In February 2020, before the pandemic became the only news any of us followed, the big story for many of us was the Indigenous resistance to stop development of Coastal GasLink’s natural gas pipeline across the land of the Wet’suwet’en peoples of British Columbia.
By this date last year, Mohawks in eastern Ontario had had a solidarity rail line blockade in place for more than a week. By the middle of the month, VIA rail had indefinitely suspended all passenger train service across the country, with the exception of two short routes and CN had shut down its entire Eastern Canada operation.
These acts of resistance by the Mohawks and many more – at the same time, Indigenous peoples and their allies blocked ports in Vancouver and Halifax, a rail line in Toronto, rail lines in British Columbia and the B.C. Legislature as well as occupied federal cabinet ministers’ offices and the department of justice building in Ottawa – did not appear out of nowhere.
The fight of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island for sovereignty is long-standing, with struggles to stop commercial exploitation of natural resources on Indigenous land only the most recent campaign in that fight.
The Unist’ot’en camp, an Indigenous re-occupation of Wet’suwet’en land, began in 2009 and has been continuously occupied since then to prevent the illegal extraction and use of its resources. In 2012, a healing centre was built and the hereditary leaders of the five Wet-suwet-en clans took a firm no pipelines position.
Then came the pandemic, during which Indigenous communities have faced significant challenges because of systemic racism and marginalization. Limited access to health care and medical facilities coupled with a lack of potable water and housing has created increased risks, especially for those living in rural and remote parts of the country. On Wet’suwet’en lands, as in many First Nations, the community has come together to control the spread of the virus, even as, in northern B.C., the rate of confirmed cases in First Nations communities is double that in the rest of the population.
Land defenders continue to hold the land in camps close to the pipeline route but, to limit spread of the virus, no new supporters have been permitted on the land since May.
However, the pandemic has forced people to adjust their priorities. As hereditary Chief Na’moks said earlier this month:
On November 30, 2020, the Wet’suwet’en women issued a call to British Columbia’s public health authority:
“We understand that the province has declared oil and gas work an essential service, however, we strongly encourage you to reconsider. The economy cannot come before Indigenous lives.. . . Making a conscious decision to bring transient workers into our territories and communities is telling us that the economic gain of the province or state is more important than our language and cultures. You are telling us that the economic gain of the province is more important than our lives. Your behaviour and attitude facilitates the states’ genocide of our people and lands.”
The call also noted that Wet’suwet’en chiefs, elders and members were being surveilled and harassed by Coastal GasLink’s private security contractors as well as the RCMP, many of whom refused to wear masks or observe safe distances when interacting with community members.
Meanwhile, Coastal GasLink has kept moving forward. In early July 2020, an investigation by B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office (BCEAO) found that the company had begun pipeline construction through hundreds of wetlands without first completing required environmental fieldwork, including in areas that had been identified by the Wet’suwet’en Nation as being of particular concern.
The BCEAO issued a cease and remedy order to stop construction activities within 30 metres of the protected wetlands until further assessments were undertaken, but primary responsibility for conducting these assessments as well as ensuring construction does not proceed rested with Coastal GasLinks, leaving many feeling as though the fox had been set loose in the chicken house.
Dr. Karla Tait, Unist’ot’en member and director of clinical programming at Unist’ot’en Healing Center said:
“The willful disregard and destruction of sensitive ecosystems for a pipeline just goes to show how little CGL respects us or our land. The recent photos of the police with the automatic rifle lurking by the smokehouse at Wedzin Kwa headwaters along with this rampant unchecked destruction and disregard for protective EAO requirements is further proof of systemic racism – violence against us and our land continues to go unchecked to service colonial interests. Our lives, our culture and our land are all disposable in CGL’s and the Canadian government’s eyes.”
As of early February of this year, Coastal GasLink reports that the project is one-third complete and that it has laid more than 140 kilometres of pipe; approximately one-quarter of the total to be laid. At a cost of $6.6 billion – for now – the pipeline will carry natural gas obtained by fracking to a facility on B.C.’s north coast, where it will be exported to Asia.
It was a year ago yesterday that the RCMP raided Wet’suwet’en territory:
“This day last year, the world watched, prayed, and threw down in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Matriarchs, Hereditary Chiefs and land defenders. . . . COVID-19, legal battles, invasion and community trauma have challenged us, and still the fight for the clean water of the Wid’zin Kwah and the future of the Healing Centre continues.”
Joe Biden shut down construction of Keystone XL’s pipeline on his first day as President of the United States.
Wouldn’t a similar end to this invasion and destruction of Wet’suwet’en lands give real meaning to Bill C-15, which would make the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples law in this country?