In a scene that was reminiscent of the worst excesses of authorities and private security forces across the border at Standing Rock two years ago, on January 7th, heavily armed and armored Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), including snipers and elite police wearing camouflage and carrying AR-15s, clambered over a checkpoint at a camp set up by the Gidimt’en (Wolf/Bear) clan in northern British Columbia, which was blocking the bridge and road that is the only access point to their territory.
Holding an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court demanding the removal of the fortified gate to allow pre-construction work for the proposed Coastal Gaslink pipeline, which would pass through Gidimt’en territory, the RCMP at first tried to negotiate with the land defenders but seeing that they would stand their ground soon turned to force. After the smoke cleared, they had arrested 14 people and forced the rest of the protesters to retreat.
The Gidimt’en, one of five clans of the Wet’suwet’en people, had set up the gate in solidarity with another clan, the Unist’ot’en (members of the Gilseyhu or Big Frog Clan) who had established another checkpoint/camp 20 km (12.4 miles) away along the same road in 2009.
The Unist’ot’en camp, which the Gidimt’en land defenders and their allies retreated to, has permanent structures and is now more like a small town than a camp, raised to create a barrier to the construction of the 670 km (416 mile) fracked shale gas pipeline planned by a subsidiary of fossil fuel conglomerate TransCanada, which would also pass through their lands on its way to a facility close to Kitamick, BC. There, the fracked gas would be converted to liquid form by partner LNG Canada for shipping, mainly across the Pacific to energy hungry Asian countries.
Complicating the issue, the clans of the Wet’suwet’en themselves are considered by the Canadian government as one of six nations living on reserve land, represented by government chiefs under the Indian Act of 1867. The protesters argue that the territory the pipeline would pass through has not been ceded by them and is not covered by the Indian Act.
They also argue that the Wet’suwet’en should be represented by their traditional hereditary chiefs in the matter, who have been left out of the legal process during which some government chiefs have approved the pipeline, sometimes over the objections of their own people.
Explaining his clan’s opposition to what could be called a land grab by private interests, Chief Madeek, the hereditary leader of the Gidimt’en, spoke to Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, shortly before the raid, saying, “This is what we’re here for, to protect the 22,000 square kilometers and this section of the territory for our grandchildren and our great-great-grandchildren that aren’t even born yet so they can enjoy what we enjoy today out on the territory,” .
Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has tried to frame the Coastal Gaslink pipeline as a win in the battle against climate change, telling supporters at a campaign style event in BC two days after the RCMP raid, “We moved forward on the LNG Canada project, which is the largest private sector investment in Canada’s history, $40-billion, which is going to produce Canadian LNG that will supplant coal in Asia as a power source and do much for the environment.”
As usual, we should probably be wary of claims that fracking, which requires immense amounts of water and uses trade secret chemical cocktails to extract the gas, is a sustainable way to produce energy. Further, the Prime Minister’s embrace of pipelines, including the purchase, using taxpayer money, of the Trans Mountain pipeline set to carry a variety of fossil fuel products from Edmonton, Alberta to Burnaby, B.C., at an initial cost of $4.5 billion, has disappointed many of those Canadians who supported Trudeau in the hope of real change on environmental policy.
When campaigning, the PM promised to honor Canada’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Instead, as far as environmental concerns go, the Liberals have proven just as beholden, if more subtly, to fossil fuel and other extractive industries as the Conservative Harper government that preceded them.
Trudeau also promised in 2015 that if he became Prime Minister, his government would abide by the standards set by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, rejected by the Harper government in 2007 and again in 2014. The failure to honor this commitment is clear from the actions of the RCMP on Wet’suwet’en territory last week.
As explained by Chelsea Perry, managing editor of the University of PEI’s student newspaper, The Cadre, the Canadian government’s actions seem to be in violation of this agreement, “Article 10 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples clearly states “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their land or territories.” Any removal of Wet’suwet’en peoples by the RCMP, or any other authoritarian forces, has directly violated UNDRIP and the Trudeau government’s promise to implement UNDRIP.”
The importance of allies in publicizing the land defender’s fight to retain and protect their sovereign territories was shown by spontaneous protests that arose quickly across the country, with a hundred people descending on PM Justin Trudeau’s constituency office here in Montreal the day after the RCMP’s actions.
As Jennifer Pighin, who lives in Prince George, a city to the east of the checkpoints explained to The Vancouver Star, “the group became more diverse after the B.C. Supreme Court injunction against it increased awareness. That diversity is clear in the group arrested on Monday. They include clan members defending their own traditional Wet’suwet’en territory, land defenders from First Nations across the country as well as allies from settler communities.”
Rather than being given the time and resources to recover from centuries of settler colonialism, systemic genocide and forced assimilation, Indigenous communities throughout the Western Hemisphere find themselves and their lands still under threat in a variety of contexts. While the dangers these groups face in Canada and the United States may not rise to the level of what Jair Bolsonaro has planned for Indigenous people in Brazil, the struggle to preserve their lands, water, languages, cultures and way of life is seen as existential by many Indigenous communities here in Canada as across the country’s southern border in the United States.