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Rights + Justice

Judy Wilson’s Message for Canadians: ‘The Land Defenders Are Doing This for Everybody’

RCMP raids in Wet’suwet’en territory can’t bring justice, reconciliation or a better future, Neskonlith chief says.

Zoë Ducklow 10 Jan

Zoë Ducklow is an independent journalist and photographer covering current affairs. Find her on Twitter here.

Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith First Nation, east of Kamloops, is secretary treasurer of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, a community leader, strong opponent of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and an advocate for clean energy.

The Tyee reached out to Wilson to talk about RCMP action against pipeline protesters in the Wet'suwet'en nation in northwest B.C. because of her extensive involvement with government and industries and her long history of environmental advocacy. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What are your thoughts on how governments are responding to the RCMP action in the Wet'suwet'en territory?

I was just reading Premier [John] Horgan’s response to the Unist'ot'en, and I think he was trying to stay on the middle ground. He mentioned the bands who signed these agreements [to allow the pipeline], but to me, the issue is clearly about the hereditary Wet'suwet'en chiefs. They are the proper titleholders to their unceded territory, and they already made a decision. They said no pipelines in their territory.

As for Trudeau, I don’t think he’s really responded. It’s concerning that on one hand he talks about truth and reconciliation, he talks about implementing UNDRIP [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People] and has supported Bill C-262, which is about implementation — and then he’s using forceful, militarized RCMP to remove people and arrest them at Unist'ot'en and Wet'suwet'en territory. He’s speaking contradictorily, and he’s actually in violation of some of the conventions that he signed at the United Nations.

You called for Canadians to ‘stand with land defenders.’ How can they do that?

Canadians, I think what they need to realize is that the land defenders are doing this for everybody. They’re doing it to protect the water, they’re doing it to protect the land, because with dirty oil and gas, we have to change, and it has to be immediate.

Dr. David Suzuki has said numerous times that there is no transitional economy to this problem with climate change and global warming. We have to all change now. We have to change to ensure that our young people have a future. That’s what the Indigenous land defenders are talking about when they say we need to protect the land and the water. That water is sacred, water is life. It’s critical and crucial to every Canadian. Not only in B.C. and Canada, but globally there has to be an awakening now.

How would you like to see this situation handled?

First of all, there has to be the removal of RCMP from unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs need to be respected.

The RCMP are not to interfere politically with the titleholders that way. This needs to be a higher level discussion between the hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs and government. It should be nation-to-nation and government-to-government. This gas line is being imposed on the Wet’suwet’en. Governments need to talk with titleholders. That’s what I firmly support.

We need to take the lead from the hereditary leaders. There are proper protocols, and we can’t overstep them. This is squarely in the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ hands, and we need to know from them what their next steps are.

It’s not new, this decision. It’s just that now the RCMP are trying to say they have to serve the injunction; they have to do this, they have to do that. But there could have been a lot of other steps, and the first one should have been with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. To talk to them and be respectful that there's been no consent given.

Why was it important for the Neskonlith First Nation to show support for the Wet’suwet’en?

Our members have continually supported Unist’ot’en. My mother herself travelled with elder Wolverine a few years ago and brought food up there to the camp and was hosted there. So our elders have been up there, and some of our members have gone up periodically to support land defenders. We continue to do that. We lit a sacred fire on Monday, and one of our fire keepers was out there saying prayers, and I was out there too saying prayers, and sent our prayers to Wet’suwet’en and we'll continue to do that.

We have the Trans Mountain pipeline here in our territory that has no consent from our proper titleholders either. They say they have some agreements signed with bands, but bands can’t own a territory. The federal government created [the elected chief and councils], not our people, and here there has been no transfer of authority.

So I think the real crux of the issue goes back to the proper titleholders and unceded territory. We’re having the same issue here with the Trans Mountain pipeline. I went down to Houston last year and I explained that to the Kinder Morgan shareholders. I tried to go over to Calgary to explain that to the Canadian shareholders, but before I knew it they sold the pipeline to Trudeau. So the shareholders at least evaluated the risk when I explained it to them. I’m not sure if that’s the only reason they sold it, but there was a lot of liability with it. And now Trudeau absorbed that liability. The biggest liability is that there is no consent, and the other one is if cost of things do go south on that pipeline, it’s actually costing every taxpayer in Canada now.

What resolution do you see coming out of this conflict?

I think it’s really exposing the intent of the government, and what their real agenda is. So we need to know that.

And the other one is bringing a lot of our nations together; there’s been a lot of solidarity. I’ve been to several rallies already and it’s only day three of the week. It’s what Grand Chief Stewart Philip describes as “battleground B.C., battleground Canada.”

I just came from a meeting of our Secwepemc chiefs, and our tribal chief said “Better buckle up, because it’s going to be that kind of year.”

We have to get ready. Our tribal council supported the Wet’suwet’en and we’re sending money up to them, and many other nations are going to be showing their support that way too, to ensure the Wet’suwet’en are taken care of.

We’re all going to be standing in solidarity, supporting one another. Because, you know this could happen to every one of our nations.

We have to let them know that we’re not going to allow them to do that, because it’s a clear violation. We’ll be raising it to all levels, but we'll be doing that together. We have a lot of support from the eastern tribes and a lot of support from the American tribes. it wouldn’t surprise me if we started seeing global Indigenous tribes supporting the Unist’ot’en and our people here in Canada.

What does the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia mean in this situation?

The Delgamuukw case in 1997 was our first recognition — well, not the first — that our title and our rights were economic rights. Delgamuukw was a real strong case, and the Wet’suwet’en were the ones who led that fight for us.

So then for the RCMP to have disregarded that case as merely nothing? Shame on them. The RCMP have no business interfering with our nation-to-nation or government-to-government issues.

You’ve got to remember that colonial government hides behind the burden of proof. They put the onus on us to prove that we were here. Our histories go back, but they still try to deny it. And they have nothing whatsoever that the federal and provincial governments can show how they conquered us, how we signed over our unceded territorial lands to them. They have nothing. And it’s the reverse onus of proof they try to put on us.

So the government does that to try to twist things around for their convenience to say they annexed our lands. They try to use that doctrine of discovery, say that the land was vacant, that, you know, we’re savages, that we didn’t have any organized government. But we had very organized societies, we had our clans, we had structure for our families and governance, and we had our own laws and jurisdictions. That’s the real truth the federal and provincial governments are trying to deny.

If you could get one key message across, what would it be?

The key message is to respect the hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs on their unceded territory. The title of those lands is 100 per cent held by the hereditary chiefs, and that needs to be respected.

The other thing is that the land defenders are doing this because of climate change and global warming. We can see it in the weather, we can see it in the emergency flooding and fires that we’re going through. We go right from flooding to fires in our territory. Last year a lot of this was burnt up, a lot of our communities that were affected are still struggling. Our animals were affected, our plants, our medicines, our water.

We can’t continue on. The scientists are showing their information. Our Indigenous knowledge keepers and our land defenders are also saying why we can’t continue on this path and that we all need to wake up and say we do need to change, we need to work toward better renewable resources and better ways of energy, and better ways of an economy than basing it on dirty oil and gas.

Let’s talk about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both the federal and B.C. governments have voiced support for UNDRIP, but in this situation it doesn’t seem they are following those principles.

The federal and provincial governments, they have to be able to adhere to the higher levels of international law and also the constitution and our own laws. They are not exempt. They have to follow the principle of free, prior and informed consent and self-determination for our Indigenous people.

And they can’t talk reconciliation and take contradictory actions on the ground by arresting, removing and using the RCMP to intimidate our Wet’suwet’en people like that. It’s a violation of human rights, and they cannot be doing that as government and say they’re doing reconciliation. It’s a false reconciliation. It’s a notion in their minds that the colonial governments are over our Indigenous people.

Because with a recognition of UNDRIP, our people are standing up their sovereignty, they’re standing up their territorial rights and their human rights, their Indigenous rights on the land.

Anything else you’d like to add?

In regards to that Trans Mountain pipeline coming through our territory, we’ve had women who have been voicing a lot of concern over the 1,000-man camp that's been proposed. They have a legitimate concern; there are academic reports that show the impact of resource extraction man camps, that there’s increased violence against women and girls. We don't want that in our territory. We already struggle right now with a lot of that impacting our people and we don’t want to support industries that treat our people that way.

These women have real concerns. I just wanted to mention that because our Secwepemc women organized the rally today in Kamloops, and they wrote a letter that's going to be handed to Trudeau about their concerns, about no consent for the Trans Mountain pipeline. They have to be listened to. So far, as far as I know no federal and provincial governments have listened to our Secwepemc women at all.

I’ll support our women. A lot of our mothers and grandmothers, they are the main pillars in our families and our communities and our nations, so they have to be respected.  [Tyee]

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