Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs are vowing to defy a court injunction against blockading the Coastal GasLink project and want the RCMP to withdraw from their unceded territory, raising the stakes in a standoff that has intensified in the past year.
Wet’suwet’en leaders agreed to a truce with the RCMP last January, clearing the way for the dismantling of a blockade that impeded workers’ access to construction sites.
John Ridsdale, chief of the Wet’suwet’en’s Rafters on Beaver House, is also calling on the B.C. government to order Coastal GasLink to halt construction and suspend all permits for the $6.6-billion pipeline, which would transport natural gas from northeast British Columbia to an $18-billion export terminal on the West Coast.
On Dec. 31, a B.C. Supreme Court judge extended an injunction against Wet’suwet’en members and their anti-pipeline supporters. Mr. Ridsdale, however, said it should be the other way around, and the Wet’suwet’en will prevent construction workers from entering the Indigenous group’s traditional territory.
“There is no access to Wet’suwet’en territory without our consent,” Mr. Ridsdale, who also goes by the hereditary name Na’Moks, said during a conference call Tuesday from Smithers, B.C.
The B.C. and federal governments support the pipeline, as do all 20 elected First Nation councils along the 670-kilometre route that runs from northeast B.C. to the Kitimat terminal under construction for exporting liquefied natural gas. But a group of eight Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs, including Mr. Ridsdale, have led a vocal campaign to oppose the pipeline’s construction.
B.C.’s government said it is hoping for a peaceful outcome. “The company has been clear that it would like to speak with hereditary chiefs involved to facilitate access. We encourage representatives to engage with the company to achieve a resolution that respects the court’s decision and ensures safety for all,” the province’s Energy Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
The Wet’suwet’en authorized chopping down a series of trees on the weekend along a remote B.C. logging road to block contractors from returning to work on a section of the pipeline project.
“Those trees that were put across the road were for our safety,” Mr. Ridsdale said.
On Jan. 7, 2019, RCMP arrested 14 protesters at a police checkpoint along the logging road. Those arrests garnered international media coverage.
Asked about the new blockage on the road, Mr. Ridsdale said the Wet’suwet’en are wary about the RCMP’s plans. “This is for our safety, we have done this,” he said.
RCMP say they’re hoping for a lawful resolution. “We remain committed to ensuring the safety and security of all individuals involved and will take the actions necessary, using a carefully measured and scalable approach, should there be any criminal activities that pose a threat to individuals or property,” RCMP Corporal Madonna Saunderson said in an e-mail.
Coastal GasLink, owned by Calgary-based TC Energy Corp., said Tuesday its staff discovered more than 100 fallen trees. On Saturday, the Wet’suwet’en served an “eviction notice” to construction workers at a site named Camp 9A. The site serves as the staging area for the final 84-kilometre stretch of the pipeline across the Coast Mountains.
To reach Camp 9A, contractors need to drive down the logging road and also gain access to across the Morice River Bridge, situated near the Unist’ot’en protest camp and healing lodge.
Unist’ot’en is affiliated with Dark House, which is one of 13 Wet’suwet’en house groups, which in turn are under five clans.
Pipeline officials who are seeking to regain access to Camp 9A have tried unsuccessfully to meet this week with hereditary house chiefs. “Coastal GasLink has informed the Unist’ot’en that we will periodically need to visit sites in and around site 9A for safety and environmental reasons,” Coastal GasLink spokeswoman Suzanne Wilton said in an e-mail.
Coastal GasLink is seeking to complete the line by late 2023 and conduct tests in 2024 to send natural gas to the LNG Canada terminal in Kitimat. Royal Dutch Shell PLC leads the LNG Canada consortium, which hopes to begin fuel exports to Asia in 2025.
Justice Marguerite Church of the B.C. Supreme Court said there are major rifts within the Wet’suwet’en, with conflicting viewpoints on the pipeline. “All of this evidence suggests that the Indigenous legal perspective in this case is complex and diverse and that the Wet’suwet’en people are deeply divided with respect to either opposition to or support for the pipeline project,” she said in her reasons for judgment on Dec. 31, in extending the injunction against protesters.
But Mr. Ridsdale referred to a recent two-page memo from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The memo said “free, prior and informed consent” from Indigenous people is missing from the Site C hydroelectric dam under construction in British Columbia, the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion plans from Alberta to the Port of Vancouver and Coastal GasLink.
“The world is watching, the United Nations is watching,” Mr. Ridsdale said. “This is not just the Wet’suwet’en. This is on the world stage and once again, I reiterate time and time again, the Wet’suwet’en will remain peaceful people but we will maintain our law,” he said.
Five of the 20 elected band councils that support Coastal GasLink belong to 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.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.