Nearly 40 kilometres away from civilization, a group of Indigenous pipeline protesters are bracing themselves for the possibility they’ll be removed from a checkpoint camp in northern B.C.
The deadline for an injunction against the Wet’suwet’en Nation to clear the way for Coastal GasLink workers came and went Friday with no agreement between the two sides and the RCMP staying tight-lipped on when — or if — they will enforce the court order.
That has people living in the Unist’ot’en camp that’s blocking access to a critical work site near Houston growing “uneasy” about police action.
But Unist’ot’en house member Karla Tait, who also works as a clinical psychologist at the clan’s healing centre, says the group is holding strong.
“I think we’re all very confident in our position,” she told Global News over FaceTime Friday.
“We’ve been given clear direction from our hereditary chiefs that we are to uphold our Wet’suwet’en law. They are the title holders of these lands, so until they give any express consent or permission we won’t allow trespassers back into the territory.”
Coastal GasLink posted a 72-hour notice on Tuesday related to a B.C. Supreme Court injunction ordering pipeline opponents to clear the way for crews to begin construction through the Wet’suwet’en ancestral lands.
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 has received approvals from the Wet’suwet’en’s 20 elected band councils, as well as the provincial and federal governments. Requests to meet with the hereditary chiefs to find a solution have been rebuffed.
The Unist’ot’en blockade is one of two checkpoint camps set up in the area, along with the nearby Gidimt’en checkpoint. The Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en are two of the five clans that make up the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
The two camps were broken up in January 2019 after RCMP enforced an earlier injunction, arresting 14 people in an operation described by opponents as a “raid.”
The police force has come under fire in the wake of a December report in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, which suggested RCMP discussed deploying snipers and putting children into social services.
Tait says the article has people concerned.
“I think people are definitely uneasy about the potential for violence,” she said. “We are non-violent in our occupation of our territory, we are unarmed. We are simply upholding our rights and titles to these lands.”
The RCMP have said they have a series of meetings scheduled and ongoing with the hereditary chiefs, adding they won’t make any decisions until those meetings have wrapped up.
One such meeting was held Wednesday, where the hereditary chiefs directed the RCMP to not enforce the injunction until meetings are held with the provincial and federal governments to address the chiefs’ concerns.
The chiefs also called on the RCMP to promise no force or lethal weapons be used against the group, and that a remote detachment set up in the area last January be taken down.
Coastal GasLink says it is ready to get back to work this month, pointing to millions of dollars in contracts already awarded for construction and other activities between Chetwynd and Kitimat.
Tait says the company has already disrupted the community’s way of life, including programs at the healing centre and efforts to hunt and fish.
She calls the felling of several trees along a forest service road used by Coastal GasLink — which were discovered along with cans of gasoline and prompted a RCMP criminal investigation — a “defensive posture.”
“I think there’s a long history of the criminalization of our people for upholding and controlling access to our territories,” she said, “and I think it’s unfortunate that RCMP and Coastal GasLink would look to construe any defensive actions on our part in a negative manner.”
Tait added the latest injunction order is “essentially institutionalizing racism” and ignored Wet’suwet’en laws, which opponents say has been held up in past Supreme Court of Canada decisions.
Indigenous supporters rally
At a protest held in Vancouver Saturday, hundreds of supporters of the Wet’suwet’en marched in solidarity with the group’s cause.
“We will not tolerate any kind of aggression against our elders, against our knowledge keepers, against our sacred people,” Grand Chief Stewart Philip with the Union of BC Indian Chiefs told the crowd.
“We need to be vigilant, we need to stay in close contact with the Wet’suwet’en people on the front lines.”
David Suzuki, who also attended rallies following the RCMP operation last January, said the Wet’suwet’en’s fight is part of a larger battle taking place in Canada.
“What is going on now is a battle against corporations and the capitalist system, where they are determined to extract every bit out of this planet, regardless of what the consequences are,” he told the crowd.
“How the hell have we gotten into this mess?”
Tait said the opponents are grateful for the support they’ve received, adding she’s confident the RCMP will be held accountable by the attention it’s receiving as the clock ticks closer toward enforcement.
“The world is watching,” she said. “This is Canada and B.C.’s chance to do the right thing and really work to rectify that relationship with the first peoples of this land.”
—With files from Sarah MacDonald, Jill Bennett and the Canadian Press