The Wet’suwet’en First Nation evicted the RCMP and a gas company from their land this week, and in a surprising move, both are standing down—for now. It's something experts say would not have happened as recently as a year ago.
The B.C. Supreme Court-issued deadline for the Wet’suwet’en to evacuate their lands in order to allow for construction on a natural gas pipeline—or risk arrest—came and went on Friday without any police action.
It was a stark difference to the standoff between the First Nation and the RCMP just one year ago, when 14 land defenders were arrested after police pushed past a blockade to allow construction crews onto traditional Wet’suwet’en land.
“This year, it’s a whole new ballgame,” Jennifer Wickham, a representative for the Gidimt’en Clan, told VICE on Sunday.
This time around, it appeared as if the RCMP and the gas company Coastal GasLink (CGL) were more willing to work with the Wet’suwet’en’s demands: the company complied with an eviction notice issued by the First Nation on January 5, and continued to stand aside with police, after the deadline to evacuate passed on Friday.
According to Chief Na’Moks, also known as John Risdsale, the eviction notice was the first time the nation had ever issued such an order—but it was consistent with the way the Wet’suwet’en has historically protected their land through restricting access to resources.
And on Saturday, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs agreed to give CGL one-time access to their lands to winterize equipment left on a disputed construction site in the territory of the Unist'ot’en, a clan of the Wet’suwet’en people.
Na’Moks said the offer was an effort to show “good faith” that they were willing to work with the gas company.
The 670 km CGL pipeline traces a path from Dawson Creek to the LNG Canada facility in Kitimat, going directly through traditional Wet’suwet’en lands just south of Houston, B.C. While the project passed the province’s environmental assessment—which included gaining approval from First Nation bands—the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs maintain they weren't properly consulted.
Wickham said that she would not have expected CGL to comply with the Wet’suwet’en demands before.
“Last year, there wouldn't have even been a phone call from the company. Now they are attempting to work with us,” Wickham said.
Wickham says the change in approach is due to the significant international media coverage of the pipeline dispute, including an article in the Guardian that found RCMP were willing to use “lethal overwatch” against land defenders in last January’s standoff.
“Now, the powers that be want to be a little more careful in how they are being perceived,” Wickham said.
In December, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) called on B.C. to immediately stop construction on the CGL pipeline until the Wet’suwet’en granted their “free, prior, and informed consent,” citing concerns over the use of force by police.
And last week, both the B.C. human rights commissioner and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association both called on the province to respect Indigenous rights over the land.
While Wickham said she still expects the RCMP to take some form of action on the injunction in the coming weeks, legal experts say that the tide seems to be turning.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, professor of law and director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, said that B.C.’s recent move to adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) could change the way the province handles the pipeline dispute, and other similar disputes over land.
“The ground has shifted,” Turpel-Lafond said. “And what the shift tells me is that we need to get in and have another conversation about Indigenous rights and title.”
While UNDRIP just recently became signed into law, Turpel-Lafond said it has already had an impact on court decisions involving Indigenous issues.
Just days ago, in the first case in which UNDRIP was considered in B.C., a judge ruled against a Port Alberni mother who argued that an Indigenous smudging demonstration in her child's classroom was a violation of their religious freedom. The judge concluded that Indigenous peoples have the right to spiritual and religious practices, as outlined in UNDRIP.
Turpel-Lafond said the ruling is an indication the province could be willing to revisit discussions over the Wet’suwet’en’s right to enact their own laws, which could result in re-negotiations of the CGL pipeline project and even a rerouting.
However, Turpel-Lafond said that there will continue to be disputes over pipelines until the province formalizes Indigenous people’s rights over their land.
While a 1997 ruling established that the Wet’suwet’en’ had never rescinded title over their lands, there is no formal recognition of the boundaries and what those rights are.
Until that happens, the Wet’suwet’en say they will continue to oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
“All eyes are watching, and we will keep vigilant," said Chief Na’moks. "The world needs to know that we simply don’t approve this project."
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