Thousands Stand in Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders

Today marked an international day of action and solidarity with the Unist’ot’en Camp and Gidimt’en Checkpoint. Over 67 international events from Vancouver to London took place on January 8 with more scheduled for the rest of the week, including Seattle’s event on the January 11. 

Members of Unist’ot’en (C’ihlts’ehkhyu/Big Frog Clan) have been occupying the lands around the Morice (Wedzin Kwah) River since 2009 in opposition to various and ongoing proposals of bitumen and natural gas pipelines throughtheir unceded territory. Though the projects have received consent from elected members of the Wet’suwet’en Chief and Council, the voices of hereditary Chiefs who oppose these projects have continuously been ignored by the government and industry. Under ‘Anuc niwh’it’en (Wet’suwet’en law) all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en have unanimously opposed all pipeline proposals.

According to the Indian Act, elected Chiefs have jurisdiction only over reserve lands, thereby have no ability to grant permission for projects within the larger territory stewarded by hereditary Chiefs of the Nation. Furthermore, the 1997 Delgamuukw decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, which recognized that Aboriginal title still exists in places where Indigenous nations have never signed a treaty with the Crown. In fact, the court was talking about the land where this standoff between the Nation and RCMP is taking place.

Unist’ot’en members stand at a checkpoint in 2012.

Following approval of a Coastal GasLink pipeline project by the BC government in Novemeber 2018, members of the Nation stood before BC Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church to defend their sovereignty. The project aims to transport fracked gas through a 670-kilometer pipeline across their territories to refineries in Kitimat and ultimately to export markets in Asia. 

Unist’ot’en spokesperson, Freda Huson has stated, in regards to the ongoing occupation and defence of the land:

“I am here in my home, on my land. I am not a criminal for protecting my most critical infrastructure which is my berries, my medicine, my water, my right to teach future Unist’ot’en generations how to live in right relationship with the land. Without water, no human will survive and these projects like TransCanada’s Coastal Gaslink threatens the water. We are the land, the land is us.”

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), in a press release in early December, spoke against the BC government approval of the project, calling for the rights of the Unist’ot’en people. 

“The Unist’ot’en camp is a non-violent gathering of Indigenous land defenders and members of the Unist’ot’en house group in Wet’suwet’en territory in northern BC. Under the authority of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, these land defenders are actively practicing their inherent Indigenous Title and Rights to protect the land and pursue their right to self-determination. 

A central tenant to the standards and rights affirmed within the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which both Canada and BC have endorsed and committed to implement, is the right of Indigenous peoples to protect their lands and territories, to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with the lands and to own, use, develop and control those lands. Article 8 of the UN Declaration calls on States to provide effective mechanisms for prevention of any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing indigenous peoples of their lands, territories or resources.”

On December 14, the Court ruled in favour of an injunction against the Unist’ot’en occupation that would allow workers to pass the constructed checkpoint over the Morice River held by the Nation. This injunction is allowed to be supported by RCMP should there be push back.

On January 6-7, RCMP began moving into the nearby towns of Smithers and Houston in preparation to enact the injunction. Following movement on the checkpoint on January 7, 14 people were arrested including Gitdumden spokesperson Molly Wickham. One elder was released and 13 land defenders and supporters will be appearing in court in Prince George today. The armed RCMP movement on the checkpoint has raised provincial, national, and international support and attention, with media from New York Times, Toronto Star, as well as independent videographers present.

Dogwood BC, who have a focus on power relations within the province stated in a facebook post on January 7:

“History will not look kindly on politicians who condone the use of force against local people on behalf of a multinational oil and gas consortium. I hope the response from British Columbians to these events give our leaders pause as they contemplate their next move.”

Following the RCMP enforcement of the injunction, UBCIC President Grand Chief Stewart Philip stated “We strongly condemn the RCMP’s use of intimidation, harassment, and ongoing threats of forceful intervention and removal of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders from Wet’suwet’en unceded territory. The RCMP’s actions are in direct contradiction to both governments’ stated commitments to true reconciliation, and to full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which is a global human rights standard. We demand that Canada and BC call on the RCMP and Coastal GasLink to respect the Unist’ot’en/ Giltseyu-Dark House on unceded lands. The provincial and federal governments must revoke the permits for this project until the standards of free, prior and informed consent are met.” 

The actions of industry, the BC Government, and the RCMP against the Unist’ot’en members and allies speak loudly to the difference between the language of reconciliation used by all levels of government and the actions required to make reconciliation happen. 

At the time of this publication, the Unist’ot’en Camp states it is on high alert for a similar violent invasion of their checkpoint while thousands around the world rally in solidarity.