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Indigenous
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Rights + Justice

One Month after Arrests, Wet’suwet’en Return to Block Pipeline

Coyote Camp blocks access to the site where Coastal GasLink plans to drill under the Morice River.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 20 Dec 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.

One month after dozens of arrests, supporters of Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs have reoccupied a worksite on the Coastal GasLink pipeline route in the nation’s territory.

The group announced Sunday they had returned to occupy Coyote Camp and block access to a strategic pipeline worksite.

The camp had been cleared in November as the RCMP enforced an injunction against blocking access to Coastal GasLink worksites.

It was established in September on a spur road off the Morice West Forest Service Road about 100 kilometres southwest of Houston. It blocks access to the site where the pipeline company plans to drill under the Morice River, known to the Wet’suwet’en as Wedzin Kwa.

Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Na’Moks said today he visited the site on Sunday after Coastal GasLink security had been asked to leave.

“They had a security guy there. People went in there and just said, ‘Hey, we’re coming back here. That’s all there is to it,’” Na’Moks said. “Everybody seemed to be in good spirits and glad they were back home where they had the cabin previously.”

He added that a tiny home, school bus and wall tents removed from the camp during the arrests had been returned and are now occupied. Following the arrests that took place Nov. 18 and 19, an additional cabin at the site was torn down by Coastal GasLink workers.

On Nov. 18, RCMP arrested 15 people, including one journalist who was later released, at Gidimt’en Camp after Wet’suwet’en and supporters blocked access to the Morice West Forest Service Road. The camp was established two years ago in response to the injunction issued to the company by the B.C. Supreme Court.

The following day, RCMP arrested another 15 people, including journalists Michael Toledano and Amber Bracken, while they were inside cabins at the drill site. All 15 were held in custody until their bail hearing was heard the following week.

Twenty-nine people face charges of civil contempt under the injunction and are expected to appear in court in February.

Na'Moks expressed outrage at how RCMP approached the arrests. Video footage shows police officers breaking down the door of a tiny home at the site.

“Where else do they use axes to knock on your door and then chainsaws to gain access? Murderers don’t get that. Drug dealers don’t get that. They don’t get their houses burned down,” he said. “We said we’re not leaving. Where are we going to go? This is home.”

In the statement issued today, Gidimt’en members said approximately 100 RCMP equipped with assault weapons, sniper rifles and dogs were deployed “while floodwaters raged throughout the province” to facilitate the November arrests.

“The Wet’suwet’en people have never sold, surrendered, or in any way relinquished title to Wet’suwet’en land,” the statement said, noting the recent anniversary of the 1997 Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa ruling in the Supreme Court of Canada, which recognized that the Wet’suwet’en and neighbouring Gitxsan Nation had never ceded control of their traditional territories.

“The Coastal GasLink pipeline has proceeded without the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs,” it said.

On Jan. 4, 2020, following a previous police action a year earlier, Hereditary Chiefs representing all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en evicted the pipeline company from the traditional territory. That eviction led to a five-day police action in early February 2020. Twenty-eight people were arrested at various locations along the Morice West Forest Service Road.

The following month, Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership signed an agreement with the province and federal government to resume title negotiations.

But those negotiations are independent of the pipeline issue, which has continued to simmer while the pandemic kept activity on the Morice quiet. RCMP have continued to patrol the remote resource road.

In September, Gidimt’en members announced they had blocked the Marten Forest Service Road, a spur that leaves the Morice about 63 kilometres south of Houston and begun establishing a Coyote Camp on the site where Coastal GasLink has been planning to drill under the Morice.

That month, police arrested two people at the camp.

Then, in October, two people, including a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, were arrested on Likhts’amisyu Clan territory. Chief Dsta’hyl, whose English name is Adam Gagnon, said he was denied access while monitoring pipeline construction as the senior enforcement officer for the clan.

He was arrested after he attempted to seize equipment belonging to Coastal GasLink and was charged with theft over $5,000.

On Nov. 14, supporters acting on instructions from Hereditary Chiefs used Coastal GasLink machinery to block access to the Morice road, blocking access to hundreds of workers in Coastal GasLink work camps and sparking the recent enforcement days later.

The day following the Nov. 18 and 19 arrests, RCMP moved into Gitxsan territory to the west, where supporters were holding a rally in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en.

“Heavily armed RCMP were brought by the busload into Gitxsan territory. They were accompanied by Coastal GasLink personnel and equipment in a joint raid on the Gitxsan All-Clans Railway Blockade,” according to a post on the Git’luuhl’um’hetxwit house group’s social media account. “Helicopters and assault rifles, all in the small town of New Hazelton, while children pelted officers with marshmallows from the overpass.”

In a Dec. 3 letter to RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki, Stikine MLA Nathan Cullen said he had heard concerns over recent RCMP actions in his riding, including a “disturbing video in which two young residents in my constituency were arrested with undue force.”

Though Cullen didn’t name the incident, in November two Gitxsan were arrested by police in Hazelton. A video of the event shows Denzel Sutherland-Wilson pinned down by police and repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” Another person who attempts to intervene is also arrested.

In his letter, Cullen does not specifically mention the Gitxsan Nation or the recent police action on Wet’suwet’en territory.

“I request that you personally review actions referenced in this letter while considering what actions might he constituted as necessary during enforcement actions addressing civil disobedience,” Cullen’s letter concludes.

It followed an announcement by Gitxsan hereditary leaders that they had posted an eviction notice on Cullen’s constituency office in Hazelton. He is also B.C.’s lands and resources minister.

Lucki said the arrests were made to enforce a civil injunction granted to CN Rail that prevents anyone from blocking railway tracks.

“In each case where an injunction is being breached, we make considerable efforts to avoid active enforcement and instead work towards peacefully resolving the conflict through engagement and negotiations,” Lucki said in her response to Cullen. “However, this is not always possible, and in some cases, force must be used to resolve the conflict. When required to do so, police officers will use as much force as necessary to resolve the matter.”

Na’Moks doesn’t believe “considerable efforts” were taken to peacefully resolve the standoff on Wet’suwet’en territory.

“They had every opportunity to stop this before it happened with all the violence, and they did nothing,” he said about the B.C. government, which allocated policing resources to the RCMP in preparation for the enforcement.

The Tyee reached out to Cullen’s office for an update on his request to the RCMP and whether he was in touch with Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership but did not receive a response by publication.

“I believe the NDP have the spine of a jellyfish, and I think that’s about as far as I’ll go on that one,” Na’Moks said when asked whether he’d met with provincial representatives. “They’re the ones that helped support the RCMP coming in. I don’t see a need to talk to them. We told them from day one we didn’t support [the pipeline]. We told them from day one we wouldn’t allow it. And they kept on pushing and supporting it.”

Coastal GasLink posted a statement to its website today saying that “a group of approximately 10 to 12 camouflaged and masked opponents” had taken over the drill site on Sunday.

“The opponents threatened Coastal GasLink security officials with violence, damaged trucks with clubs and fired flares and bear bangers. The security officials subsequently left the site for fear of their safety and RCMP have been notified of these illegal activities,” it said.

The company said that it is increasingly worried about worker safety and added that it has “the unprecedented support of local and Indigenous communities.”

While 20 band councils along the pipeline route have signed benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink, they are in place under the Indian Act to govern reserves and do not have jurisdiction over the broader territory.

RCMP issued a similar statement Monday afternoon, one minute after Coastal GasLink’s, which said officers had attended the drill site and continue to investigate. It added that anyone blocking or impeding workers access in the area may be subject to arrest.

“Officers will also continue their roving patrols of the area to ensure everyone’s safety and the roads remain unobstructed and accessible,” it said.

Na’Moks said there was no Coastal GasLink security or RCMP at the site during his visit, but police vehicles continue to patrol the Morice road, nearly three years after the force established a remote detachment there after its first enforcement of the injunction in January 2019.

He said no work was underway at the site, although it appeared site preparation had continued since the arrests a month ago.

Coastal GasLink said work had been suspended for the holiday break, but the area remains an active worksite.

* Story updated on Dec. 22 at 10:34 a.m. with information from Coastal GasLink.  [Tyee]

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