The RCMP have breached a Wet’suwet’en Nation blockade in northern British Columbia, enforcing an injunction to allow construction of a controversial natural gas pipeline.
Fourteen people were arrested on Monday, according to the RCMP.
At 2:42 p.m. local time, Unist’ot’en, the camp at the centre of longstanding opposition to the TransCanada project called Coastal GasLink, tweeted: “Forces marching toward gate on Gitumt’en, they are starting to breach, they are armed.”
The tweet referred to a barricade built along a logging road by organizers from the Gidimt’en clan, one of five Wet’suwet’en clans, with the goal of protecting the Unist’ot’en camp from being raided, further up the road.
Photos and videos shared on social media showed police in army green uniforms climbing over the barricade. Organizers raised their arms to hold them back. Officers pushed people to the snowy ground and arrested them. Several officers on the scene carried guns.
“I’m hearing that they used brutal force to smash down the gate that they had, and that the people that were there were really strong, and they were singing, and they were asking the police officers what they were doing and how they were affecting future generations,” Jen Wickham, a Wet’suwet’en spokesperson who was offsite, said. She said her sister, Molly Wickham, and an elder were arrested.
On Monday morning, B.C. RCMP gave notice that they intended to enforce an injunction against the organizers of the Gidimt’en barricade and the Unist’ot’en camp, to allow TransCanada to build its proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline in the area. Anticipating the police raid, Gidimt’en organizers called enforcement of the injunction “an act of war.”
For hours on Monday afternoon, as police moved in, it was unclear what was actually happening on the ground. Organizers at the checkpoint could not be reached by phone; calls went to voicemail. As the raid began, reporters on the scene ceased live tweeting.
Wickham said she heard that police had “breached the checkpoint and jammed communications.” VICE News could not independently verify whether police had stopped communications, or whether bad reception was the issue. In a statement, the BC RCMP called these reports “erroneous.”
With the Gidimt’en check point breached, and anticipating a raid on their own camp, Unist’ot’en organizers tweeted, “Now going into prayer.”
The Unist’ot’en camp dates back to April 2009, when organizers built a barricade in response to a number of proposed pipelines. In the decade since, they have built several more buildings, including a healing lodge for people with addictions. The camp sits squarely in the path of the pipeline.
The 670-kilometre proposed pipeline would deliver natural gas across northern B.C., ending at an LNG Canada facility near Kitimat, where it would be converted into liquefied natural gas and exported to international markets.
Along the road closer to Houston, RCMP set up their own road block, preventing reporters from reaching the scene. Police told APTN reporter Kathleen Martens that she could be arrested if she crossed the road block, she tweeted.
Earlier in the day, as word reached the checkpoint that a caravan of RCMP vehicles were making their way up the snowy road, and as a helicopter circled overhead, a supporter suspended themselves in a hammock from a bridge. Organizers established what they called a “safe zone” and reinforced the blockade with logs and barbed wire.
According to reporters tweeting from the scene, organizers told police that no meaningful dialogue could happen without their hereditary chiefs, who are appointed by family clans. The chiefs were on their way to the checkpoint when they were blocked by police. RCMP officers relented and allowed one chief from each clan to continue down the road to the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint, as long as they arrived by noon local time. Spokesperson Molly Wickham told reporters that the RCMP was “effectively blocking access of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to their own territories.” Some but not all of the chiefs were allowed through, reporters tweeted from the scene.
While elected band council leaders along the pipeline route have signed deals with the company, hereditary chiefs have opposed the project. Band councils are set out under the Indian Act, while hereditary leaders are appointed under a system of governance that predates settlers arriving in North America.
A question of land rights
On Dec. 14, 2018, the BC Supreme Court issued an injunction ordering blockade organizers to remove any barriers from the road within 72 hours, and giving police authority to enforce the injunction. In a statement the morning of Jan. 7, the RCMP said it had maintained dialogue with Wet’suwet’en residents in the hopes they would remove the barricade, but that hadn’t happened.
“The conflict between the oil and gas industries, Indigenous communities, and governments all across the province has been ongoing for a number of years," BC RCMP wrote in a statement. "This has never been a police issue. In fact, the BC RCMP is impartial and we respect the rights of individuals to peaceful, lawful and safe protest.”
“For the land in question ... it is our understanding that there has been no declaration of Aboriginal title in the Courts of Canada."
In a statement on Jan. 6, the RCMP wrote: “For the land in question, where the Unist’ot’en camp is currently located near Houston, BC, it is our understanding that there has been no declaration of Aboriginal title in the Courts of Canada. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada issued an important decision, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, that considered Aboriginal titles to Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en traditional territories. The Supreme Court of Canada decided that a new trial was required to determine whether Aboriginal title had been established for these lands, and to hear from other Indigenous nations which have a stake in the territory claimed. The new trial has never been held, meaning that Aboriginal title to this land, and which Indigenous nation holds it, has not been determined.”
Ultimately, the question of who owns the 22,000 square kilometers of land comes down to whether you adhere to a colonial view of property, or whether you concede that a separate, Wet’suwet’en system of land rights and governance existed long before settlers arrived in North America. That Wet’suwet’en system of governance continues to exist — despite a smallpox epidemic in B.C., residential schools and potlatch bans — and they maintain they have not ceded power to Canada.
According to Eugene Kung, staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, Canada’s claim to the land stems from The Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by King George III, claiming what is now called Canada as British territory after the Seven Years War.
In the Delgamuukw decision, Canada’s own highest court acknowledged that the Wet’suwet’en Nation never signed any treaties or gave up their land.
“Basically they’re saying, we’re only going to respect you if you prove in Canadian courts that you have title, which of course reinforces the colonial concepts of property.”
And while Kung says the RCMP is correct to say that no Canadian court has acknowledged Aboriginal title for the Wet’suwet’en Nation, he argues the RCMP is taking a very narrow reading of the law.
“It’s not that what the RCMP says is not true, it’s that it’s the most minimal reading of rights,” Kung explained. “Basically they’re saying, we’re only going to respect you if you prove in Canadian courts that you have title, which of course reinforces the colonial concepts of property.”
“Even the idea that it’s only a Canadian court that has the authority to decide on what is Aboriginal title and not, that itself is very embedded in a colonial framework, and I would suggest is contrary to the spirit and notion of reconciliation, and does the opposite in reinforcing these colonial norms,” Kung said. “What we should be trying to do is unpack them and challenge them. And yes, there may be some uncomfortable truths that come out of that, but ultimately I think that is the type of discomfort we’re going to have to be in if we are going to achieve real, meaningful reconciliation.”
In a press release the evening of January 7, the RCMP retracted its previous statement on the Delgamuukw decision.
"It was inappropriate for the RCMP to make any reference to the materials provided to the court during the injunction application process. Our role is to enforce the injunction and not to interfere with any ongoing discussion between our Indigenous communities and any other level of government."
Cover image: Signage at the Unist'ot'en camp near Houston, B.C., on Wednesday, January 9, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito