The View from Unist’ot’en: A Camp that Stands Firmly in the Path of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline
VICE Canada's own Michael Toledano is currently in the Unist'ot'en camp, which is forbidden to enter by anyone who is not approved by the camp. This unsurrended First Nations land sits directly in the path of the Northern Gateway pipeline.
Michael Toledano is reporting directly from the Unist'ot'en encampment, which sits directly in the line of Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline route. His dispatches are exclusive to VICE Canada.
The federal government's approval of Enbridge's Northern Gateway is an invitation to conflict—a test of Canada's will to inflict violence upon the environment and indigenous peoples who have, throughout much of the project's proposed route, never surrendered their lands.
Given Enbridge's abhorrent safety record— an average of 73 hydrocarbon spills per year—the enormous risks associated with the project should come as little surprise. Twin pipelines must bore through land-slide prone mountains, cross six major watersheds and 1,210 tributaries, pass through the Great Bear Rainforest and load oil into super-tankers that will navigate the Hecate Straight—the fourth most dangerous waterway in the world, according to Environment Canada. The route, Northern Gateway's website proudly explains, spans 1,177 "rational and respectful kilometers."
The National Energy Board's initial approval of the project argued that, without spilling, "the project would cause adverse environmental effects... on a number of valued ecosystem components. These include the atmospheric environment, rare plants, rare ecological communities, old-growth forests, soils, wetlands, woodland caribou, grizzly bears, terrestrial birds, amphibians, freshwater fish and fish habitat, surface and groundwater resources, marine mammals, marine fish and fish habitat, marine water and sediment quality, marine vegetation, and marine birds." With such broad risks, the NEB made the solemn promise to critics that these effects would not be "significant" and that a large oil spill is "unlikely."
This cabin stands in the path of the Northern Gateway pipeline.
Yet, a more real promise has been made by First Nations across BC. "This pipeline will not be built" has become a common adage for indigenous nations and coalitions like the Yinke-Dene alliance or the Coastal First Nations, who have banned oil pipelines and tankers from their territories under laws that are much older than Canada. Nowhere is this promise more strongly articulated than at the Unist'ot'en encampment, in the mountains of interior BC, where I type this in a cabin that was built specifically to blockade the Northern Gateway pipeline corridor.
The cabin is home to Freda Huson, Unist'ot'en camp's leader, and her husband Toghestiy—a hereditary chief of a neighboring clan. With rumours of an impending court injunction against the camp, a trespass order, or an RCMP raid, the couple barely blink when reached with news of Enbridge's approval. There can be no two ways about it. "We're not going anywhere," Toghestiy says.
"This is not just the blockade, it's our home... they can't put a court injunction on our home," said Freda.
A road through the mountains in Witsuwit'en territory.
A hundred feet away from me is the Morice River, called Widzin Kwah by the Witsuwit'en people. A gushing waterway, pure enough to drink from, it is the lifeblood of the Unist'ot'en camp and one of the last unpolluted waterways in the region. Widzin Kwah is a testament to what the Northern Gateway puts at risk—a key feature of the vast, beautiful, and mountainous territory that has given life to the Witsuwit'en people since time immemorial. Seven species of wild salmon still thrive in the river, though elsewhere they are endangered.
Nearby, the only bridge into this territory is blockaded, open only to those who gain consent from the camp. To build the Northern Gateway, Enbridge must cross this bridge—though they are banned from doing so under Witsuwit'en law. A veritable border crossing, the bridge is an entry point into an unsurrendered nation. It is a point where free, prior, and informed consent—a right enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—is ardently enforced.
Those looking to enter the territories must first answer a series of questions: "Who are you? Where are you from? How long do you plan to stay if we let you in? Do you work for the industry or government that's destroying our lands? How will your visit benefit my people?" Under these criteria, Enbridge, and other pipeline companies, are banned outright.
The Canadian government believes this is Crown land, but they lack documentation to prove it—the Witsuwit'en, and most other BC First Nations, never signed treaties relinquishing title or land rights. And while Canadian courts have recognized that these territories are unsurrendered, in the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa v. the Queen case, the federal government does not—as they continue to issue permits, without consultation, on lands of indigenous jurisdiction.
Led by a prime minister who makes historically ignorant claims such as, "Canada also has no history of colonialism," the nation continues this centuries-old process in plain sight. Crossing the bridge into Unist'ot'en camp would mean extending Canada's authority into an unsurrendered indigenous nation with its own laws and system of governance. It would require the use of force. To the Witsuwit'en, it would be an act of war.
Freda Huson, Unist'ot'en camp's leader, and her husband Toghestiy.
"This war is far from being over. We're going to win this one and we're going to win it decisively," said Toghestiy. "I can say that with 100 percent confidence."
This confidence saturates the encampment. Volunteers labour tirelessly to erect gardens and structures, directly in the paths of several pipeline routes that they say will flourish for decades to come. There is a sense that, if and when the government makes its move, indigenous people and their allies will flock here in the thousands to defend the land. Already, volunteers have visited the camp from around the world. Similarly, just hours after the Northern Gateway's approval, a group of Tahltan, a nearby First Nation that has blocked coal extraction and seized work sites in their territories, arrived to support the encampment.
"No province or no federal government has say on what happens to these lands, and yet they still issue permits, and think that their permits are valid. Our law supersedes any law outside of our territory," Huson said. "They can try and do whatever they want and bring any kind of paper here. It's good as firestarter to me."
"The decision makers are the ones that have always occupied these lands... They always have and they always will. And it's our responsibility to make sure we keep that alive," Toghestiy said. "This isn't just a fight about pipelines. This is a fight about indigenous sovereignty, our sovereignty."
When Enbridge arrives, "they'll be considered trespassers. And we'll enforce Witsuwit'en law against any trespassers. If you bring any equipment in here, you're going to be walking out. You try to bring any forces, we're more skilled in the wilderness than they are. We're not afraid of the Harper government, we're not afraid of anybody that's going to try and forcefully put their project through our territory when we've already said no. And our numbers are quite high, right across Canada," Huson said.
Barbed wire lines a road through the Unist'ot'en camp.
Just last week, the government demonstrated its intent to use force on the anti-pipeline movement. Vancouver police, with guns drawn, raided the home of a group of anti-pipeline activists. Police seized computers, phones, books, posters, cameras, screen-printing equipment, banners, and black flags from the home, all under the pretense of alleged graffiti. Some of the activists are known for organizing solidarity marches for Unist'ot'en camp and other indigenous land defenders.
"This was obviously a tactic of intimidation," one of the activists told me. "They are trying to send the message that effective anti-pipeline resistance will be met with the barrel of a gun."
Yet, it seems unlikely that intimidation tactics will affect the Unist'ot'en camp. Freda and Toghestiy say they are tailed continually by undercover officers, which Toghestiy considers an "expensive form of amusement." Earlier this year they found a camera hidden in the bush, poised to photograph everyone who enters or leaves the camp. During my stay, helicopters have made frequent flights over the camp, clinging to the proposed pipeline routes.
Unidentifiable aircrafts make jerky movements over the camp most nights. These fly too close to be satellites, yet they do not look our sound like planes or helicopters. Some campers believe these are drones, not unlike those used to watch indigenous protesters in Tyendinaga.
There are rumours that the Enbridge Northern Gateway, without being required to go through a new approval process, may be rerouted to Prince Rupert to avoid Unist'ot'en Camp. The new route, still, lacks consent from First Nations along the line. Allies since long before colonization, the Witsuwit'en have pledged to help the Gitxsan First Nation fight Enbridge if the project attempts to pass through their territories to the north.
And while mainstream media outlets, like the CBC, have reported that construction on the Northern Gateway may only begin after it passes through many more regulatory hurdles, it is likely that construction has already begun. At the proposed end-point of the Northern Gateway—Kitimat, BC—Chevron is clear-cutting forests for a pipeline corridor that could be leased by Enbridge, and will otherwise be used to carry fracked gas. They too will need to force their way through Unist'ot'en's bridge.
And yet, Unist'ot'en does not flinch.
"There are prophecies all over that talk about, not just this fight, but the fight for humanity. Not just the fight for the biosphere, but the fight for humanity—because it's humans that are going to die from these foolish mistakes," Toghestiy said. "There are prophecies all over, including ours, that talk about our people winning, and winning in a decisive manner. We're prepared to fulfil those prophecies. We're prepared to stand on the front lines and begin that responsibility that we have that's inherent in all our indigenous bloods. And that's a pretty powerful statement, and it's a pretty powerful prophecy. And it's something we're going to do."