RCMP raid on Wet'suwet'en
RCMP raided a Wet'suwet'en land defender camp on February 6. Photo by Jesse Winter

What You Need to Know About the Wet'suwet'en Crisis

Your guide to “rule of law,” “land defenders,” and the 1997 Supreme Court decision underpinning Canada’s biggest news story.

There is a special kind of sinking feeling that kicks in when news develops faster than the human brain can process. In Canada we’ve had to get used to this feeling the past few weeks as a long-simmering dispute over a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. has grown into the biggest story in the country, with coast-to-coast blockades underlining a broken relationship between Indigenous peoples and the provincial and federal leaders who claim to care about their rights.


Things really started to break down when militarized police descended on Wet’suwet’en people and their supporters to make way for the $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline earlier this month. The resulting cascade of cross-country protest—which has stopped hundreds of trains and disrupted government proceedings—has been dubbed the Wet’suwet’en crisis, but it could just as easily be called the Canada crisis. After all, it’s not the first time the country has pinned the RCMP against Indigenous people defending their land (see: Oka crisis, Gustafsen Lake). At the heart of the issue is a First Nation’s traditional governance structure, and its ability to exist and make decisions outside the constraints of Canada’s colonial legal system.

We’ve since seen spinoff controversies about alternative routes, what to call Indigenous people who occupy their territory in the face of police-enforced removal, how much money and jobs these blockades will ultimately cost, and what politicians really mean when they invoke the “rule of law.” If you’re tuning in late, or need some talking points ahead of some tough conversations with relatives and coworkers, VICE is here to help with some answers to questions about the Wet’suwet’en Nation, Coastal GasLink, and the crisis Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he wants to resolve quickly and peacefully.

Why did the RCMP raid Indigenous land?

In the early hours of February 6, a small army of police descended on a snowy outdoor camp where members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their supporters were keeping watch over ancestral land. The raid lasted five days, and resulted in 30 arrests. All the war toys came out: low-flying helicopters, dog teams, snipers, and drones.

It wasn’t the first time that police had conducted a military-style raid on Wet’suwet’en territory. In January 2019, the RCMP arrested 14 people at another Wet’suwet’en camp with a similarly over-the-top show of force. Tactical officers were authorized to use lethal force, according to an explosive report uncovered by the Guardian.


The “why” question boils down to a pipeline company’s request to a judge. Coastal GasLink—a subsidiary of TC Energy or TransCanada, which also owns the Keystone pipeline and other big oil infrastructure—has a plan to build a natural gas pipeline from northeastern B.C. to the coast, which crosses through Wet’suwet’en land. It filed an injunction to prevent anti-pipeline roadblocks, and a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted it in December.

The court order gave police the power to clear the roadway leading to construction sites for the pipeline, but its power to remove Wet’suwet’en people occupying nearby camps is disputed. Civil rights groups have called the enforcement overbroad and not legally justifiable. The majority of arrestees were released without charges or court dates.

Who are the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs?

The Wet’suwet’en Nation is a 22,000-square-kilometre stretch of land that has been inhabited by the Wet’suwet’en people for thousands of years. The nation is led by chiefs representing five clans and 13 house groups. Their status as leaders is decided through a feast system, called bahlats. Though they are called hereditary chiefs, their titles are not necessarily handed down by bloodline, but by consensus during feasts.

Since 2012 most of these leaders have opposed Coastal GasLink and other pipelines through their territory, on the grounds that these projects will disturb vital ecosystems and culturally significant sites. The number of active Coastal GasLink-opposing chiefs has shifted over time. Three hereditary chiefs who received funding in exchange for support for the pipeline were stripped of their titles.


Some titles are still in dispute, but none of the current (undisputed) chiefs have spoken in favour of Coastal GasLink. In January 2020, the chiefs who oppose the pipeline issued an eviction notice to police and pipeline workers.

Aren’t there elected chiefs who support the pipeline?

Separate from the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s traditional way of governance is Canada’s band office system, which was designed along with residential schools to strip away Indigenous land and culture. There are six reserve communities within the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s borders, all governed by band councils elected by members. Five of these band councils have signed on to benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink, citing economic opportunity.

Somewhat confusingly, one reserve community with an elected council is now called the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, though it was previously named Broman Lake Indian Band. This band council is one of the five that approved the pipeline. The Hagwilget band near Hazelton, B.C. is the remaining holdout. The financial incentives used to secure these agreements have been widely criticized.

Hereditary chiefs say these elected councils were created primarily to oversee the reserves, and do not have the authority to make decisions that affect the whole nation. And they say Canada’s court system has recognized this right rests solely with hereditary chiefs.

Did the Supreme Court make a ruling on this?

The hereditary chiefs say that their right to reject energy projects on their territory is upheld by a Supreme Court of Canada ruling from 1997, called the Delgamuukw decision. In that case, the Wet’suwet’en, along with the neighbouring Gitxsan, argued that they never surrendered title rights, and should have a say when it comes to logging clear-cuts planned on their territory. The nations presented ceremonial songs and other cultural artifacts as proof of their deep relationship with the land.

Canada’s highest court ultimately affirmed that the provincial government could not “extinguish” Wet’suwet’en title rights, but that title rights are “not absolute.” Though the ruling didn’t define what title rights do entail for the Wet’suwet’en, it did confirm that these rights existed before Canada became a country.


Is that because British Columbia is “unceded” land?

Attend any event in B.C., and you’re likely to hear someone acknowledge you’re on the unceded lands of one or more local First Nations. That’s because the vast majority of First Nations that fall inside the province’s borders never signed treaties with the government, and therefore never surrendered their ownership of the land. This includes the Wet’suwet’en.

However, just because a First Nation has signed a treaty with Canada doesn’t necessarily mean that their land is “ceded.” A great deal of Canada’s treaty documents read like sharing agreements, with extensive rights and responsibilities cutting both ways. So the Wet’suwet’en’s non-treaty status is only one aspect of the delicate legal situation that sets the case apart.

Why do I keep hearing about Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en camps?

In 2009, members of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en people began reclaiming a remote area by the Morice River, accessible only by logging road. At the time several energy companies including Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline were jockeying to build up an energy corridor through the area. Over the past decade the camp has grown into a symbol of Indigenous resistance and self-determination, and is now home to a $2 million healing lodge with programming funded by the First Nations Health Authority.

In more recent years members of the Gidimt’en clan established a second camp along the same logging road. Both of the camps are on Wet’suwet’en land, and are occupied by Wet’suwet’en land defenders and supporters year round. Both were raided by the RCMP earlier this month, though people barricaded inside a Gidimt’en cabin and the Unist’ot’en lodge were allowed to stay.


Who is a “land defender” and who is a “protester”?

Because the Wet’suwet’en are standing ground on their own land, many reject the idea that they are protesting. When asked to self-identify, Wet’suwet’en people and supporters occupying the territory will tell you they’re land defenders, not anti-pipeline protesters. Canadian journalists have debated whether or not to adopt this terminology.

This gets a bit trickier when you consider the Indigenous-led blockades that have since popped up on rail lines, ports, and bridges across the country. These solidarity actions are putting pressure on the provincial and federal governments to meet the hereditary chiefs at the negotiating table. In both cases, organizers say the focus should be standing up for Indigenous self-determination—not just stopping one pipeline.

Edmonton rail blockade

Wet'suwet'en supporters block a CN Rail line west of Edmonton on February 19. Photo by Jason Franson / The Canadian Press

Why do politicians keep using the phrase “rule of law”?

Nearly a month before the raid, B.C. Premier John Horgan told reporters that the “rule of law” must prevail and the Coastal GasLink project should proceed. Multiple members of Trudeau’s cabinet have echoed this sentiment—that the land defenders are not above the law. More recently disgraced Conservative leader Andrew Scheer invoked the phrase in his calls for police action to end rail blockades.

But lawyers and legal commentators following the case say there is not merely one legal system at play. The Wet’suwet’en have been enacting their own traditional laws by occupying their territory, hosting bahlats, and telling pipeline developers to leave. Then there are international laws, like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which B.C. formally adopted last year.


Lawyers representing the Unist’ot’en have put out an explainer arguing that the requirements to justify infringement on Aboriginal title rights are more onerous than the average Canadian might expect, which might be why these “rule of law” quips have been met with a few eyerolls.

Have rail workers really lost their jobs over this?

The rail disruptions have put immense pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to resolve the crisis quickly, as hundreds of train cancellations are projected to cost operators billions of dollars. CN Rail and Via Rail have temporarily laid off hundreds of employees.

Wet’suwet’en supporters pointed out that CN had already announced some 1,600 layoffs last November, and questioned whether the recent announcement was really connected to blockades. But a representative for the Teamsters Union told VICE the November layoffs were unrelated to the 450 CN announced this week, which mostly affected conductors, engineers, and yard workers who can’t do their jobs because of the blockades.

Teamsters spokesperson Christopher Monette said he expects workers will likely start getting callbacks to deal with rail backlogs after the rails start running again, so the true extent of the job losses is unknown.

What now?

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs stand by their eviction of Coastal GasLink and RCMP, and are still calling for the police to leave their territory. If this demand is met, the chiefs say they will call off the blockades.

Trudeau’s government responded Thursday by announcing the RCMP is willing to withdraw its mobile unit on the logging road close to Wet’suwet’en camps, and continue operations from the nearby town of Houston, B.C. on the condition that Coastal GasLink workers are allowed through. The hereditary chiefs and their supporters say cops continue to patrol and surveil the area in spite of their eviction, and are now calling on a meeting with Trudeau to broker a resolution.

Canadian Pacific has joined that call for a nation-to-nation meeting after members of the Secwepemc Nation near Chase, B.C. started blockading the company’s western corridor.

With new rail blockades going up at the same time as other lines reopen, it’s not clear where this is all headed—or if it’s heading anywhere anytime soon.

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.