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Rights + Justice

Coastal GasLink Failed to Warn Camp Employees about Blockade, Worker Says

Camp occupants were not given the option of leaving, one worker says. Now conditions are worsening.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 18 Nov 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

A worker trapped for days by blockades on the route to a Coastal GasLink work camp says he and others would have left the area if they had been warned that Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs planned to barricade the access road.

On Sunday, the Wet’suwet’en and supporters decommissioned the Morice West Forest Service Road at several locations, making it impassable to vehicles. The nation said it issued a warning 10 hours before the closure occurred.

That message was not relayed to workers, some camp occupants say, which would have given them a chance to leave.

“I don’t know about everybody, but a lot said they would have left,” said the worker in an email. The Tyee has agreed to withhold his identity due to employment concerns.

Conditions in the camp appear to be worsening, they said.

“The septic is getting full, the water is getting low, and the fuel is getting low. There’s two days left of everything, which is what the rumour mill is saying. But we don’t actually know,” he added.

A video posted Monday on social media shows Wet’suwet’en and supporters using Coastal GasLink equipment to decommission the Morice West Forest Service Road and place barricades, such as vehicles and fallen trees, across its path.

That has left more than 500 people trapped at 9A Lodge and P2 Lodge, pipeline work camps located down the remote resource road about 100 kilometres southwest of Houston, in northern B.C., the company said.

According to the worker, more employees would have been in camp had the closure not occurred on a Sunday.

“You get one flush of your toilet,” he said about current conditions at the camp. “They turned the water off. Now people can’t wash their hands or their clothes.... People think this will be resolved right away but again, we just don’t know.”

He said the company has not relayed any information or updates about the protests that have been ongoing on the Morice for years. Conflict over the 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline — which is under construction between northeast B.C. and Kitimat — has heated up over the past two months.

On Sept. 24, pipeline opponents used Coastal GasLink machinery to dig up an access road to a worksite where the pipeline company plans to drill under the Morice River, known to the Wet’suwet’en as Wedzin Kwa, and established a camp.

In October, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Dsta’hyl was arrested as he attempted to seize equipment belonging to Coastal GasLink. Dsta’hyl, whose English name is Adam Gagnon, said he was denied access while monitoring pipeline construction as the senior enforcement officer for Likhts’amisyu Clan.

He was charged with theft over $5,000 and released the following day.

The current situation began early Sunday morning, according to Gidimt’en Clan spokesperson Jennifer Wickham, when the clan’s Hereditary Chief Woos reissued an eviction notice presented to Coastal Gaslink on Jan. 4, 2020. That followed a BC Supreme Court decision to issue a permanent injunction that prevents protesters from blocking company access to the territory.

That eviction led to a standoff with RCMP and subsequent police action that occurred over five days in February 2020, when 28 people were arrested.

Arrests also happened on Gidimt’en territory the previous year, in January 2019, when 14 were arrested.

Sunday’s notice was a re-enforcement of the original eviction, Wickham said. It was communicated to Miles Richardson, a former president of the Haida Nation hired in September to facilitate communication between the Wet’suwet’en, Coastal GasLink and provincial government. It was also relayed by radio every hour to those travelling the Morice road, Wickham said.

It was originally announced at 5 a.m. and workers were given eight hours to leave the territory, Wickham said. Just before 1 p.m., Richardson said that two more hours were needed to evacuate workers, she added.

In a statement today, Coastal GasLink said they did not request an extension on Sunday.*

Chief Woos agreed to the extension, she said. At 3 p.m., when no one appeared to be leaving the area, land defenders closed the road, she said.

“I think it’s really awful that Coastal GasLink wouldn’t give their workers the option to leave, knowing they wouldn’t be able to get any supplies in for them,” Wickham said.

“There is a way forward for Coastal GasLink, for the province, for the federal government in implementing the Wet’suwet’en rights and title and not drilling under Wedzin Kwa. Those have been really clear asks from the beginning. This isn’t new information. The Hereditary Chiefs have always been really clear.”

But at least some of the workers in camp were never told about the developing conflict or given the opportunity to leave, a worker told The Tyee.

He said news is relayed through camp by word of mouth from other workers. “But they don’t really know either,” he added. “My wife sends me info from social media, and we look at that.”

In an email to The Tyee, Coastal GasLink blamed the blockades for putting worker health and safety at risk, with no way to get supplies or medical care into the camps. It added that damage to the forest service road has made it impossible to safely evacuate or travel by vehicle.

“Notwithstanding that our work is lawful, authorized and permitted, demanding the evacuation of more than 500 people and equipment across forestry roads under inclement weather is unreasonable and unsafe,” the company said. “We will not jeopardize the safety of our workers, under any circumstance.”

The company did not respond to specific questions about whether camp workers were informed of the imminent road closure or about its process for updating workers on the ongoing Morice conflict.

The Tyee sent similar questions to B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General but did not receive a response before deadline.

On Monday, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth issued a news release condemning the blockades and saying they had put the camps at risk.

“Blockades have now been established by project opponents in violation of the current court injunction. Obstructions on the roads have effectively cut off safe access, support and security for more than 500 workers,” Farnworth said in the release.

“Our government is concerned about the health, safety and well-being of those workers as the obstructions on the roads prevent access in and out of the worksites. The right to protest does not extend to criminal actions.”

He added that the project, which is 50-per-cent complete, has been issued the necessary permits and has created economic opportunities in the North, including for First Nations. Twenty elected band councils along the pipeline route have signed benefits agreements with the project, the statement said.

Though Hereditary Chiefs representing all five Wet’suwet’en clans have publicly opposed the project, five Wet’suwet’en band councils are among those who have agreements with Coastal GasLink.

On Wednesday, the Elected Chief and council of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, one of six band councils within the nation, called for an end to the escalating conflict on the Morice.

“Even though we are also members of the Gidimt’en Clan, the protesters at the ‘Coyote Camp’ and other protest sites have never consulted us about their actions and cannot claim to represent us or any other members of the First Nation,” the statement said.

“We must also point out that there are Wet’suwet’en people working on the natural gas pipeline who are now trapped behind the blockade. We fear for their safety and well-being now that their lines of supply and communication are being disrupted.”

The RCMP said Tuesday that they are aware of the conflict and monitoring the situation on the Morice. As a police presence was rumoured to be building in the area Wednesday, arrests appeared imminent.

The worker who spoke to The Tyee said that those in the camps are in the dark about what’s happening just beyond their doorstep.

“I think there’s a quite few people here [that] think [the protests are] about money. Others don’t like the fact that their job is being threatened. Some don’t want the pipeline and feel bad for working here but are just here for the paycheque,” he said.

“But really, no one actually knows what’s going on or why.”

He added that he doesn’t feel threatened by the protesters. He just wants to go home.

* Story updated on Nov. 18 at 4:26 p.m. to include Coastal GasLink’s statement saying it had not requested a two-hour delay in the road closure.  [Tyee]

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