ right to protect their traditional territory. Beyond this, some Canadians have expressed disdain for the pipeline and are calling the government to action for better investment in greener initiatives.
While many are outraged by the actions of the RCMP, the RCMP stand by their actions due to the “unpredictable” nature of the protest and their potential for escalation. There is debate concerning the degree of the protests, as to whether they were passive and peaceful or active and aggressive. Some of these protests included singing, locked arm barricades, people secured to the barricade as well as the underside of a bus, and a person in a hammock attached to the bridge to deny bridge-access. Moving forward, there is evidently a greater need for trust, respect, and communication between the RCMP and the Hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. The tentative agreement for company access is by no means a granted consent by the Hereditary Chiefs for the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline; rather, it is an effort toward the de-escalation of tensions. In light of these events, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been met with a number of questions regarding the pipeline, which has led to further scrutiny regarding Canada’s Nation-to-Nation relationships, and accusations of not upholding efforts toward reconciliation. In response to these questions and accusations, Trudeau stated: “We’ve gone from a place where Indigenous people were not listened to, were not consulted, were not included, and we are doing a better job of it.” For now, the question is what “a better job of it” will look like as negotiations proceed.