Rounding the corner of a logging road after 60 rattling hours on a lime green school bus, every passenger caked in dust and pasted to the vinyl seats, we came upon a long gravel slope leading to a single-lane bridge. A dilapidated pickup was angled across it as a barricade, behind signs that read: “No Access Without Consent.”
Four years ago members of the Unist'ot'en, an indigenous clan in northern British Columbia, reclaimed their traditional territory in response to the proposed Pacific Trails and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines, which would both drive directly through their unceded land, a region that lay just across that bridge.
As the bus offloaded we were met by Mel Bazil, who took the passengers in groups of five through free, informed and prior consent. A process backed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, FIPC poses a set of questions to each visitor: “Who are you? Where are you from? How long do you plan to stay? Do you work for the industries or government that are destroying our lands? How will your visit benefit my people?” And if answered to their satisfaction, entry is granted.
Walking across the bridge with the powerful Morice River, known to the Unist'ot'en as Widzin Kwah, sliding below, Mel told us we had left Canada and were entering another nation with different laws. Far from being illegal, they say, the camp's actions are dictated by principles that vastly outdate those of Canada.
The camp is led by Freda Huson, the elected Unist'ot'en spokesperson, and her husband Toghestiy, the hereditary chief of a neighbouring clan. They routinely eject work crews who trespass by helicopter, and slowly have built a permanent encampment complete with a solar-powered cabin, permaculture garden, and a traditional pithouse, the first built in BC in over a century.
I'd learned of the camp through a friend who had visited twice before and produced a documentary about it. I had no history of activism, but like just about every other person in the province, I was seriously concerned about the pipelines. When the chance arose to attend the Action Camp, an annual gathering of supporters and volunteers to help maintain the camp and attend workshops, I signed up. I hoped to listen, learn, and show people back home what life in the camp is like. Everyone on the west coast has been pummeled with arguments, diagrams, and infographics from both sides of the debate—but the Unist'ot'en represent the very real human face of one of the most divisive crises in BC.
Over the next week I found that day-to-day life in the camp moves pretty normally, or at least typical of people making a life in the bush. There are families with children, the atmosphere is determined, but also warm and welcoming. The Unist'ot'en and their supporters are far more gracious to visitors, settlers in particular, than they need to be, given the history of their treatment in this country. These people, although prepared to defend their lands, are not the terrorists they're sometimes portrayed to be.
During the Action Camp, when the camp's population swells, time is mostly filled with work: topping up drinking water, constructing a bunkhouse, cooking and cleaning, caring for the children, working in the garden. All of it, even the most menial tasks, is driven by a sense of entrenched purpose.
Everything centres around Widzin Kwah. The river is the basis for life in the region, and as one of the dwindling potable water sources in BC, it's the most immediate example of what the Unist'ot'en strive to protect. It's where they draw water to drink, cook, and clean, and where they wash their clothing and themselves. The water is cold, fast, and sweet. Many people, myself included, had never before been able to drink straight from a bottle dipped in a river, or known the taste of unsullied water.
The gravity of the situation does make itself known during daily life at strange times. On several mornings a helicopter flew long loops, low over the camp. Volunteers shared night shifts, watching the bridge for visitors or trespassers, and it's thought they're watched in turn by drones in the night sky. One of the signs at the bridgehead bears scorch marks where locals tried to torch it. But invasive probes like these only galvanize the spirits of the people there. Whatever may come across that bridge, the Unist’ot’en are prepared to face it.
Check out more of Grady's work on his website.