A Wet’suwet’en land defender whose peaceful occupation of her traditional territory led to protests that shut down major transportation routes across Canada last year is being recognized with an international award for grassroots activism.
Freda Huson, Chief Howihkat, is one of four recipients of the 2021 Right Livelihood Award announced today in Stockholm, Sweden.
The laureates, who are also from Russia, India and Cameroon, are being honoured for “advancing the rights of women and girls, environmental protection and reclaiming Indigenous rights through mobilizing communities and empowering grassroots initiatives,” the organization said in a news release.
“The strongest takeaway this year was really how communities are mobilizing around the world, how people organize themselves for their rights and for their interests,” Right Livelihood executive director Ole von Uexkuell said prior to Wednesday’s announcement. “The laureates for this year are all examples of this trend, how people work even against the greatest force.”
Huson, who is from the Unist’ot’en house group of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, is being honoured for “fearless dedication to reclaiming her people’s culture and defending their land against disastrous pipeline projects,” the organization said.
Huson established the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre on her traditional territory in 2010. It has served the dual purpose of providing a destination where Indigenous people healing from trauma can connect to the land and their culture, while also blocking access to companies looking to develop pipelines in the area.
She has said the healing centre’s location next to the Morice River, known to the Wet’suwet’en as Wedzin Kwa, was chosen for its clean water, abundant wildlife and cultural significance.
The river also marks the Unist’ot’en’s territorial boundary with neighbouring Gidimt’en Clan, which established its own encampment on the Morice West Forest Service Road three years ago.
In a video released to The Tyee prior to the announcement, Huson sat next to the Morice River as she spoke about traditional Indigenous values and the importance placed on caring for the territory.
“We take care of the water, we take care of the land, everything that’s connected — the animals, the plants,” she said. “Our Indigenous people are forcibly being removed from their lands in the name of industry, and the government is the one that pushes it.”
Police actions have taken place on the remote Morice forestry road leading to the healing centre twice in recent years. In January 2019, 14 people were arrested at Gidimt’en camp when the court issued a temporary injunction to give workers on the Coastal GasLink pipeline access to the project route.
The 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline is being built between northeast B.C. and a LNG processing facility on the coast in Kitimat. Although proponent TC Energy says it has signed agreements with 20 First Nation band councils along the pipeline route, Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chiefs say they have not consented to the project.*
In early 2020, the Chiefs responded to a B.C. Supreme Court decision making the injunction permanent by blocking access to the Morice road. That led to a series of police actions at several camps along the road in February 2020.
In total, 28 people were arrested over five days. Huson was one of the seven arrested at the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre on Feb. 10, 2020.
Pipeline construction continues through the area, and while roads have remained open, RCMP continue to patrol the Morice.
Today’s announcement comes amidst rising tensions, as Coastal GasLink prepares to drill under the Morice River. An access road into the drill site had been blocked, and one person was arrested over the weekend, according to a news release issued Monday by Gidimt’en land defenders.
In announcing the awards, von Uexkuell said it was striking that the nominations highlighted countries who continue to develop oil and gas resources, even as the world struggles to meet climate targets set out in the Paris Agreement five years ago.
“Canada is one of these big fossil fuel countries. It is also a country with a very bad colonial legacy of having stolen the land from the Indigenous people and having forced them to give up their culture,” he said. “This land has never been ceded to the Canadian government, so the Indigenous people still have a claim on it. What is now happening is it’s being crisscrossed by pipelines for these disastrous fossil fuel developments.”
He described Huson as an important voice for Indigenous land defenders rallying solidarity across Canada.
In accepting the award, Huson said the cash prize of one million Swedish kronas, or about C$145,000, will help the land defenders connect with likeminded advocates from around the world.
“It’s humbling for me. Even though I’m the face, it made many people to make this happen,” she said. “Working together, we can be stronger and working together, we can find solutions.”
The Right Livelihood Award was established in 1980 and is frequently referred to as an “alternative” to the Nobel Prize.
Huson was chosen from among 209 nominations in 89 countries, the organization said. Past recipients include Edward Snowden in 2014 and Greta Thunberg in 2019. A handful of Canadians, including environmentalist David Suzuki, have also received the award.
The 2021 winners will be honoured during a televised presentation from Stockholm on Dec. 1.
* Story updated on Oct. 1 at 9:40 a.m. to provide more detail on First Nations' agreements with TC Energy.