A weeks-long solidarity protest for the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs began to wind down at the B.C. Legislature on Thursday, after five demonstrators who used deception to secure a meeting with the province’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation were arrested for mischief.
The encampment occupying the ceremonial entrance and front steps of the building began with a raucous protest that sought to shut down the legislature on Feb. 11.
Minister Scott Fraser, hoping to de-escalate rising tensions, invited a small group inside for a meeting on Wednesday evening, despite a court injunction that was put in place to keep them out. That meeting, he said, was respectful – but then the group refused to leave.
“I could not do my job at all if I didn’t work with respect, trust and good faith. It is the basis for everything I do," he told reporters. "I thought that would be reciprocated and I’m very disappointed that it was not.” Mr. Fraser appeared chastened that he had been duped by the protesters, but said he believed it was important for them to hear that their actions were not helping the Wet’suwet’en, who are in the midst of a deeply divisive debate over the pipeline that has been at the centre of the protests.
Speaker of the House Darryl Plecas authorized the meeting as a gesture of good faith, his spokesman Alan Mullen said. "They agreed in no uncertain terms to leave the building after that meeting took place,” Mr. Mullen said.
The protest has been led by Indigenous youth who say they are acting in support of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in northern B.C., who oppose the construction of a natural-gas pipeline through their traditional territories. The elected band chiefs along the pipeline route have signed agreements with the pipeline company, Coastal GasLink.
The dispute led to countrywide protests, but most of the blockades came down after federal and B.C. governments reached a proposed arrangement with the Wet’suwet’en Nation to recognize its hereditary governance system. The Wet’suwet’en are currently consulting with their members to determine if they will ratify the pact.
But in Victoria, the protesters insisted they would not stand down until the provincial government cancelled the permits for the pipeline. Chad Day, the elected leader of the Tahltan Nation, another northern Indigenous community, said he was confronted by mask-wearing protesters on the steps of the legislature this week, who told him to leave when he refused to declare his support for their cause. “What’s happening at the legislature right now is absolutely disgraceful and embarrassing to this province and its citizens, including Indigenous peoples,” Mr. Day said in a social-media posting.
Victoria Police, in a statement, said five protesters used their access to the building for the meeting with Mr. Fraser to begin a sit-in, and the group called for supporters to surround the legislature building. The crowd of more than 100 “actively obstructed officers” and it took police more than four hours to remove those taking part in the sit-in.
Until Wednesday, the Speaker’s office and the governing New Democrats said they would allow peaceful dissent, so long as legislators and staff were able to access the building. The price was paid by the public, who were denied access to the legislature because of the continuing protest.
After the arrests, however, Mr. Mullen said that the encampment could not continue as it has. “We’re not okay with continuing to erect tents, and light fires,” he said. By the afternoon, most of the protesters had dispersed and the tents and tarps were down.
Adam Olsen, the interim leader of the Green Party, was invited to the meeting on Wednesday night as a witness. Mr. Olsen is a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, and has travelled to Wet’suwet’en territory to meet with the hereditary leadership.
He said he was disappointed by the betrayal of the five demonstrators at the meeting, but he added that dialogue needs to continue.
“The deception was, they decided to stay. That, to me, is the really most disappointing aspect of this," Mr. Olsen told reporters, “because it kind of sucks the air out of the advancements that were made in understanding the really substantial long-standing legacy issues that we have to deal with in this province and country.”