The hereditary chiefs of a B.C. First Nation who evicted workers from a natural gas pipeline construction site on their traditional territory have granted the company one-time access to prepare their equipment for a brutal cold snap.
In a statement Sunday, the five Wet’suwet’en chiefs said Coastal GasLink workers will be granted six to eight hours to winterize the work site being blocked by the Unist’ot’en camp near Houston in northern B.C.
The chiefs said the company has agreed in writing to leave the site after winterizing work is done, and will not seek RCMP enforcement of an injunction order while that work is underway.
In an email, Coastal GasLink spokesperson Suzanne Wilton said the company is “working cooperatively” with the camp to access the site and prevent damage to its equipment.
“Our focus remains on finding a peaceful and mutually agreeable resolution,” Wilton said, adding the company appreciates the agreement that allowed workers access.
An arctic outflow warning is in effect for inland sections of the North Coast, bringing temperatures to at least minus 20 degrees Celsius through the week.
Environment Canada says areas further inland along the 670-kilometre pipeline route could drop as low as minus 40 with the wind chill, and has issued several extreme cold warnings.
The Wet’suwet’en chiefs issued eviction notices to Coastal GasLink workers last week as they continue to oppose the $6.6-billion project, which would connect gas fields in northeastern B.C. with the planned LNG Canada export plant in Kitimat.
The workers left the site and have not returned since, despite Coastal GasLink’s insistence that construction is set to resume this month. Work resumed earlier in January along the rest of the pipeline route.
The chiefs have never given consent to the company to construct the pipeline through their ancestral territory, and are citing Wet’suwet’en law that states only they have title rights over those lands.
Coastal GasLink has received consent from the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s 20 elected band councils, as well as from the provincial and federal governments.
The band councils are set to receive financial compensation, and the more than 1,000 workers contracted for the project include many Indigenous people from across northern B.C.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge issued a new injunction against the opponents on Dec. 31. The company then posted that order at the camp on Tuesday, starting a 72-hour countdown for the Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en clans to remove their blockades.
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 RCMP have not said if or when they plan to enforce the new injunction, saying a number of meetings are scheduled with the hereditary chiefs to find a peaceful resolution.
The chiefs delivered a list of directives to the RCMP at an earlier meeting, including that the police refrain from enforcement until nation-to-nation talks can occur with the provincial and federal governments to address infringements to Wet’suwet’en rights and title.
In a series of posts on Twitter Friday, B.C.’s human rights commissioner Kasari Govender called on Canada to stop building the Coastal GasLink pipeline until full consent is reached.
Her statement came after the same request was made by the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to which Canada is a signatory.
“This is a matter of fundamental human rights.”
Govender added she believes Canada is shirking its responsibilities by allowing construction to continue.
“Canada cannot simultaneously vie for a seat at the security council while ignoring their obligations to other parts of the UN,” she wrote.
”It’s critical to the future of human rights that Canada and BC cement the credibility of our institutions by meeting our obligations.”
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, however, told The Canadian Press he welcomed the pronouncement.
“I believe that this represents the beginning of a genuine transition to a consent-based decision making in regard to Indigenous land rights and Indigenous human rights,” he said.
“So, I applaud decision and hope that other governments and government agencies and police community take heed and act accordingly.”
The Unist’ot’en have called on the UN to intervene in the dispute.
—With files from Sarah MacDonald and The Canadian Press