This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The Unist’ot’en Camp, a pipeline blockade on unsurrendered indigenous land in the interior of British Columbia (BC), peacefully evicted a pipeline crew that was found trespassing in their territories earlier this week. The crew was conducting preliminary work for TransCanada’s Coastal GasLink pipeline project, which the company hopes will carry fracked gas from north eastern BC to Canada’s pacific coast.
Where the eviction took place, multiple fracked gas and tar sands pipelines have been planned without consent from the Unist’ot’en clan. The clan has never surrendered their lands, signed treaties, or lost in war to Canada or BC. Under a system of governance that predates Canada by thousands of years, the Unist’ot’en have taken an uncompromising stance: All pipelines are banned from their territories.
“We’re not willing to sit down at any table with them because our firm answer is no… An official letter with the clan’s letter heading and the chief’s signature will go to the company and mention that they were evicted off our territory and that they’re not permitted back and that if they come back it’s trespass,” Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en camp’s leader, explained. If TransCanada is caught trespassing again, Unist’ot’en’s laws will be strictly enforced: “They’ll leave without their equipment.”
Given the untreated status of Unist’ot’en land, the pipelines represent more than environmental risk. They are a direct attack on the Unist’ot’en clan’s land rights and assertions of sovereignty — effectively a land grab by government and industry.
“Wherever they put the pipes, they’re going to say ‘we own that piece now,’ and we’re not allowed to utilize that piece of land anymore,” Huson said. “That’s a big land base these pipelines are proposing to try and take.”
Part family home, part activist community, part compound, Unist’ot’en camp has reoccupied the traditional territories of the Unist’ot’en people to monitor development and to ensure that the clan’s system of governance is the sole law of the land. On the only bridge into the territory, a border is enforced. Those looking to enter the territory must answer questions to establish that their stay will benefit the Unist’ot’en people, following a protocol of free, prior, and informed consent in accordance with international law.
TransCanada’s helicopter crew avoided this protocol, circumventing the bridge by flying overhead. They landed without permission in a low valley though the mountains, which they intend to become a pipeline corridor. Even a TransCanada subcontractor, who spoke freely while awaiting his helicopter ride out of the territory, could empathize with the Unist’ot’en’s protectionist stance. “Its magnificent country — really rich in wildlife, really interesting terrain,” he commented. “I can understand its value to people.”
We spoke amid a clear-cut left behind by logging companies that were evicted previously by the Unist’ot’en — a site of environmental degradation that has begun to rejuvenate as industrial activity has ceased.
“The berries are almost ripe in these cut-blocks, I noticed, so the bears should be living large for a while. And the fish, the salmon should be coming through some of these streams before too long,” he said.
The eviction was undertaken peacefully and TransCanada complied without dispute. Employees were briefed ahead of time that they might be confronted, though the subcontractor I spoke with had “no indication what anyone might say or do.” He had no idea whose territory he was on, though his crew received instruction to enter Unist’ot’en land and to avoid the “camp at the Morice River Bridge. We were informed that there was a 10km radius no work zone for the current project from the camp.”
“We are unsure who came up with the 10km radius around the camp,” said Toghestiy, Freda’s husband and a hereditary chief of the neighbouring Likhts’amsyu clan. “They were aware that they were in the wrong by hoping to avoid confrontation by those of us who are living here on the lands… This entire territory is in lockdown to all pipelines. They flew over the camp quite a few times on their way to work and could easily see the huge NO PIPELINES lettering on the bridge.”
The enforcement of the eviction, and the firmness of its delivery, run counter to the daily grind of the camp. Volunteer labour is divided between protecting the camp, expanding its infrastructure, and sustaining its volunteers in an environmentally friendly, traditional mode of living.
The camp hosts an extensive permaculture garden that produces hundreds of pounds of organic food and uses a unique solar powered irrigation system. Large food stores of traditional meats like salmon and bear are collected and preserved. Daily upkeep involves chopping firewood, security patrols, and undertaking construction projects to facilitate the camp’s growth. Unist’ot’en intends to teach alternative lifeways to those who are interested.
“I always try to encourage people, come and see for yourself — even the ones that are sitting on the fence,” Freda Huson said.
“The number one thing when people take away from here is they drink water, fresh from the river, still got the minerals intact, and it’s still pure compared to what they get out of the tap back home. And they see everything around—the animals, the beauty, the mountains, and all the plants,” said Huson. “They see all that and see what it is that we’re protecting here and see that we’re human, we’re not militant as the media would try to portray us, but we’re actually human like everybody else. We got educated, we got jobs, walked away from jobs because we felt it was important to try and protect the remaining lands that we still have left, which is a very small amount.”
The initial impetus for the Unist’ot’en’s hard-line anti-pipeline stance is the devastation of their traditional territories by the colonial governments that overtook them. Several times, including as recently as 2004, Unist’ot’en cabins were burnt down in attempts to see them forced from the land.
“We saw more and more that a lot of our land was devastated, through mining, logging, and there wasn’t very much left. There’s probably ten percent that’s pristine like this area here, and we’re trying to hang onto that ten percent for our future generations,” said Huson.
“This place has been in the hands of the Unist’ot’en people for thousands of years — they’ve managed it,” said Toghestiy. “Governments and corporations moved in, forced us onto reservations, and came out and mismanaged it. Now the Unist’ot’en are back out here and they’re going to manage it again–they’re going to manage it properly.”
Although the camp is currently under threat from the actions of government and industry, its long-term goal is to become a cultural centre, where Unist’ot’en people, as well as people from the broader Wet’suwet’en nations, can come to practice their traditional cultures, live out on the land, and gain autonomy from the colonial state that requires them to work 9 to 5.
“All of our sisters and brothers out there who are indigenous — get out of the urban centres, get out of the Indian reservations. Go home to your ancestral lands,” Toghestiy said. “It’s not just ‘come out and blockade,’ it’s ‘come out and live on your land again.’ Learn how to live, learn how to be free, learn how to make decisions on your own, learn how to survive on your own, learn how to be self-sufficient rather than dependent on a system that’s there to make you sick and make you die. Come out and learn how to live and be indigenous.”
With First Nations, like the Gitxsan to the north, being offered millions of dollars in signing bonuses for pipelines, Freda Huson identified a different kind of wealth that the Unist’ot’en camp seeks to preserve.
“How our people measured wealth is what you could take off the land — the food, the medicines, the berries,” she said.
The protected lands are home to lynx, black bear, grizzly bear, beaver, eagles, grouse, deer, moose, and many types of salmon. Living here, I have been fed food from the territories, creatively assembled as bear teriyaki, moose stew, or fish head soup.
The camp’s main area is strategically positioned next to the Widzin Kwah, a massive and pure river that multiple pipelines are proposed to travel beneath. Within all of Unist’ot’en territory, Widzin Kwah is the last river that is safe to drink from. Its water is mineralized, frigid, and rejuvenating.
At the centre of the blockade, in the path of Chevron’s Pacific Trails Pipeline project, is a traditional pit house that will become the home of Freda Huson, her husband Toghestiy, and their children upon completion. Wet’suwet’en have been living in structures like these for thousands of years, including a few hundred metres from the present day camp. Under the optic of Canadian law, the presence of this archeological site and the current use of a pit house bolster the Unist’ot’en clan’s claims to land title. “According to all the case laws that exist now on Aboriginal rights, what we’re doing here is completely legitimate and legal — even in their own systems,” explained Toghestiy.
Although pit houses long predate the modern home, they represent the pinnacle of a certain type of technology. Logs are petrified in fire to prevent insects from living in them, and arranged in a triangular structure that will be planted over with soil and native plant species. The house will grow some of its own food. Without electricity, the pit house regulates its own temperature: It is cool in the summer, blocking out the sun, and warm in the winter, trapping in heat. Upon completion, it will be furnished with modern trappings — solar power, multiple rooms, and modern furniture.
While Canada and British Columbia assert jurisdiction over this territory by issuing project permits for the area, they do so with little regard for a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that confirmed the land’s unceded status in 1997. TransCanada has undertaken consultation with some indigenous leaders, though the decision making process under traditional law is the responsibility of all clan membership and Unist’ot’en membership is unaware of any meetings that occurred on their behalf. In a 697 page document on its efforts to consult with First Nations about Coastal GasLink’s environmental impacts, the phrase “Unist’ot’en” is not used once.
“While we believed we had permission to do this work, our crew decided to safely leave the area after being confronted by people wearing masks,” Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesperson told me in an email. He noted that TransCanada appreciated “their professionalism and how they conducted themselves.” He said that “we recognize that with any kind of project–a pipeline, an industrial project or even a residential community–not everyone will support it but we have been having focused consultation with over 30 groups since we announced the project and that is what we are going to continue doing.”
“No means no and we have the final jurisdiction on our own territory,” Huson said. “This is not Crown land, this does not belong to Indian bands… this is my peoples’ territory and we never gave up our decision making power to anybody. Tell them to produce their papers, or anything, that say we gave them the power to decide for us. Our governing system is our hereditary chiefs system and its members.”
TransCanada has engaged in consultation with and paid funds to the Office of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, a treaty office that the Unist’ot’en clan backed away from a few years ago. Office of the Wet’suwet’en has no jurisdiction on Unist’ot’en territories, or on the territories of the neighbouring Likhts’amsyu clan where the pipelines must also pass. Referring to the lack of consultation with Unist’ot’en’s membership, Freda Huson said: “If they think they spoke to the right people, those people aren’t decision makers for our territory.”
In press releases, the Office has articulated a strong anti-pipeline stance–yet they continue to work with TransCanada in their environmental assessment process. Among the helicopter crew, a woman identified herself as an Office of the Wet’suwet’en contractor, inaccurately asserting “this is my land” when confronted by the Unist’ot’en camp’s defenders. She seemed unaware, however, that the data was being collected for a pipeline giant. Caught off guard, she asked the other workers, “are you guys with TransCanada?”
For dealings like these, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en are barred from entering Unist’ot’en territories. By engaging in the environmental assessment process, even if they say “no” to TransCanada, the Office is enabling the construction of this project. “If there isn’t an environmental assessment process, if there isn’t an environmental assessment approval, the pipelines won’t go through,” explained Molly Wickham, a Unist’ot’en camp supporter and member of the Gitdumden clan. “This is just one part of the process they’re entering and engaging. To me, and within Canadian law, that’s engagement–meaningful consultation.”
Unist’ot’en Camp is now closely monitoring the back end of its territories, with permanent sentries set up with food, water, and firewood supplies, and a radio to call for backup if needed. “They’re essentially our warning system, so if they are spotted in the area we will respond again and confiscate their equipment,” one camper explained.
In protecting their community and their land, the Unist’ot’en clan will not back down. “The fact that we came in and kicked TransCanada out after they knowingly were entering into unceded territory, and sent their workers ill-informed into the territory, we see it as an end to a project that they were attempting to start,” Toghestiy said. “They can’t win. There’s no winning against a force that just refuses to back down, a force that has constitutional backing, a force that has case-law backing, a force that has the social backing from the common every day person who lives here in North America–people who are becoming de-colonized, people who are becoming more aware and waking up to the climate crisis.”
Follow Michael Toledano on Twitter: @M_Tol
All Photos by Michael Toledano.