With RCMP potentially enforcing an injunction at any time against members of a B.C. First Nation blocking construction work on a natural gas pipeline, opponents of the project made clear Friday they aren’t backing down.
Hereditary chiefs with the Wet’suwet’en Nation marched through the streets of Smithers, a town close to a contested construction site for the planned Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline that is set to run through northern B.C.
Banging drums and holding signs highlighting the threat the pipeline project poses to the environment, the protesters said they plan to continue fighting for the preservation of their ancestral lands despite the court order.
“We’re being told that we are criminals for breaking the law,” said Molly Wickham, who also goes by Sleydo.
“Well, I’ll tell you that at one point at time, stealing our children from us and putting us in residential schools was the law.”
The chiefs themselves say they have asked the RCMP to not use force if they do move into the Unist’ot’en camp, while adding there are no plans for the blockade to be taken down.
“We said no, we mean no, no means no,” said Chief Na’Moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale and is the highest-ranking hereditary chief of Tsayu, one of the five clans that make up the nation.
“Hereditary leaders have never approved this project. They never have, they never will.”
Coastal GasLink posted a 72-hour notice on Tuesday related to a B.C. Supreme Court injunction ordering pipeline opponents to clear the way towards a critical work site.
Wet’suwet’en opponents say the order has no authority, and say that under Wet’suwet’en law, only hereditary chiefs can give consent to the $6.6-billion project that would connect gas fields in northeastern B.C. with the planned LNG Canada export plant in Kitimat.
The company obtained approvals from the Wet’suwet’en’s 20 elected band councils, who stand to be financially compensated from the project. The provincial and federal governments have also signed off.
With the deadline for the order past, all eyes are now on the RCMP and whether they plan to enforce the injunction — and how.
RCMP spokeswoman Dawn Roberts confirmed to the Canadian Press that a series of meetings between RCMP and the hereditary chiefs is scheduled and ongoing.
But she said in an email that out of respect for those involved and the spirit of what they are trying to accomplish, she will not share what is discussed until all the meetings have taken place or decisions have been made.
“We remain hopeful that these efforts will result in a resolution. This has been our focus and continues to be our focus,” she said.
The police force came under fire after enforcing a similar injunction in January 2019, which saw 14 people arrested amid claims of police brutality described as a “raid” by opponents.
The RCMP opened a criminal investigation this week into several trees that were felled along the Morice West Forest Service Road near Houston, used by company crews to access the work site.
Other trees were found partially cut in readiness for felling, along with stacked tires under tarps covering flammable liquids, kindling, and bags of fuel-soaked rags.
Na’moks has said the trees were felled for the safety of Wet’suwet’en chiefs and their supporters.
A community divided
Protests in support of the pipeline opponents also took place in Vancouver, Winnipeg and other Canadian cities Friday.
Claire O’Manique with Our Time Vancouver — a youth group advocating for a Green New Deal in Canada that would put climate action at the forefront of government policy — says stopping projects like the Coastal GasLink pipeline and the Trans Mountain expansion is crucial.
Speaking outside B.C. Attorney General David Eby’s constituency office in Vancouver, she added the government needs to abide by the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was recently recognized through provincial legislation.
“In this era of so-called reconciliation, we must be working in new ways and in much better relations with Indigenous peoples,” she said.
But business owners in Smithers, like Fred Wilson, say with the pipeline project approved by multiple levels of government and industry, it should be allowed to move forward.
“We can’t have fully permitted projects stopped in this province,” said Wilson, who owns Northwest Truck Rentals and has seen a boost in business since construction began.
He added the boost in clients and business because of the pipeline has injected the local economy with vital funds.
“I can confidently say that probably 80 per cent of the businesses in this area would stand with me and be for the project,” he said.
The divide between the local business community and the pipeline opponents can be felt within the Wet’suwet’en nation itself, with the elected councils imploring the hereditary chiefs to back down.
Those who took part in the march in Smithers said the dispute is damaging the community.
“What it has done to us, it’s dividing us,” one protester said. “We should be working together as one.”
In an email, Coastal GasLink spokesperson Suzanne Wilton said the company is ready to get back to work.
She pointed to a news release that says clearing, grading, workforce accommodation, construction and other activities are planned for January between Chetwynd and Kitimat.
The company has awarded $870 million in contracts since the final investment decision was made in October 2018, the release says.
— With files from the Canadian Press