A natural gas company with a $6.6 billion plan to build a pipeline through northern British Columbia is continuing to clear forest and deliver pipe despite an Indigenous community’s calls to shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who faced down militarized police in early February, say that Coastal GasLink should halt construction of worker camps on their territory while the community is dealing with a global health crisis.
This week pipeline opponents launched a letter-writing campaign aimed at suspending construction on Wet’suwet’en territory. “In addition to ongoing and unjustified infringements on protected Indigenous rights, the work now brings to Wet’suwet’en people an unacceptable heightened risk of COVID-19, as potentially infected outside workers are being permitted to come and go through the territory,” reads one letter circulated on social media.
According to a statement by Coastal GasLink on March 17, the company has “cleared an additional 6 percent of the right-of-way” and delivered 19 kilometres of pipe to storage facilities near Chetwynd, B.C. over the last month.
The threat of COVID-19 spread has suspended all Wet’suwet’en meetings, including talks on a proposed deal between hereditary chiefs, B.C., and Canada.
“We are not doing any public meetings currently and do not have a date set when we will continue with our clan meetings,” Wet’suwet’en Chief Na’moks, who also goes by John Risdale, said in an email Monday. “We have to consider the safety of our people and all who reside on our territory.”
The proposed deal, which was announced following weeks of nation-wide solidarity blockades on March 1, is said to build on a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that acknowledged Wet’suwet’en leaders’ title rights were never “extinguished” by the province. While details of the agreement have not been released while Wet’suwet’en members review it, if signed, the deal could potentially give the nation more leverage in fighting the Coastal GasLink pipeline set to run through their territory.
“I think it’s a good way through,” Chief Woos, who also goes by Frank Alec, said of the proposal earlier this month. “That arrangement spells out a memorandum of understanding with some agreed-upon items, and work that needs to be done soon.”
One member of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation told VICE that no feasts happened before the coronavirus restrictions were put in place. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary system of governance requires consensus at the feast hall on major decisions, members say.
The Wet’suwet’en standstill comes one month after Canadian police dismantled Indigenous-led blockades meant to highlight the Wet’suwet’en struggle for self-determination.
On February 24, Ontario Provincial Police arrested Tyendinaga Mohawk people for blockading rail lines in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Throughout February dozens of people were arrested across the country for blocking ports, highways, and political offices in support of the hereditary chiefs.
Demonstrations continued into early March, from the steps of the B.C. legislature to Quebec rail lines. Five more protesters who occupied a government office in Victoria were arrested on March 5. By the following week, when Canada’s chief medical officer advised against group gatherings, most blockades had come down.
Jennifer Wickham, who works as a media coordinator for Gidimt’en camp on Wet’suwet’en territory, said that RCMP have increased their presence near the work camps since the proposed deal was announced. She said that RCMP or private security have been following anyone who leaves the camps on the main service road.
“There is no direction to our police officers to follow persons leaving camps,” RCMP Corporal Madonna Saunderson said in an emailed statement. “We have recently received and responded to traffic-related complaints.”
Saunderson said the RCMP continues to work out of the nearby town Houston, B.C., instead of a mobile unit on the access road near Wet’suwet’en camps.
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