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Inside Canada’s Anti-Pipeline Resistance Camp

Rafal Gerzak

For several years, the Unis'tot'en clan have been manning checkpoints on the boundaries of their territory, where energy companies plan to construct pipelines.

Slash piles burn near the TransCanada pipeline right-of-way construction adjacent to the Unist'ot'en Territory in northern British Columbia, October 11, 2015.

The Unist´ot´en Camp is located on unceded traditional Wet'suwet'en Territories in northern British Columbia and stands amid a high-profile oil and gas pipeline corridor. Over the summer, energy-industry helicopters had been landing there—without permission—to continue their survey work as heavy machinery cleared trees for a TransCanada pipeline right-of-way toward the Wedzin Kwah (Morice River). The purpose of this camp is to protect the land from several proposed pipelines that would run from the tar sands in Alberta and extracted shale gas projects in the Peace River Region out to the West Coast.

While preparing for my first trip in late summer, the camp was on high alert after receiving information that the authorities were planning a raid. Access wasn't easy and I had to take appropriate steps for them to verify my credentials as a journalist. Upon making contact via social media, I was instructed to meet someone in Vancouver near the sea, and to keep my eyes open for a bearded guy in a Zodiac boat. Eventually we set out on a 15-hour road trip to northern BC.

"No pipelines, No entry" is spelled out using natural materials to be seen by industry helicopters in a high-profile oil and gas pipeline corridor on Unist'ot'en Territory in northern British Columbia, October 18, 2015.

It felt strange going to a resistance camp in my own backyard. Before returning to BC, I had spent nearly three years covering the conflict in Afghanistan, and the same feeling of insecurity came over me as I approached this spot in my home province.

An unusually high number of police cruisers and black SUVs were scattered throughout the area. Convoys of white pickup trucks rushed past us on a narrow forest service road as we neared the camp in the late-night darkness. Suddenly there was a blast of light, and the next thing I knew it felt like daylight. I heard a voice yelling, "Who are you?" We were at the checkpoint; it felt like a customs crossing into another country. The gate opened and we crossed the bridge after going through the protocol that included several standardized questions.

A camp supporter relaxes as he is tattooed at the Unist'ot'en Camp in northern British Columbia, October 15, 2015.

Like everyone who crossed to the other side, I had to respect the traditional Indigenous culture and hereditary hierarchy. I learned quickly that camp supporters leave their bullshit at the bridge as they learn how to live off the land and in an off-the-grid community.

Once I entered the camp I was looked upon as suspect: I was a new face, after all, and they were prepared to be infiltrated by authorities or industry . At the same time I was worried that I might be arrested and have my gear seized. At night I slept in back of my Jeep facing the checkpoint, looking up every couple of hours to make sure I was still safe. I even had plans to stash my film in the woods.

Over the three weeks I spent there, I met people from all walks of life, who had traveled from across North America, leaving their families and lives behind to come together for a cause. They were standing up and willing to be arrested.

Obstructions created from natural materials prevent trespassers from using the Wedzin Kwah (Morice River) as an entrance to the Unist'ot'en Camp in northern British Columbia, October 16, 2015.

Nature is an incredible source of medicine both for the body and mind. Drinking fresh water from the river, hearing the silence, devouring the wild berries and meats is part of the healing process as you disconnect from everyday distractions. This is the place where proposed pipelines, some already under construction, are slated to run through pristine valleys and under glacier-fed waterways. When I first arrived I had the idea that this was a stand against pipelines and to protect the environment. Soon I realized that it's much more; it's a collective effort to reestablish sacred traditions, languages, and practices that have been suppressed for generations.

A camp supporter shows her tattoo.

A sign warning trespassers of dangers.

A taxidermy grizzly bear is displayed at the Visitor Information Centre to promote nature and wildlife in Houston, British Columbia.

The jaw from a moose estimated to be at least 30 years old found on Unist'ot'en Territory in northern British Columbia.

A camp supporter is photographed at the Unist'ot'en Camp.

Toghestiy, a Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief, hunts for wild game on Unist'ot'en Territory in a high profile oil and gas pipeline corridor in northern British Columbia.

A Unist'ot'en Camp supporter monitors camp and industry radio transmissions.

A checkpoint entering the Unist'ot'en Territory and camp.

Three mountain goats’ hides that were hunted are hung to dry in the Unist'ot'en Territory.

A camp supporter washes in the Wedzin Kwah (Morice River). This is near a location where a Coastal GasLink Pipeline is planned to run under the river.

Traditional pithouse built in the path of one of several proposed oil and gas pipelines in Unist´ot´en Territory. Three companies in particular, Chevron, Trans Canada, and Endbridge Inc are actively pursuing projects in spite of failure to gain consent from Unist’ot’en.

Freda Huson, middle, greets hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en clans at the Unist'ot'en bridge checkpoint.