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Jan. 9, near Houston, B.C.: First Nations leaders and supporters are allowed past a blockade built in protest against the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The energy project led to a tense standoff last winter between Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs and the company building the pipeline.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

On a bone-chilling late afternoon in February, two supporters of the Wet’suwet’en Nation peered at a mound of soil they say had been unearthed by bulldozers clearing a remote site in northern British Columbia for the new $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Camp 9A is one of 14 sites designated as work camps along the 670-kilometre route. The pipeline is supposed to transport natural gas from northeast B.C. to a new $18-billion export terminal being built in Kitimat on the West Coast.

The duo say they spotted artifacts that resemble the type of stone spear points used by Indigenous people thousands of years ago to hunt for caribou, with the lithic spears likely propelled by a wooden throwing tool called an atlatl. The two individuals — no one has disclosed personal details about them — say they found six Indigenous artifacts that day. They took two of the stone tools with them for safekeeping and left four atop a frozen slab of clay at the site.

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There is no doubt that the artifacts are authentic, but how they ended up in the middle of Camp 9A has spawned a complex and highly charged court dispute: Were the objects planted in an effort to halt construction on the pipeline or did they always exist on the site?

The Unist'ot'en of the Wet'suwet'en Nation say these two stone tools were found at the proposed site of a Coastal GasLink work camp.

Unist'ot'en Camp Facebook


Dawson

Creek

ALASKA

Approximate site

of Camp 9A

Houston

Kitimat

ALTA.

Prince

George

Protest

area

16

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Banks

Island

97

Unist’ot’en

Camp

0

80

KM

Morice River

Kamloops

Morice River

Bridge

Coastal GasLink’s

pipeline project

Morice R. Forest Service Rd.

TC Energy’s

existing gas

transmission

system

0

1

KM

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

source: b.c. rcmp; thetyee.ca

Dawson

Creek

ALASKA

Approximate site

of Camp 9A

Houston

ALTA.

Prince

George

Kitimat

Protest

area

16

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Banks

Island

97

Unist’ot’en

Camp

0

80

KM

Morice River

Kamloops

Morice River

Bridge

Coastal GasLink’s

pipeline project

Morice River Forest Service Rd.

TC Energy’s

existing gas

transmission

system

0

1

KM

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, source: b.c. rcmp;

thetyee.ca

Dawson

Creek

ALASKA

Approximate site

of Camp 9A

Houston

ALTA.

Kitimat

Prince

George

Protest

area

Haida

Gwaii

16

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Banks

Island

97

Unist’ot’en

Camp

0

80

KM

Morice River

Kamloops

Morice River

Bridge

Coastal GasLink’s

pipeline project

Morice River Forest Service Rd.

TC Energy’s

existing gas

transmission

system

0

1

KM

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, source: b.c. rcmp; thetyee.ca

The Globe and Mail dug through hundreds of pages of documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court to paint a picture of the conflicting views over the origin of the relics and the Wet’suwet’en’s fight against Coastal GasLink and the BC Oil and Gas Commission.

The stakes are enormous. Camp 9A is the staging area for the final 84-kilometre stretch of the pipeline, known as Section 8, across the Coast Mountains. The construction window is limited to six months a year and any delay would sharply raise costs and shake investor confidence in the pipeline and the Kitimat gas liquefaction facility and terminal.

At the peak of construction, the pipeline will employ 2,500 workers across northern British Columbia. LNG Canada, a consortium led by Royal Dutch Shell PLC, will need another 7,500 people to assemble the terminal.

Coastal GasLink secured support from all 20 elected First Nation councils along the pipeline route. The councillors are elected under the federal Indian Act and they believe the project will dramatically improve living standards for their residents on reserves. But a group led by eight Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs opposes the pipeline. About 28 per cent of the route crosses traditional Wet’suwet’en territory, known as their “yin tah.” Similar to most Indigenous groups in B.C., the Wet’suwet’en Nation has never signed a treaty ceding control of its land. The chiefs say the province and the industry are unjustly infringing on it.

The clout of the hereditary chiefs over activities on provincial Crown land, such as Camp 9A, was strengthened by a 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision.

As a result, Coastal GasLink has become a lightning rod for several complex legal issues as the chiefs try to protect their heritage and culture – right down to six artifacts.

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Hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en Nation carry a flag in a Jan. 16 solidarity march in Smithers, B.C., to rally opposition to the pipeline.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press


The discovery of the artifacts was no accident. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have attracted international media attention and support from environmental groups for protests against pipelines over the past decade.

The inspection of Camp 9A had been carefully planned, and the Wet’suwet’en leaders were well aware that finding any cultural artifacts could halt construction. They had asked supporters to be on the lookout for historical objects unearthed by the bulldozing activity. Leading the inspections were members and friends of Dark House, one of 13 Wet’suwet’en hereditary house groups, which in turn fall under five clans.

The construction season is dependent on good weather at high elevations, realistically meaning the six months from May through October. Work on Section 8 began first and will finish last.

Calgary-based giant TC Energy Corp. is building the pipeline and wants to complete it by late 2023, then start commissioning and testing it by 2024 in order to feed the terminal in Kitimat. The liquefaction facility will supercool the natural gas into liquid form. The goal is to start exporting LNG in tankers to Asia in 2025.

The location of the relics was very fortuitous for Dark House – smack dab in the middle of Camp 9A. Upon the reporting of heritage objects in British Columbia, protocol calls for a perimeter to be established. “Because the artifacts were claimed to have been found in the middle of the Camp 9A site, the 100-metre buffer essentially covered the entire Camp 9A site,” Coastal GasLink project manager Sunny Deol said in an affidavit.


Molly Wickham sings and beats a drum at the Jan. 16 rally in Smithers to show support for the Wet'suwet'en Nation.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press


The euphoria among the Wet’suwet’en from finding the artifacts didn’t last long. Hereditary leaders and their supporters soon had to start fending off allegations that the spear points and fragments were planted.

The Globe interviewed more than 20 people familiar with the case of the artifacts and also obtained 13 court affidavits and examined dozens of exhibits and internal e-mails.

Ron Austin is president of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, the umbrella organization based in Smithers, B.C., that represents hereditary house groups. Mr. Austin, who also goes by the hereditary wing chief (sub-chief) name Dzii Ggot, said he understands why some people are skeptical about the discovery on Feb. 13. But he is appalled by rumours that the six relics might have originated from a 2017 find near the local museum in Witset, B.C., about 180 kilometres away from Camp 9A by road.

Hereditary house chiefs govern the Wet’suwet’en Nation, and seven of the nine current chiefs live on reserve in Witset or nearby Hagwilget, according to a recent tally. Eight of the nine men are opposed to Coastal GasLink, with one taking a neutral position. Four other house chief positions are vacant.

“The company is trying to say the artifacts were planted, but there are networks of trails all over Wet’suwet’en territory. There are artifacts all over the place,” Mr. Austin said in an interview in December. “The museum wouldn’t bury artifacts somewhere else. That doesn’t make sense.”

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Images from a B.C. archeological inventory show the middle of the Camp 9A site this past February. Ribbons cordon off the search area for artifacts.

B.C. archeology branch

Bulldozers and other heavy machinery had flattened out Camp 9A’s sloping site to make way for the arrival of trailer-like modular rooms that would later house up to 450 pipeline employees. The area had also been extensively logged twice in the past, including a decade ago. Still, the terrain for the work camp remained bumpy, dotted with gravel and boulders. The area endured 11 consecutive nights of overnight temperatures ranging from minus 23 to minus 38. Large lumps of soil and clay were frozen solid.

Some time after Coastal GasLink construction workers left the site at 4:12 p.m. on Feb. 13, the two Dark House supporters made their discovery.

At 12:21 a.m. on Valentine’s Day, Kevin Pegg, who runs a small company in the B.C. Interior that sells equipment for generating renewable energy, posted a photo on Facebook of the two artifacts that were taken away for safekeeping. “A friend of mine uncovered these artifacts,” wrote Mr. Pegg, president of EA Energy Alternatives Ltd.

A photo posted to the Unist'ot'en camp's Facebook page shows two stone tools.

Unist'ot'en camp Facebook

On the morning of Feb. 14, Steve Black, field security lead for Coastal GasLink, drove to start his shift at Camp 9A. A man stopped Mr. Black at the Morice River Bridge and handed him a document that said there had been an archeological find in the area.

When he arrived at Camp 9A, Mr. Black spotted a black Toyota Land Cruiser already on site. At 8:20 a.m., he spoke with the driver, telling him: “Look I don’t want to see you get arrested, please just move your vehicle off the work site.”

According to documents filed in court by Coastal GasLink, the driver shot back at Mr. Black: “Is your mustache compensating for your small penis?”

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The driver declined to move his Land Cruiser and insisted that the RCMP needed to witness the area where the artifacts were found.

At 8:25 a.m., a black Toyota pickup truck arrived and parked next to the Land Cruiser. Anne Spice, an anthropologist who is advising Dark House, got out of the pickup and walked onto Camp 9A, along with two men.

Ms. Spice showed a document to Darren Bonang, field security adviser for Coastal GasLink. She asked that work be halted due to the discovery of heritage objects.

Coastal GasLink officials indeed suspended work at the site that morning, in accordance with provincial rules under the Heritage Conservation Act. Within two days of the discovery, archeologists sympathetic to hereditary chiefs estimated that the two stone tools in Dark House’s possession (one projectile point and one fragment of a base) could be 2,400 to 3,500 years old.

In an open letter dated Feb. 15, dozens of archeologists and researchers from across North America urged the B.C. government to halt construction indefinitely at Camp 9A. Coastal GasLink, in turn, emphasizes that five of the 20 elected First Nation councils that have signed agreements in support of the pipeline are within the Wet’suwet’en Nation: Wet’suwet’en First Nation (formerly known as the Broman Lake Indian Band), Burns Lake, Nee Tahi Buhn, Skin Tyee and Witset.


The Unist'ot'en camp, shown this past January, dates back to 2010. Another camp, Gidimt’en, was built in 2018.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail


For Dark House and its affiliate Unist’ot’en, which set up a protest site near Camp 9A that dates back to 2010, news about the discovery of historic artifacts came at a particularly opportune time.

On Feb. 8, five days before the discovery of the artifacts, Dark House had e-mailed the Oil and Gas Commission to complain about the provincial regulator’s acceptance of Coastal GasLink’s archeological impact assessment on Camp 9A. “Dark House will be filing for a petition for judicial review of this project and requesting an associated injunction if work in Dark House territory is not stopped immediately," the e-mail warned.

But Coastal GasLink quickly commissioned a new archeological report, which was delivered to the company on Feb. 20.

“It is unlikely, but not impossible, for these artifacts to have been recovered somewhere within multi-use Site 9A and then placed in the find spot,” wrote Stephan Girard, an archeologist employed by Roy Northern Land and Environmental, whose business includes archeological consulting services.

Mr. Girard said the four artifacts (one projectile point and three fragments) were found after a bulldozer cleared away one metre to three metres of the original ground covering, meaning the objects would have been buried deep. He doubted the relics were found at that depth.

His report is contained in a court action launched in May, in which Dark House and its chief, Warner William, are the petitioners seeking a judicial review to obtain an interim injunction for halting work at Camp 9A. The respondents are Coastal GasLink, the Oil and Gas Commission and the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

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Mr. Girard explained his skepticism by saying that despite the freezing conditions, there were no pick and chop marks on the artifacts and no matching impressions in the lumps of soil.

“In other words, it is highly unlikely that artifacts are in primary context but rather the byproduct of recent human transport and deposition, likely by the Unist’ot’en camp members who found them,” he wrote in his report to Kim Ogilvie, Coastal GasLink’s manager of environmental planning and permitting.

Mr. Girard wondered whether the reported recovery of artifacts was "legitimate or created by Unist’ot’en camp members in order to delay construction.”

The Roy Northern archeologist said provincial government staff accompanied him on his visit to Camp 9A on Feb. 15. Two were archeologists: Vera Brandzin, heritage program manager at the Oil and Gas Commission based in Fort St. John in northeast B.C.; and Sebastian Blackthorne, heritage resource specialist based in Victoria with the Forests Ministry’s archeology branch. Also taking part in the visit was Ms. Brandzin’s colleague, Kate Mana, an operations officer with the commission.

Their visual inspection of the area immediately around the discovery was impeded by a light cover of snow.

Images from the B.C. archeological inventory show light snow covering a patch of earth at Camp 9A.

B.C. archeology branch

RCMP had escorted them through a checkpoint first set up in 2010 at the Morice River Bridge by the Unist’ot’en to protest Enbridge Inc.’s now-defunct plans for the Northern Gateway oil pipeline from northern Alberta to Kitimat. Nearby is a healing lodge that opened in 2015 as part of that protest.

In 2013, Coastal GasLink hired CH2M Hill Energy Canada Ltd. to conduct an archeological impact assessment of Camp 9A. CH2M completed a follow-up assessment in 2016, concluding that there was a low potential for archeological finds.

Given the continuing blockade at the Unist’ot’en camp on the Morice River Bridge, CH2M staff weren’t able to conduct an on-site investigation. Instead, they relied on historical information gleaned from logging operations over the years, pursuing their probe on desktop computers and tapping into provincial databases.

Armed with Mr. Girard’s report, Coastal GasLink asked the province’s Oil and Gas Commission for permission to restart construction at Camp 9A. The commission granted it and work resumed in April.

But in May, Mr. William and Dark House applied for an interim injunction in B.C. Supreme Court to overturn the commission’s decision. The court action also challenges the archeology branch’s decision to approve Coastal GasLink’s mitigation plans for dealing with any future artifacts, arguing that the B.C. government fell far short of its obligation to consult and accommodate Dark House.

“The discovery of the artifacts confirmed for us what we have always known– that our people have always lived on and used the lands in our territory,” said Mr. William, who also goes by the hereditary title Knedebeas.


Johnny Morris washes himself this past January after spending time in a sweat lodge at Unist'ot'en.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press


A B.C. Supreme Court judge had been scheduled to begin a three-day hearing into the case on Dec. 11, but that has been postponed until early 2020 to give the parties more time to assess whether an out-of-court settlement might be possible. Deep divisions, however, persist.

Mr. Girard has outlined mitigation plans to guard against ruining relics, including subsurface testing of topsoil when the ground isn’t frozen and visual inspections of the surface during construction and reclamation, overseen by an archeologist.

Wet’suwet’en Nation leaders view Coastal GasLink’s mitigation plans as woefully inadequate. They also remain suspicious of the provincial government.

On March 8, the Oil and Gas Commission issued an information bulletin that outraged the hereditary chiefs and their supporters.

“The soils upon which the artifacts were found would not typically contain any such cultural artifacts and this was likely not their original location,” according to the bulletin by the Oil and Gas Commission, or OGC. “However, a definitive determination on their exact location of origin cannot be made.”

The OGC’s bulletin upset Ms. Spice, the anthropologist who is advising Dark House. In April, she and anthropologist Denzel Sutherland-Wilson, along with Chelsey Armstrong, an archeologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote a scathing review of the bulletin in the Archaeological Society of British Columbia’s journal, The Midden.

“The OGC’s carefully crafted insinuation that the artifacts were planted sought to discredit Unist’ot’en people, and simultaneously assert that no archeological heritage was present nor at risk,” wrote the three authors, whose article in The Midden also appears as a court exhibit entered by Dark House. “The bulletin breathed life into racially charged and cruel comments from the public, and it exacerbated deep-rooted colonial sentiments that were now able to freely surface.”

They also had an explanation for why the soil on the artifacts would not have matched that at Camp 9A: “The site was disturbed by bulldozers and excavators and any artifacts would almost certainly be moved from their ‘original location.’ ”

The three authors added that the artifacts are likely from a layer of “fluvial clay,” disagreeing with Roy Northern’s report that concluded the objects were found deeper down in “glacial till.”

Separately, Dr. Armstrong wrote an eight-page internal report for Dark House, advising that unceded territory, including Camp 9A, held “a high potential for archeological sites and cultural heritage.”

The Oil and Gas Commission said in December that more study is needed. “The required testing of soil on the site is not yet complete," said commission spokeswoman Lannea Parfitt. But she also defended the March 8 bulletin, saying it “specifically avoided any sort of speculation about the origin of the artifacts.”


The blockade at Unist'ot'en is seen on Jan. 9, three days before it came down.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail


Warner Naziel, a hereditary leader who has an anthropology degree, said Roy Northern’s report is biased because Coastal GasLink commissioned it.

“They drew false conclusions that the lithics were planted. Who is going to find a really old artifact, pack it around and drop it on a site like that? The people who found the lithics are not going to sneak around. That’s stupid,” he said in an interview in December.

Mr. Naziel has been a central figure in the Wet’suwet’en’s battle against Coastal GasLink and the B.C. government. He co-founded the Unist’ot’en camp in 2010 with Freda Huson, then his common-law wife. They separated last January, but when they were together for more than a decade, they were widely seen as the Wet’suwet’en power couple.

In November, 2018, Coastal GasLink named them as the two key defendants in the company’s quest for a permanent court injunction to prevent protesters from reviving a blockade on the Morice River Bridge. The pipeline company alleges that Ms. Huson and Mr. Naziel are the architects behind the Unist’ot’en protest camp and blockade.

Warner Naziel and Freda Huson, shown in 2014 when they were still married. They have since separated.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The blockade came down on Jan. 11, 2019, one day after protesters agreed to comply with an interim court injunction to grant construction workers temporary access to the area and four days after the RCMP arrested 14 people at a police checkpoint on a logging road near Houston, B.C. Those arrests garnered international media coverage.

Dark House spokeswoman Karla Tait, director of programming at the Unist’ot’en healing lodge, said the four artifacts that its two supporters left at the site were taken away without permission from hereditary leaders. She said it doesn’t make sense to name the duo. “We have no interest in risking the safety and privacy of our supporters, who already face ongoing surveillance and harassment from the RCMP,” Dr. Tait said in a statement to The Globe in December.

She also criticized Roy Northern’s study into the artifacts. “I cannot understand why Roy Northern’s report would speculate about that, but to assert that the artifacts were planted would be an outright lie and libelous,” Dr. Tait said.

Last spring, Westrek Geotechnical Services Ltd. completed another study ordered by Coastal GasLink. After examining the subsurface soil at Camp 9A, Westrek agreed with Roy Northern that “the artifacts were not from that location.”

In an affidavit in June, James O’Hanley, vice-president of applications at the Oil and Gas Commission, concluded that the "OGC was of the view that Camp 9A likely did not contain additional artifacts.” Mr. O’Hanley said the OGC remained committed to meet with Dark House for a continuing review of the mitigation plans.

The four artifacts removed from Camp 9A, which went into storage at a government facility for nearly 10 months, were returned to Dark House on Dec. 19.

In the months since the discovery, no other artifacts have emerged at Camp 9A.

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