British Columbia has a long and complicated history with Indigenous and First Nations peoples. While I won't get into all of the specifics of their past dealings in this particular blog post, it's safe to say that the BC government over the past 150 years has a lot to answer for. From residential schools, to the Oka Crisis, to the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, there has been an abject failure on the part of the settler-colonial rulers to properly handle its relationship with the first peoples of this land.
So then, what to make of the situation in Wet'suwet'en territory? It depends on who you ask. For example, back in 2014 the Wet'suwet'en band council signed an agreement with Coastal GasLink for the pipeline expansion, with terms laid out in order to satisfy environmental concerns. However, while up to 20 other First Nation band councils have since signed similar agreements, the 5 hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en have opposed the pipeline, stating that band councils only have authority on their individual reserves, while the hereditary chiefs deal directly with the Crown and are responsible for the overlying territory.
History Repeating Itself Again
Just over a year ago, the Gidimt'en Camp checkpoint was raided by RCMP who were enforcing an injunction against the Wet'suwet'en by a court order in favour of Coastal GasLink. Since then, the Gidimt'en Camp has been refortified, and the Wet'suwet'en have received added support from the BC Civil Liberties Association, who have sent an open letter regarding the injunction to the BC Supreme Court. They want ton ensure that there is no violence to the checkpoint this time around.
Meanwhile, Premier John Horgan has refused to meet face to face with the hereditary chiefs to address the situation directly, and has since stated that the pipeline project will go ahead as the courts have already ruled on the matter. Instead, he has sent Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Scott Fraser, who met with representatives of the Wet'suwet'en, but not the chiefs themselves. They maintain that their relationship is directly with the crown.
In recent days, the BC government has appointed former NDP MP Nathan Cullen as a mediator between all of the parties, in a last ditch effort to come to a resolution. The task before him is formidable, to be sure. He will have to recognize a number of impasses currently in the way, not the least of which being that there is already a BC Supreme Court injunction that can be enforced at any time by the RCMP. There is also the fact that the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs have stated very clearly that they will not deal with Coastal GasLink, and will only negotiate with provincial and federal governments directly.
Meanwhile, activists and members on the ground have been preparing for an eventual confrontation with the RCMP. Numerous police surveillance planes and drones have been spotted, and while the RCMP at first denied that such surveillance was taking place, they finally admitted to it once they were caught on camera. I had the chance to correspond with one of the Wet'suwet'en land defenders via Twitter, and he told me that the RCMP are looking to move in on the camp within the next few days. A report from the Guardian also revealed strategy sessions from the last RCMP raid, authorizing 'lethal overwatch' as well as commanders telling officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want” in order to break the blockade. This revelation has sent a chill through the community as they prepare for more violence.
To make matters worse, while tensions have been building between the RCMP and the Wet'suwet'en, workers for Coastal GasLink have continued work in the surrounding areas. The hereditary chiefs have even served eviction notices to the company, but to no avail. CGL's archaeological contractors have also been accused of desecrating old burial sites, and there are a number of artifacts still within the company's possession that the Wet'suwet'en want returned to them. The situation has even started to put the hereditary chiefs at odds with the elected band councils, sowing division amongst some of the members as well.
The Rule Of Law
So while the elected band councils have signed agreements with the pipeline companies, the hereditary chiefs maintain that no projects can proceed without their consent. Indeed, there is legal precedent for this position. In 1997, the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia case that went to the Supreme Court of Canada established treaty rights could not be extinguished, and confirmed oral testimony is as legitimate as other forms of evidence. There's more to the case that you can read in the link above, and it remains to be seen whether a new trial will emerge to further clarify Indigenous title rights.
Given all of this, it seems rather strange that Premier Horgan would use terms like "the rule of law" when speaking about the legitimacy of the Coastal GasLink project. Then again, it seems less surprising when you look at the colonial history of Canada in greater context, along with the lobbying power of organized labour in BC with respect to resource projects (which I will go into in further detail in another episode). It also explains why the Premier also "conceded" that the TMX pipeline project will go ahead as planned, even though the province launched a reference case with the Supreme Court and was denied at the bench.
Environmental Groups And Activists Push Back
In the midst of all of the legal and political wrangling, environmentalists and youth and Indigenous activists have wasted no time in voicing their opposition to the pipeline project in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en. There have been a number of actions coordinated on ministerial offices in Victoria as well as on the mainland, with police arresting activists in several of the rallies so far to date.
At the same time, there have been conflicting reports of those arrests, with the police and activist groups disputing the alleged treatment of some of the youth that were arrested. All of this has galvanized the protesters and related environmental movements into more actions, including a full blockade of the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal. In response, interim BC Green Party leader Adam Olsen made a trip up to Wet'suweten Territory to speak with the hereditary chiefs and to observe the Gidimt'en Camp.
While it remains to be seen whether or not Nathan Cullen will have any success in his discussions with the Wet'suwet'en Nations or with Coastal GasLink, there are still many other unanswered questions: Who has authority on the lands? What happened to the artifacts collected by Coastal GasLink? Will the RCMP commit to non-violent means of interaction with the Gidimt'en Camp? What remaining options do the Wet'suwet'en have at their disposal? Does Coastal GasLink have all of the permits it claims to have to continue work on the pipeline?
Personally, I have little faith that either the provincial government (no matter who is in power) or the RCMP will back off their positions, and we are headed for a confrontation similar to what took place last year in January at the Gidimt'en Camp. Legal precedence notwithstanding, Canada has a checkered past when it comes to Indigenous treaties and land ownership. However, there is a bright spot emerging from this seesaw battle. Young people are stepping up to the plate in a big way, and politicians would do well to remember that they are now the largest voting bloc in Canada. In the meantime, we should be as bold and brave as they are, and join the fight to preserve our planet.
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