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Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs open gate to avoid RCMP confrontation

Members of the First Nation say they will take their fight over land rights in northern B.C. to court.

by Hilary Beaumont
Jan 10 2019, 4:31pm

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have reached a tentative agreement with the RCMP to open a fortified gate in northern B.C. that prevented Coastal GasLink workers from reaching pipeline worksites.

Discussions are ongoing with the RCMP and Coastal GasLink. But hereditary chiefs have not consented to construction of the gas pipeline, and they now say they are taking their fight for land rights to court.

“Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have by absolutely no means agreed to let the Coastal GasLink pipeline tear through our traditional territories,” Unist’ot’en camp wrote in a statement late Wednesday night.

The 670-kilometer 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.

In December, Coastal GasLink requested and received an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court against Wet’suwet’en organizers who had set up two checkpoints along a road near Houston B.C. the company wanted to access. On Monday, the RCMP broke through the barrier built by the Gidimt’en clan to protect the Unist’ot’en checkpoint and camp further up the road. Police arrested 14 people.

Unist’ot’en organizers say the RCMP “used excessive and brutal force,” leading hereditary chiefs to their decision to open the Unist’ot’en gate, first built in 2009 to oppose several proposed pipelines.

“While the chiefs have a responsibility to protect the land, they also have a duty to protect our land defenders. Our people faced an incredible risk of injury or death and that is not a risk we are willing to take for an interim injunction,” organizers wrote.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who are appointed through a system of governance that predates settler contact and administer traditional territories, oppose the pipeline. But band council chiefs, who are elected under the authority of the federal government’s Indian Act and have authority over reserve lands, signed deals with the company to allow pipeline construction.

While Aboriginal title to the land has not been determined by Canada’s courts, a 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision — Delgamuuk’w v British Columbia — acknowledged that Wet’suwet’en people, like most Indigenous groups in B.C., never signed any treaties or gave up their land.

In their statement Wednesday, Unist’ot’en organizers say they plan to take their fight to court.

“We paved the way with the Delgamuuk’w court case and the time has come for Delgamuuk’w II. We have never had the financial resources to challenge the colonial court system due to the enormous price tag of an Aboriginal title case.” The statement links to the camp’s legal fund.

“While the chiefs have a responsibility to protect the land, they also have a duty to protect our land defenders."

The interim injunction will be back in court soon. The Wet’suwet’en defendants are expected to file a response on Jan. 31, and the company’s application for an interlocutory injunction will be heard in court no later than May 1.

The same day Unist’ot’en organizers opened the gate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in nearby Kamloops to speak at a town hall. He was greeted by protesters both in favour and against pipelines. Pro-pipeline demonstrators wore neon work vests and jackets, and carried signs saying “no carbon tax” and “no foreign oil.” Pipeline opponents drummed and wore shirts promoting the Tiny House Warriors, a Secwepemc group that is building tiny houses to block the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would run past Kamloops.

Members of the public were allowed to ask Trudeau questions on any topic. Questions ranged from refugee resettlement to climate change, but pipelines were top of mind.

At one point, a man heckled Trudeau about the RCMP arrests on Monday. “You’re a weak leader,” he shouted. “What do you tell your children?”

According to CBC, Arnie Jack of the Shuswap nation told Trudeau, “You can stand up all the elected chiefs that you want and say that you have consent, but you do not have consent from the people on the ground, and you said yourself that these major projects would not be approved without community consent.”

“What you did to the Wet’suwet’en, that’s a national disgrace,” he added.

According to CBC, Trudeau replied that there are a range of Indigenous views on the project. “We are going to have to work together.”

‘You are afraid to lose your comfort’

At one point, Trudeau had a heated exchange with audience members over the RCMP crackdown on the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint.

An Indigenous woman, who said her name was Tilly, told Trudeau, “Today I want to ask you, what are you going to do to stop oppressing and holding our people under your colonization? When are you gonna give us our rights back? When are you gonna start giving a shit about who we are as people and not seeing us just for our land?”

“Thank you for your question,” Trudeau responded. “Canada has a long and terrible history in regards to Indigenous peoples. We have consistently failed as a country to live up to the spirit and original intent of the treaties. We have not treated Indigenous peoples as partners and stewards of this land. We have marginalized, behaved in paternalistic, colonialistic ways that has lacked respect for Indigenous peoples as stewards of the land.”

"We have consistently failed as a country to live up to the spirit and original intent of the treaties."

“Step aside!” another woman could be heard shouting from the audience.

“We have much to apologize for, and much to work forward on together in respect,” Trudeau continued. “Yesterday I had the opportunity in Ottawa to sit down with the leaders of self-governing and modern treaty First Nations. Nations that had made their way out from under the colonial relic that is the Indian Act. And we are working with them on full self-governance, we are working with them on being able to make their own determinations about their land, about how they care for their people, how they serve their people, how they move forward in responsible ways that are their choices.”

He continued that he wants First Nations to have control of their communities, territories, children and destinies.

"You are afraid to lose everything you benefit from our oppression and our suffering!"

Tilly then interrupted Trudeau, saying, “You are afraid to lose everything you benefit from our oppression and our suffering! You are afraid to lose your comfort!”

“No I’m not, Tilly” Trudeau replied. “I’m ready to walk in partnership with you and building the future and that is what we’ve been doing over the past three years in renewing this relationship.”

Without a microphone, she shouted her reply: “What about Coastal GasLink? Why are you not putting those officers up to protect us? You’re protecting a dirty pipeline!”

Trudeau said he understood her anger and passion, before adding that a number of Indigenous leaders support the pipeline project.

The exchange ended with Trudeau saying Unist’ot’en had removed the barricade.

In a moment of levity, a man in the audience offered to buy Trudeau a beer if he would push U.S. President Donald Trump off a cliff. The audience laughed.

Trudeau, stifling a laugh, responded, “I wasn’t expecting a threat of violence against our close ally, but you know, in politics people have all sorts of opinions.”

Cover image: Unist'ot'en clan member Brenda Michell hugs a friend on the main bridge leading towards the Unist'ot'en camp near Houston, B.C., on Wednesday, January 9, 2019. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)