The RCMP made seven arrests at the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre today in an attempt to evict the last Wet’suwet’en post resisting a gas pipeline through the nation’s traditional territories.
Police, including tactical squad officers armed with rifles and handlers with dogs, arrived earlier this morning in a convoy of more than 30 vehicles as a helicopter circled overhead.
They were greeted by a group of women drumming and singing beside a ceremonial fire near the centre. The officers tried to talk to the matriarchs around the fire but were greeted with calls of “liars” and demands they leave.
Karla Tait, volunteer director of clinical services at the healing centre, told police she was defending her children’s future.
“I’m protecting the land for my five-year-old daughter,” said Tait.* “Our people need the salmon to survive.”
When an RCMP officer said police didn’t want to make arrests unless there was no choice, Freda Huson (Howilhkat), Unist’ot’en spokesperson and healing centre director, said police had a choice.
“You have the option to leave,” she said. “You know what the right thing is. This is unceded land. The chiefs did not give consent. They’ve [Coastal GasLink] been evicted. Honour that eviction and go. Shame. Your children will pay... Shame on you guys. Shame on you. Shame on you.”
By 10:26 a.m., the arrests began as the women continued to sing and drum. Tait was one of the first arrested. Within 30 minutes, six more people were led or carried away one at a time by police.
Huson was the sixth person arrested.
She was by then the last person still singing by the fire, her voice hoarse and filled with emotion. For 10 minutes she sang and drummed alone as songs from the other arrested women drifted down the snowy road.
As Huson was led away, walking with a police officer on each side, she continued singing. The other arrested women sang to greet her as she neared the spot they were being held.
RCMP had arrived shortly after 8:30 a.m. and read the Dec. 31 injunction barring anyone from interfering with the Coastal GasLink pipeline through a megaphone as the matriarchs kept singing and drumming.
Two black helicopters then dropped more officers near the healing centre as police prepared for arrests.
As the drumming continued, an officer said anyone who wanted to leave voluntarily could step aside. People who went peacefully would be arrested “with as little force as necessary,” the officer said. Anyone who resisted would face “as much force as necessary.”
Arrests began shortly after, and officers used a chainsaw to take down the gate to the centre.
Media at the scene, including The Tyee, were initially asked to stay off the road and “obey the injunction,” but otherwise left alone by police. But by noon journalists were made to return to a confined area near the site of the arrests.
They were kept 30 metres from the area where those arrested were being processed. The women handed their regalia to legal observers before being loaded into two police vans.
Officers have raided other two camps and made 21 arrests since Thursday in an expanding battle to enforce the injunction that would clear the way for Coastal GasLink’s pipeline to carry gas from northeast B.C. to an LNG plant in Kitimat.
The project has received support from some Wet’suwet’en elected councils, but hereditary chiefs are fighting to block the project.
The police campaign has resulted in a growing backlash with protests and blockades across the country.
People in the camp have been expecting a police raid since Saturday, when officers arrived in two helicopters and tried unsuccessfully to meet with the group.
Late Sunday afternoon, RCMP officers and more than a dozen vehicles advanced on the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre as three bulldozers cleared the road to within 10 metres of the entrance gate.
The RCMP also used a surveillance drone to fly over people in the centre. By 6 p.m., all but one police vehicle had withdrawn as darkness fell.
The centre is located at kilometre 66 of the Morice West Forest Service Road, which runs from Hwy 16 near Houston.
On Thursday, police launched a pre-dawn raid on the first Wet’suwet’en camp at kilometre 39 of the road. They arrested six people, detained journalists and dismantled the camp.
On Friday, officers, including tactical squad members, moved in by helicopters and vehicles to raid the Gidimt’en camp at kilometre 44 on the road, arresting four people. An unknown number of people refused to leave and remain in a cabin at the camp.
On Saturday, the RCMP arrested another 11 people at a warming centre at kilometre 27 of the forest road. The centre had been outside the original exclusion zone imposed by police.
But on Friday the RCMP said it was increasing the zone by another 23 kilometres, almost to the highway. They cited risks from two earlier blockades near the former checkpoint and said spikes had been placed along the road.
Police made their way toward the healing centre today surrounded by red dresses, the symbol of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The centre’s occupants hung them along the road as a reminder of the impact of industrial development on Indigenous women.
“The reason that we have dresses here is because we know that the violence against Indigenous women and girls and communities increases with the presence of industrial camps,” Tait said earlier.
Coastal GasLink was building a work camp to house up to 400 people when hereditary chiefs closed the Morice West Forest Service Road, Tait said. The camp is about 20 kilometres along the road from the healing centre.
The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, released last year, dedicates a chapter to resource extraction projects and their impact on Indigenous women, including increased rates of violence linked to nearby work camps.
On Saturday, Huson blasted politicians involved in the decision to approve the pipeline.
“Shame on you Canada,” she said. “Shame on you Justin Trudeau. Shame on you John Horgan, when you spoke of reconciliation in our feast hall, and you basically spit in my chiefs’ face by refusing to talk to them. So that’s what that song is. It’s not a boastful song. It’s asking, why did it have to come to this?”
*Story corrected Feb. 10 at 6:20 p.m. to remove an incorrect name.