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BC Politics

How the Wet’suwet’en Solidarity Actions Changed Their Lives

A year later, three Indigenous youth behind the 2020 BC legislature protests say the real work still lies ahead.

Emily Fagan 27 Jan

Emily Fagan is a Victoria-based freelance journalist passionate about reporting on social issues. You can find her work in Vice, the CBC, and Ricochet, or follow her on Twitter @thatemfagan.

It was the first week of Kolin Sutherland-Wilson’s final semester at the University of Victoria. But he wasn’t there. Instead, on a chilly January morning in 2020, he sat alone on the front steps of the British Columbia legislature, dressed warmly and holding signs that called on provincial leaders to stand with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs opposing the Coastal GasLink project in their traditional territory.

For a week, he spent all day on the steps. MLAs and staff who passed by barely glanced at him.

But soon friends, classmates and community members joined him. The growing group took on bigger actions — a ferry blockade and a sit-in at the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum resources. That ended after 18 hours of occupying the building, with Sutherland-Wilson and 11 others finally carried out by Victoria police.

As the RCMP enforced an injunction on behalf of Coastal GasLink on Wet’suwet’en territory 700 kilometres northwest of Victoria, the group of Indigenous youth and allies known as the Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en ramped up their efforts. In early February, the Indigenous youth locked themselves arm-in-arm at the entrance to the legislature — surrounded at one point by a thousand allies — and stayed overnight for 17 days. They forced the cancellation of B.C.’s throne speech ceremony for the first time in history.

The fountain in front of the building ran red with dye. Words written on upturned Canadian flags declared “Reconciliation is dead.”

For a total of 17 days last winter, Indigenous youth and hundreds of their allies occupied the front steps of the BC legislature in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs. Photo by Mike Graeme.

Despite the protests, work continues on the pipeline.

But a year later, some of the organizers say the protests transformed their lives, changing their relationships with their culture and approaches to fighting colonial government practices.

‘One tiny little step in moving to a different way of being’

Gina Mowatt, a PhD student at the University of Victoria, expected a few people to join them when the Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en called for allies to help block the legislature as MLAs returned for the throne speech.

Instead, more than 1,000 showed up. After MLAs were escorted inside by police and security staff, the demonstration continued at the front steps with speeches and traditional music.

“It turned into a really beautiful, powerful stand by so many people in Victoria,” Mowatt said. She was surprised — pleasantly — as allies in the community brought food and supplies to the protest and stayed overnight in the cold.

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Gina Mowatt, left, was among the Indigenous youth that locked themselves together arm-in-arm in front of the ceremonial entrance to the legislature. Photo by Mike Graeme.

The sense of community and purpose made her feel connected to the people fighting for Indigenous sovereignty on Wet’suwet’en territory, and to those that had waged similar battles over the years.

Connections that were only strengthened when she, Sutherland-Wilson and protester Shay Lynn Sampson were called back to their home territory to meet with Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, a rare honour.

The protests filled an important need, she said.

“So many of us had really been craving a strong, Indigenous-led action,” said Mowatt. “Especially with the ongoing raids against the Wet’suwet’en, it really felt like there needed to be a strong stand made at the legislature.”

But after the demonstrations, Mowatt took time to reflect. Although she had loved what the movement represented, she felt it had not been perfect.

One of the biggest things she came back to was the exclusion of the experiences of Black and People of Colour who are also impacted by colonialism and systemic racism.

“I made some mistakes, particularly around the way that we created a settler and native binary which really erased Black people,” she says.

So Mowatt reached out to those she felt had been hurt to take responsibility and apologize.

In the last year, she’s focused her energy on community-based support efforts. She spent a month in Wet’suwet’en territory helping build tiny houses for land defenders. When she returned to Victoria, she helped build showers for unhoused people living in Beacon Hill Park. As part of her PhD work, she is developing workshops for Gitxsan youth on colonial and gender-based violence.

The legislature actions opened her eyes to the strength in collaboration when it comes to pushing back on colonialism. It’s a lesson that Mowatt says will guide her as she keeps pushing for change.

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Gina Mowatt returned to the legislature grounds this January and was surprised to discover a new gate blocked access to the spot she'd occupied with other Indigenous youth a year before. Photo by Emily Fagan.

One warm afternoon this month, Mowatt returned to sit on the legislature steps. Looking out on the grounds, she says they feel smaller than they did a year ago.

At the top of the steps where she sat and slept with other Indigenous youth, a new black gate topped with spikes blocks access to the building’s ceremonial entrance. Where hundreds had camped out overnight for days, there were only a few walking by and a security guard.

“I’m continuing to really think about what is the most meaningful way we can resist and hold the government accountable,” says Mowatt, adding that she’s learned a lot from her own biases and mistakes during the solidarity actions. “And [be] aware of how these things that we’re fighting against are also inside of us.”

Mowatt believes the time of reckoning for colonial systems is far from over.

“The legislature was one tiny little step in moving to a different way of being, a different world,” she says.

‘A traumatic experience, and something that I have to heal from’

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For Shay Lynn Sampson, the solidarity actions meant not just standing up for Indigenous sovereignty, but for her family on Wet’suwet’en territory. Photo by Mike Graeme.

After 16 days spent outside in the bitter early weeks of 2020, locked arm-in-arm with fellow Indigenous youth, Shay Lynn Sampson stepped inside the B.C. legislature.

She’d been there many times before — as a university student in BC Youth Parliament and to lobby as an elected representative of the University of Victoria Students' Society. Before she became one of the lead organizers for Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en, Sampson was a political science student at the university, organizing the local Women’s March and campus rallies.

But she’d never imagined herself helping to lead a fight for Indigenous sovereignty and solidarity that would attract national attention — at least, until a crisis hit close to home.

Although her matrilineal lineage is Gitxsan, many members of Sampson’s family are Wet’suwet’en and were fighting to protect their unceded land and waters from the Coastal GasLink pipeline project.

When news broke that the BC Supreme Court had granted an injunction against members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation who were blocking construction of the pipeline on their traditional territory, she knew the decision would take a heavy toll on her family and other Wet’suwet’en members.

Court injunctions have been “weaponized” against Indigenous Peoples, Sampson said. “It’s definitely not an accident how injunctions have been passed through the judicial system to enable the further criminalization of our people.”

On the evening of March 4, Sampson and six other members of Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en entered the building to meet with MLA Scott Fraser, then-minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

She hadn’t intended to get arrested, she says. But after an unproductive meeting, a brief sit-in and four hours of detainment by police in the legislature, she and four other Indigenous youth were led out through underground tunnels in handcuffs.

It was the conclusion of many long nights she spent fighting for Indigenous sovereignty last winter, and the one that sticks with her the most.

“I [went] from a student into something a lot bigger than that, in a way, something that was going on across the country that was ultimately affecting a lot of people that were family to me,” Sampson says.

But she didn’t realize that the weeks-long solidarity effort, with days spent livestreaming to hundreds across the nation and nights sleeping in subzero temperatures, would take a toll on her.

After the night of her arrest — especially the stressful hours spent sitting on the hallway floor, unable to see her lawyer, unsure what was going on outside and watching the familiar faces of B.C. leaders pass by — Sampson finally hit her limit.

When COVID-19 restrictions in early March halted public demonstrations, Sampson decided on an impulse to leave Victoria.

She spent the next few months with her family on Wet’suwet’en territory, drinking water from the Wedzin Kwa river, also known as the Morice River, that she’d fought to protect. Kilometres away, the Coastal GasLink pipeline project was still under construction.

Like many of those involved in the solidarity actions, Sampson has spent a lot of the last year processing.

“It was a traumatic experience, and something that I have to heal from,” she says. “I think being on the land and being with people who are family to me has been really healing.”

The experience, Sampson says, was different from other marches and protests she’d planned in the past, particularly in how the police responded. On both nights when arrests took place, Victoria police waited until the early hours of the morning to carry out the Indigenous youth and take them into custody.

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‘It’s been a really intense journey this year for me. I feel that I’ve learned a lot about myself and my values,’ said Shay Lynn Sampson. Photo by Rodney Mitchell.

“Being on the frontline has been like a huge step in realizing how vulnerable I am in my demographic as a young Indigenous woman and the different ways that I’m criminalized for what I’m standing up for,” Sampson says.

Taking a break from university to live on Wet’suwet’en territory changed her perspective, she says, and allowed her to reconnect with her culture on a deeper level.

This summer she learned about many cultural practices she was never taught growing up, including how to make a traditional fish trap. Another Indigenous woman in the community taught her how to tattoo, a practice that holds a long history of traditional and cultural significance in many Indigenous communities.

Sampson chose to give herself a traditional face tattoo, two parallel lines that follow the shape of her chin from her bottom lip to her jaw. She grew up not knowing many people with traditional tattoos, but now her baby brother and niece “can grow up seeing the beauty of our people right in front of them,” she says.

“It’s been a really intense journey this year for me. I feel that I’ve learned a lot about myself and my values.”

Although Sampson has taken a step back from organizing for the moment, she was glad to see continued demonstrations for Indigenous sovereignty held across the nation last year.

“The legislature occupation showed that we can bring issues to the front doors of the people in the colonial government,” she says. “It’s been really empowering to see that we can stand up in the same way that our ancestors and our relatives have been doing for a very long time, that we can continue on that work. Hopefully, the generations that come after won’t have to do that.”

‘This is where my heart is, right on these territories’

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Often surrounded by dozens of members of the Victoria police, Kolin Sutherland-Wilson and the Indigenous youth spent days calling on politicians to take action in support of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs. Photo by Mike Graeme.

When Kolin Sutherland-Wilson talks, his thoughts are bookended by long, thoughtful pauses. It’s a Gitxsan trait, he says, one he gets from his father.

Like his dad, Sutherland-Wilson grew up hearing stories of his great-grandfather’s partnership with the Wet’suwet’en Nation in war parties.

When Sutherland-Wilson was small, his father fought on the frontlines of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en nations’ land title action in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, a fight they won.

So when news broke of the injunction in December 2019, it hit Sutherland-Wilson hard. He was hundreds of kilometres away from the frontlines.

“I feel hugely responsible [for] my home territories,” he said. “When things escalated to that huge degree where we saw the real possibility of imminent violence, it was very difficult to be down in the city, to be removed from that.”

It was that sense of responsibility that pushed him to walk out of his first week of classes and onto the steps of the B.C. legislature. He also produced a video titled Colonialism in Canada: What is happening at Unist'ot'en? to share the history of the land and what the Hereditary Chiefs were fighting for.

The experience made his work toward a degree in political science seem irrelevant in the face of the ongoing threats to Indigenous sovereignty. When COVID-19 hit, Sutherland-Wilson left Victoria and moved back north with his wife to Gitxsan territory. He now lives in a multigenerational home with his father and other family members.

Although he has just one semester left to finish his degree, Sutherland-Wilson feels a more pressing need for him to stay on his territory and continue supporting his community.

“My entire outlook has very much changed, with regards to where I need to be and how I need to support my people,” he says. “This is where my heart is, right on these territories. I’m just trying to find ways to tell the stories of what’s happening up here.”

Sutherland-Wilson now has two new documentaries in the works: one about B.C. government actions like injunctions that criminalize the defense of Wet’suwet’en land, law and tradition, and another on the origins of colonialism in Canada.

It’s a project built on passion and perseverance: he’s spent hours watching YouTube tutorials on video editing, teaching himself how to use free filmmaking tools and scouring the internet for footage and research.

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After the solidarity actions, Kolin Sutherland-Wilson felt it was his duty to return home to support his family. Photo by Rodney Mitchell.

Come February, however, Sutherland-Wilson will be taking on an even bigger project — raising his first child.

He couldn’t be more excited. The sense of duty and responsibility he learned from his father — the very thing that pushed him to take a stand alone on the legislature steps — is something he intends to pass on. It’s the reason he wanted to become a father.

“I’ve never come at this from the standpoint of fighting for myself. I’m just trying to set the stage for the real heroes, the real storytellers, the [next generation] that are coming in — I know for sure that they’ll be unstoppable,” he says.

“I’m smashing up as much of the cement as possible so they can grow through those cracks.”  [Tyee]

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