‘We’re backed into a corner’: Wet’suwet’en bristle as RCMP control access to anti-pipeline camp

Click to play video: 'Pipeline protestors dig in'
Pipeline protestors dig in
Despite the fact construction has been cleared to go ahead on the Coastal GasLink pipeline, opponents are digging in for a fight. – Jan 17, 2020

A little over a year after she was arrested for trying to keep pipeline workers off her ancestral lands, Molly Wickham is watching history repeat itself.

The spokesperson for the Gidimt’en — one of five Wet’suwet’en clans whose hereditary chiefs oppose the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline — was one of 14 taken into custody by RCMP last January as police enforced an injunction against a camp meant to block construction.

Now, with enforcement of a new injunction looming and RCMP setting up an “access control checkpoint” outside her camp, Wickham says she and the other opponents are struggling.

“I feel the same way we did last year,” she told Global News Friday. “That we’re backed into a corner.

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“The threat of being criminalized, the threat of being imprisoned and removed from the territory, again … our ancestors didn’t fight hard just so that we would give up our entire future on our territory.”

Click to play video: 'Anti-pipeline protesters dig in in northern B.C.'
Anti-pipeline protesters dig in in northern B.C.

Coastal GasLink is building the 670-kilometre pipeline from British Columbia’s northeast to Kitimat on the coast.

The company has signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nation councils along its path, but the Wet’suwet’en hereditary clan chiefs who are leaders under the traditional form of governance say the $6.6-billion project has no authority without their consent.

The chiefs have refused to meet with the company until they can speak face-to-face with B.C. Premier John Horgan.

Horgan has not indicated he plans to meet with the chiefs and has promised the federally and provincially-permitted project will be built while referring to the B.C. Supreme Court injunction granted on Dec. 31.

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That injunction was served last week, giving opponents 72 hours to clear any blockades standing in the way of construction, which has been underway elsewhere along the route. The deadline came and went last Friday.

RCMP say they will not enforce this latest injunction until after a series of scheduled meetings with the hereditary chiefs, who have asked that any enforcement be non-violent.

But Wickham says she’s willing to be arrested again, saying the only law she intends to keep following is Wet’suwet’en law.

Click to play video: 'RCMP set up roadblock near disputed northern B.C. Pipeline'
RCMP set up roadblock near disputed northern B.C. Pipeline

I’m doing this for my children,” she said. “The thought of not being with them because of the system that’s imposed on us, and that would basically steal me from the territory and remove me into somebody else’s territory and put me in jail — that’s a sacrifice that I would have to make if it came down to that.

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“We are not instigating that. You know, we’re peacefully in our territory. We live on the territory. We have a huge stake in this.”

In the meantime, the opponents are bristling under the watchful eye of the RCMP, who are screening anyone looking to access the Gidimt’en and Unistot’en camps.

Police have confirmed at least three people were forced to turn around earlier this week due to “miscommunication” on the first day of the checkpoint. But the opponents say many more have had issues.

Cody Merriman with the ‘Namgis First Nation​ says his attempt to drop off supplies to the camp ended with him being denied access, and RCMP suggesting he hand the supplies off to Wickham — who is pregnant — to bring in alone.

“I can’t describe what it feels like to not be allowed to your own home,” Merriman said.

“It’s very uncomfortable and unsettling that they would cut supplies to a humanitarian camp to support people out here and keep a safe space.”

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The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has filed a legal complaint against the checkpoint, saying it has “no legal basis” to be there.

Dispute causes divide

B.C. Green Party interim leader Adam Olsen has travelled to Smithers this weekend to meet with the hereditary chiefs after accepting an invitation. Nanaimo-Ladysmith Green MP Paul Manly also intends to travel to the area Sunday for his own meeting.

But other local politicians are being cautious about how they talk about the project and showing support for one group over another.

Click to play video: 'Premier visits northern B.C. during pipeline battle'
Premier visits northern B.C. during pipeline battle

Local MLA Doug Donaldson declined an interview request, deferring to Horgan’s comments.

New Democrat MP Taylor Bachrach, who represents the sprawling northwest corner of the province including the area of dispute as well as several communities that support it, would not say if he supports the pipeline or opposes it.

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“This is a really difficult and divisive issue for our communities and our region,” he told the Canadian Press last week, adding his focus is on safety and encouraging open communication.

“At the same time, there are big unanswered questions at the heart of this issue, and I don’t think those larger questions are likely to be answered in the coming days.”

Gladys Atrill, the acting mayor of Smithers, a town about 45 minutes from the entrance to the logging road, said council is also not taking a position on the project, although it has a good working relationship with the hereditary chiefs, whose office is in their town.

She said some members of the community are employed by Coastal GasLink or its contractors but couldn’t say if the division of opinion lands for or against the pipeline.

Click to play video: 'B.C. First Nation chiefs allow pipeline workers brief access'
B.C. First Nation chiefs allow pipeline workers brief access

There are strong views on either side but also a “milieu of people in the middle,” and she believes the majority of people are most concerned about safety, Atrill added.

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“Smithers is a diverse community. It’s a huge strength in community but of course it means people see things differently.” Atrill said she hopes those directly involved in the conflict “hold fast, be cautious,” and remember that safety is primary.

“I would rather we take a little more time than do something we might regret,” she said.

—With files from Sarah MacDonald, Global News and Amy Smart, the Canadian Press

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