On the front lines of ‘the war within Canada’s borders’
In Wet’suwet’en territory, Indigenous land defenders and their supporters say they are fighting for future generations.
The snow fell as Chief Gis’day’wa’s truck made its way up the mountain’s pine-tree-lined roads. It was early Friday evening and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief and his family were taking me with them to the Wet’suwet’en Yintah (land or territory).
It is the territory of his ancestors, where he grew up hunting, fishing and living off the land, but as his eyes darted around the landscape, looking for intruders, it felt as though he was smuggling me in.
As we approached a bridge that ran parallel to the Wedzin Kwa, a sacred Wet’suwet’en river, we spotted a checkpoint manned by two Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers. With their faces partially covered, they shone their torches into the truck, asked to see the chief’s driving license and demanded to know what business we had being on these roads.
Gis’day’wa informed them that he was the hereditary chief of this land, and the officers left to radio their superior for instructions. The bones of the chief’s ancestors are buried here and the ancient trails of the Wet’suwet’en clans’ war and trade weave through the vast territory, but now he must ask for permission to enter it. After a 10-minute wait, that permission was granted.
But not all interactions with the RCMP pass so peacefully. Less than two hours earlier, more than a dozen people, including Indigenous land defenders and two of my journalist colleagues – photojournalist Amber Bracken and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano – had been arrested at gunpoint a further 45-minute drive up this mountain.
They had been in a cabin in the Coyote Camp, set up by land defenders on the Morice River Forest Service Road, a remote road that serves as the main point of access to project sites and work camps for the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline. The $6.6bn liquified natural gas pipeline will run for 670km (416 miles) across northern British Columbia (BC). Approximately 193km (120 miles) of that stretches through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory – land that was never legally signed over to the Crown or to Canada. The camp was established to stop CGL’s plans to drill a tunnel for the pipeline under the Wedzin Kwa, a river so pure people can drink directly from it.
On November 14, members of the Gidimt’en Clan – one of five in the Wet’suwet’en Nation, with each clan being made up of several houses – along with members of other Wet’suwet’en clans and supporters, had served an eviction notice to CGL.
The hereditary chiefs representing the five Wet’suwet’en clans have rejected the CGL, which only has the approval of the band council leaders.
The band councils are part of a system established by Canada’s Indian Act, a racist law imposed more than 100 years ago to try to dictate every aspect of the political, economic, infrastructure and community development of the First Nations. But many First Nations reject this colonial institution and instead look to their hereditary chiefs, part of a traditional system of governance that has been in place since time immemorial, for leadership.
When TC Energy, the parent company of CGL, and the provincial and federal governments signed deals with the band council leadership, they circumvented the hereditary chiefs.
‘Things are happening’
A few hours earlier, I had been messaging Amber, who had been embedded with the Gidimt’en land defenders at the Coyote Camp for a few days, letting her know that I was on my way. Then the RCMP arrived to enforce a BC Supreme Court injunction granting CGL access to the pipeline work site.
The last message Amber sent me before she was arrested said: “Things are happening now.”
The RCMP had brought dogs, assault rifles and chainsaws with them.
Among those arrested at the same time as Amber were Gidimt’en spokesperson Sleydo’, also known as Molly Wickham, and Jocelyn Alec, the daughter of Gidimt’en Hereditary Chief Woos (Frank Alec).
One of Sleydo’s last social media posts read: “They are breaching the door with an axe and have k9 units!!”
By the time I arrived at 44 Camp, another camp lower down on the Morice River Forest Service Road, the fortress enclosed by six-foot-high wooden fences and a small lookout post was illuminated only by moonlight and the smoke that rose from a small structure that had been burned to the ground. Inside other cabins and tents, there was canned food, flashlights and sleeping bags. Outside, handmade banners declared “Water is life” and “No Consent”. What there weren’t were any people. It felt like a ghost town. The land defenders were gone – sitting in concrete prison cells in Smithers. The stillness sent shivers up my spine.
‘Exposed into the light’
My destination was the Unist’ot’en Healing Camp, further up the mountain. The Unist’ot’en camp is affiliated with the Yex T’sa Wilk’us of the Gilseyhu (the Dark House of the Big Frog Clan), which is part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. It is overseen by Freda Huson, who is also known as Howilhkat. The fearless matriarch is at the helm of this epic battle to save her land and the sacred Wedzin Kwa. She has been leading the fight to protect Wet’suwet’en territories for more than a decade, establishing the camp on her traditional territory to assert her Indigenous rights to it and to defend it from the CGL and other pipeline developments.
When I reached the camp, Freda and the other matriarchs were busy processing moose meat harvested on the Yintah – skinning, cutting, wrapping and canning. Freda seemed surprisingly calm and unbothered by the chaos that had unfolded not far from the camp’s doors and the RCMP helicopters that had circled above it over the past week.
“It’s frustrating… All I know is it won’t last,” Freda told me as she cleaned the steel lids covering the freshly canned moose meat.
“They [the CGL and provincial and federal governments] will be their own demise because you can’t keep going on with evil and corruptness, it’s going to be exposed into the light,” she continued.
“They [the RCMP] are here protecting industry because their pensions are invested in it and the governments have to pay back every one of the investors… that’s why the Trudeau government is supporting all these projects,” Freda added, referring to the fact that the board that oversees the RCMP’s pension funds has invested in TC Energy.
Freda invited me to stay the night in the healing centre – a place of refuge and solitude where people dealing with addictions, trauma and mental health problems can reconnect with the land.
‘This fight is far from over’
The following morning, I left with a camp helper as RCMP helicopters flew above us. We drove to Smithers and from there, I made my way an hour northwest to New Hazelton, where members of the neighbouring Gisxtan Nation were staging a blockade near the Canadian National Railway in support of the Wet’suwet’en.
The day before, dozens of police officers had brought dogs and guns with them to defend the train tracks from the unarmed Gisxtan.
At the blockade, I spoke to Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, a young Gisxtan land defender. “We have a mutual defence pact going back millennia,” he explained. “This fight is far from over. Those RCMP officers don’t belong here. This is unceded Gisxtan Lak Yip and over there is unceded Wet’suwet’en Yintah. And they will know there are consequences for your actions. This is not a matter to be resolved in the judiciary. These are international matters in which the crown has an obligation to meet directly with our leaders.”
The following day, two land defenders were violently arrested by police. One of them was Kolin’s brother, Denzel, who had already had a traumatic encounter with police while protecting Indigenous lands. In February 2020, Denzel filmed from the top of a Gidimt’en camp watchtower as police pointed assault rifles at him from below and helicopters hovered above him.
‘We are the power’
Outside the RCMP station in New Hazelton, Sabina Dennis, a land defender from the Carrier Sekani Nation who has been arrested multiple times, had turned up to show her support for Denzel and the others who had been arrested. She is fighting for everyone’s future, she explained.
“These military forces that are being enforced upon us are acting illegally, immorally and taking away our civil liberties as we speak. Each and every individual in Canada should be outraged,” she said.
She had a message for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Trudeau I know you’re powerless, I know you lost your power long ago,” she said.
“Your face does not trick us, your pretty lies do not deceive us. We know we are the power and we will never surrender our autonomy and our power because that is love; for our families and our future generations.”
The recent arrests weren’t the first showdown between the Wet’suwet’en land defenders and the RCMP. In January 2019, after the CGL was granted a civil injunction against Wet’suwet’en land defenders by the BC Supreme Court, RCMP officers wearing military-style fatigues and wielding assault rifles moved in on a Wet’suwet’en Gidimt’en checkpoint and encampment and arrested 14 land defenders. It was later reported that the RCMP had been prepared to use lethal force against the land defenders.
Then on February 6, 2020, in the dark of early morning, armed RCMP again raided land defender camps set up to block the pipeline. Allied Indigenous Nations responded in outrage and solidarity, shutting down major infrastructure across the country for close to two weeks.
The land defenders and journalists arrested last week have now been released, but on the front line of this battle, it is clear Canada is at war with the Indigenous Nations within its colonial borders.
What is happening here is a fight for survival (PDF) and it comes at a time when Indigenous people are still reeling from the discovery over the summer of the graves of thousands of Indigenous children who died at the residential schools they were forced to attend – a law imposed by the Canadian government and enforced by the RCMP. For months, Canadians wore orange shirts in solidarity with the mourners, but it feels like they have now turned their backs.
Outside the courthouse, I witnessed Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous mothers crying for their children, arrested for protecting their lands, just as so many Indigenous people, in the past and now, have cried for the children buried in those graves.
A couple of nights ago, as I made my way back to the Unist’ot’en Healing Camp, I learned that an eagle had been hit by an industry truck in the Wet’suwet’en Yintah and left by the side of the road to die. A land defender found the sacred bird suffering and took it to the Coyote Camp, which has now been reclaimed by the Wet’suwet’en. An elder blessed the bird in ceremony and its spirit slipped away. It felt heartbreakingly symbolic of what is taking place here.