The projects proposed to run through our territory are a threat to us reclaiming and self-determining our own health and wellness - Dr. Karla Tait
The Unist’ot’en clan, members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, built their family home in 2010 on the GPS coordinates of a projected pipeline. Since then, their occupation has flourished. It is now home to a traditional pit-house, a permaculture garden, a solar powered mini-grid and a healing lodge.
To date, no pipeline work has been done on their unceded territory. The re-occupation of their lands is in the path of several proposed pipeline projects, including the Pacific Trails Pipeline, the Enbridge pipeline, and the Coastal Link Gas Pipeline.
Contractors attempting to gain access have been turned away at a checkpoint by peaceful land defenders. The Unist’ot’en are reimagining free, prior, and informed consent, and, in-so-doing, re-establishing themselves in their ancestral lands.
On November 27th, the land defenders of the Unist'ot'en camp were served an injunction and civil lawsuit by TransCanada, the company behind the Coastal Gas Link pipeline project. The injunction, which asks the RCMP to arrest and remove all people from the camp as soon as next week, will be heard in a BC court on Monday, December 10, International Human Rights Day.
TransCanada is seeking an “interim, interlocutory or permanent injunction,” police enforcement, and financial charges against those “occupying, obstructing, blocking, physically impeding or delaying access” to Wet´sewet´en territory.
The notice doesn't name the Unist’ot’en house group and hereditary chiefs, who collectively hold title and govern Unist’ot’en territory according to Wet’suwet’en law. Instead, it's directed at and aims to criminalize two individuals: Freda Huson and Warner Naziel. According to Smogelgem, Hereditary Chief of the Laksamshu Clan, “this as an attempt to individualise, demobilise, and criminalise us in order to bulldoze through our home.”
The camp´s press release declares that “the Unist’ot’en Camp is not a blockade, a protest, or a demonstration – it is a permanent, non-violent occupation of Unist’ot’en territory, established to protect our homelands from illegal industrial encroachments and to preserve a space for our community to heal from the violence of colonization.
We see TransCanada’s legal threat, which requests that the RCMP enter our territory by force, as a direct challenge to the safety of our residents and an extension of the colonial violence from which we are trying to heal.”
Violations of law
Pushing pipelines through on sovereign territory without free, prior and informed consent violates both Canadian law and international law. The Wet´sewet´en, along with the Gitxsan, were plaintiffs in the ground-breaking Deglamuukw-Gisday'wa court case, which recognized that Wet’suwet’en rights and title have never been extinguished across 22,000 km2 of northern British Columbia.
This aboriginal title includes the right to use, manage, and possess land, and to decide how the land will be used. With the 1997 Delgamuukw-Gisday'wa case, the Gitxsan and Wetsuwet’en demanded recognition of their unextinguished jurisdiction over the land based on the fact that they had never signed any land treaties with the governments of Canada and therefore that they had never ceded title to their traditional territories.
The supreme court acknowledged that in the absence of a ratified treaty and having never been conquered in war, the Gitxsan and Wetsuwet’en thus retained title and jurisdiction over their land, according to Canadian law. Despite this ruling, the Canadian federal and provincial governments continue to push through industrial and extractive projects without consent.
Pre-election Trudeau expressed a mandate based on a renewed national “nation-to-nation relationship, based on recognition, rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership” with First Nations in Canada.
Trudeau also pledged that his government would “fully adopt and work to implement” the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which included the provision that “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources.”
Yet the dream has been slowly dying ever since. Instead the current government has abandoned its duty to informed consent under UNDRIP and requires only “duty to consult and accommodate.” The government´s failure to respect internationally recognized indigenous rights and to trod over them by pushing through projects such as Kinder Morgan represents a serious betrayal to indigenous peoples in Canada.
Another significant outcome of the Delgamuukw case was that, for the first time, the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en were able to use their oral histories as principal evidence in the case to demonstrate their long-time use, occupation, possession, and administration of the contested land and their deep and enduring social, cultural, and historical connections to their territory. Their system of hereditary governance is enacted through the feast system, where stories, songs, and crests, lands and ranks are passed from one generation to the next, renewing the sacred connection that they have with their lands.
The jurisdiction and authority of the hereditary chiefs and the feast system recognized by the Deglamuukw-Gisday’wa court case is currently being ignored by Trans-Canada. According to Huson, “All Wet’suwet’en Clans have rejected the pipeline because our medicines, our food, and our water are all here and not replaceable.”
Further, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples protects Indigenous right to self-determination, including Article 10, which stipulates that “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories.”
The litigation against the peaceful non-violent resistance of the camp can be seen as part of a global attack on Indigenous peoples and a colonial history of criminalization. According to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “The rapid expansion of development projects on indigenous lands without their consent is driving a global crisis. These attacks – whether physical or legal – are an attempt to silence Indigenous Peoples voicing their opposition to projects that threaten their livelihoods and cultures.”
A space for healing
The Unist’ot’en are defending their land and the sacred waters of the Talbits Kwah (Gosnell Creek) and Wedzin Kwah (Morice River), where salmon spawn. But their visionary struggle also goes further. Asserting their jurisdiction over unceded territory has come along with a process of healing the land and themselves. Through practicing food sovereignty, traditional medicine, and local energy production, and re-establishing a system of governance based on the matriarchal hereditary clan and feast system.
The healing lodge, built in 2015 in the path of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, has become the focus of the camp. Its focus is to provide support for those in the community suffering from substance abuse and trauma. More broadly, it was envisioned as a way to heal historical trauma from colonial and extractivist violence that so many First Nations in Canada suffer from and which projects such as the Trans-Canada pipeline continue.
According to Freda Huson, the need for the healing camp emerged from seeing so many indigenous people come out to Unist’ot’en land and finding it to be healing experience, to live on the land and have a connection with the natural world and our teachings. “It is a chance to return to some of our traditional teachings and land-based wellness practices of our ancestors.”
Dr. Karla Tait, Unist’ot’en Healing Centre Programmer, said: “Our people have been impacted by intergenerational trauma, and disconnected from those practices. Our clan discussed this dream of a healing centre that would be land based, with all of the programming stemming from our teachings and our ancestral ways of wellness that are much more holistic and that recognise the impacts of colonisation and of trauma on our youth and our families and communities.
"The projects proposed to run through our territory as a threat to us reclaiming and self-determining our own health and wellness.” Currently the lodge is home to Wet’suwet’en community members who are receiving holistic and land-based treatment for substance abuse.
The TransCanada Coastal GasLink pipeline will run approximately 670 kilometres across Northern B.C, bringing fracked gas from Dawson´s creek to Kitimat. It is part of a recently-approved $40 billion fracked gas project, LNG Canada, the single largest private sector investment in Canadian history.
LNG Canada is a fracked gas processing facility run by five companies, of which Royal Dutch Shell is a 40 percent owner. The impacts of fracking have been well documented, including the use of vast amounts of groundwater and up to 750 chemicals used to break up shale formations to release the trapped gas. Fracking is a major source of methane, leaked during production, one of the most potent greenhouses.
According to author and activist Harsha Walia, “It's shameful that the NDP provincial government has announced tax breaks for LNG and is working with the federal government to push fracking throughout BC.
The biggest driver of climate change in the province over the coming decades will be from the LNG industry and the Alberta’s tar sands is the top consumer of fracked gas in Canada, accounting for one-quarter of the fracked gas used.”
The government would violently evict the Unist´ot´en at its own peril. The camp has become a powerful symbol against extractivism and for indigenous sovereignty and decolonization in practice across Canada and beyond.
Their perspective of asserting responsibilities to the land and to rather than demanding rights from a government that pays lip service to reconciliation but that refuses to abide by the decisions of its own apex court of justice has created a space where they have been able to reinstate their own governance systems, and their own legal understandings.
Freda said: "The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us. And if we don’t take care of her, she won’t be able to sustain us, and we as a generation of people will die."
While the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines generated heated opposition from many of the Indigenous territories whose lands they would cross, opposition to “natural” gas pipelines has generally been more muted.
This is because communities are told that in case of a spill the gas would simply evaporate. In contrast, the position of the Unist’ot’en camp transcends concerns for impacts on their territory alone.
The Wet´sewet´en hereditary chiefs have adopted a more holistic perspective, one founded on their relationship with the territory and with affected communities all along the commodity chain, from those suffering water pollution from fracking at the commodity frontier of extraction, to the coastal communities resisting export terminals and tanker traffic, to communities in island states impacted by the rising waters.
This positioning and their complete opposition to all pipelines – existing, proposed or approved to expand – means the camp has wide support. “We always have to be mindful that we are the first people of the headwaters,” Huson says. “This water hits us first; it’s our duty that we’re not making decisions that are going to impact clans downstream from us.”
Communities across Canada have already begun responding to the Unist´ot´en call for support.
Protests will be held across Canada in the coming days as a show of strength of support, and as of Wed. December 5th, over sixty-five organizations and 1527 individuals have pledged support to the Unist’ot’en Camp.
Numerous supporters have also pledged to travel to the camp to defend the Unistoten home if need be. What is clear from these pipeline politics is that Indigenous nations are not backing down and have pledged to continue to resist extractivist projects and colonial incursions into their unceded homelands.
The Wedzin Kwa may be the next touching down point battleground between extractivist development and a global movement for climate and environmental justice.
Dr Leah Temper is an ecological economist, scholar activist and filmmaker based at McGill University, Montreal and the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She is the founder and co-director of the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice (www.ejatlas.org), Research Associate for the Leadership for the Ecozoic program and PI of the ACKnowl-EJ project (Activist-academic Co-production of Knowledge for Environmental Justice, www.acknowlej.org) which examines how transformative alternatives are born from resistance against extractivism. She is the author of Blocking pipelines, unsettling environmental justice: from rights of nature to responsibility to territory, Local Environment.
A syllabus that gathers resources, facts, and videos so that educators are able to spread the word about Unist’ot’en Camp.
Corridors of Resistance: Stopping Oil and Gas Pipelines https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDR1l_Xw7ts
Leah Temper (2018): Blocking pipelines, unsettling environmental justice: from rights of nature to responsibility to territory, Local Environment, DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2018.1536698