'We are the power'

Canada's Indigenous land defenders pledge to fight on.

An illustration shows Wet'suwet'en matriarch and land defender Freda Huson singing in ceremony.
Freda Huson is a Wet'suwet'en matriarch and wing chief of the Unist'ot'en Dark House Clan [Illustration by Richard Smith based on a photograph by Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Freda Huson is a Wet'suwet'en matriarch and wing chief [Illustration by Richard Smith based on a photograph by Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Freda Huson has been praying. The Wet'suwet'en matriarch and wing chief of the Unist'ot'en Dark House Clan left her home on the Witset First Nation more than a decade ago to return to her yintah, the land of her ancestors, in order to protect it from encroaching industry.

On the land, she built a healing centre with her niece and sister, where Wet'suwet'en can return to their roots, connect with the land and drink the waters of the Wedzin Kwa, a sacred river so pure that people can drink directly from it.

But now industry is moving in on the Wet'suwet'en territory in northern British Columbia (BC).

For years, Indigenous land defenders like Freda have sought to protect their lands and sacred headwaters from the construction of a pipeline.

First proposed in 2012, the 670-kilometre- (417-mile)-long Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline is intended to carry liquified natural gas (LNG) from northeast BC to a terminal on the coast in Kitimat. A portion of it is set to pass through the Wet’suwet’en Nation - 22,000 square kilometres of unceded territory that was never legally signed over to the Crown or to Canada.

But Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs from the nation’s five clans and 13 houses oppose the multibillion-dollar pipeline and say they were not consulted before the province approved it.

While the pipeline project is supported by the five elected Wet’suwet’en band councils (which were established by Canada’s 1867 Indian Act, which sought to undermine traditional forms of Indigenous governance and to control all aspects of the lives of Indigenous people), a 1997 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada recognised that it is the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who are the rightful titleholders to the land.

And they say they are determined to defend it.

But since the construction of the pipeline began in 2018, there have been three militarised raids by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) on resistance camps established by Indigenous land defenders on Wet’suwet’en land - the latest of which was in November, when RCMP armed with assault rifles, dogs and chainsaws arrested more than 30 land defenders, supporters and journalists.

Around the time of the raids in November, RCMP helicopters circled above the healing centre for over a week. "The government has so much to lose, it's why they've sent all the police in here, militarised police, because they're giving all they got just the way our land defenders are giving it all they got to protect our water and our air, the lands for our future," Freda says.

Now, the land defenders fear armed police are again preparing to move in on them.

Here, they explain why they are prepared to put their lives on the line to defend Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the environment for future generations.

Molly Wickham

'This is my responsibility as a mother'

An illustration shows Molly Wickham on Wet'suwet'en land. There is snow on the ground, thick forests behind her and a mountain in the distance.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Molly Wickham, who is also known by the name Sleydo’, is a member of the Gidimt’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en and a wing chief.

She is the spokesperson for the Gidimt’en Access Checkpoint, a group that controls access to the territory of the Cas Yikh (Grizzly Bear) house of the Gidimt’en Clan. The group established a checkpoint on the Morice River (Wedzin Kwa) Forest Service Road, the main access point to the site from which the CGL plans to drill under the Wedzin Kwa. Further on up the road from the checkpoint is the Unist’ot’en Camp, the healing centre Freda established with the aim of protecting the land from pipelines and other industry and providing a place of healing where people can reconnect with the wilderness.

For the past seven years, Molly has lived in a cabin on the yintah (land or territory) with her husband Cody Merriman and their three young children.

Well-versed in Wet’suwet’en laws and unfaltering when it comes to confronting trespassers on the yintah, Molly is at the forefront of the battle to protect Wet’suwet’en land. But on November 19, she was arrested alongside four other land defenders and two journalists who were taken at gunpoint from a small cabin near the Wedzin Kwa. The arrests followed a nearly two-week standoff after Wet’suwet’en land defenders had issued an eviction notice to CGL to leave the territory.

Although no one in the cabin was armed, the RCMP arrived with assault rifles and dogs and used chainsaws to gain access to the structure.

“They brought that much force to remove Indigenous women from our home,” says Molly.

While others in the cabin were alarmed by the sound of the chainsaws, Molly says it was the dogs that terrified her.

“That’s all I could hear,” she says of the barking. “Even above the chainsaw, right in the front of my mind, of my whole nervous system, my whole physiological reactions were that there were these attack dogs just fighting to get off their leash.”

My hands were shaking. I did not take my eyes off of that gun and that man who was holding the gun and pointing it at me.

It was the second time Molly had been arrested while trying to protect Wet’suwet’en territories and she says she will continue to defend her ancestral lands, no matter what the cost. But facing the barrel of a gun is terrifying, she explains.

She describes not being able to take her eyes off the assault rifle that was pointed at her. “I was trying really hard not to have a physiological response,” she recalls, “but I couldn’t stop myself.”

“My hands were shaking. I did not take my eyes off of that gun and that man who was holding the gun and pointing it at me.”

Molly and other land defenders were put in the back of a police van and she says that as they drove away, one RCMP officer sitting in the front of the van pointed to the land and told the land defenders: “Take a good look, ladies, you’ll never see this place again.”

They were transported to a jail almost four hours away in Prince George, the capital of northern BC. Molly says that during processing an officer ripped her traditional medicine bracelet from her wrist when she refused to remove it. Then she was put in solitary confinement.

“I mostly disassociated,” she says of being kept in solitary. “I had panic at first. I thought, ‘I don’t know how to do this’. I have three children, I don’t ever have time to myself. I’m always involved with the camp, surrounded by people or family.”

She attributes the fact that she made it through to “people’s prayers” and the support of the other arrested land defenders.

“Everybody sang songs and would take turns, even though it was hard to hear people talking - you had to lay down on the disgusting blood-covered floors to put your face right to the floor to talk underneath your cell doors to each other. Mostly it was the singing - we could hear it all down throughout the halls - that really lifted my spirits.”

Molly was released after five days but has to return to court in February, charged with violating a civil injunction. The fight is far from over, she says, and she is not giving up.

“This is my responsibility as a mother so that my kids can still drink out of that river [the Wedzin Kwa]. We live out here and they drink that water every day. So, it’s literally their health and wellbeing that I have to protect.”

Chief Woos

'This is not what reconciliation looks like'

An illustration shows Chief Woos. His long black hair is tied back, he wears rimless glasses.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Frank Alec is the hereditary chief of the Cas Yikh house of the Gidim’ten Clan of the Wet’suwet’en. His hereditary title is Chief Woos. It was Woos who gave the order to issue the eviction notice, based on Wet’suwet’en law, to the CGL in November, and the resistance camps that were raided by the RCMP almost two weeks later were located on land over which he has authority.

“We gave ample notice to CGL that we were going to act on our eviction [notice] and we gave them extra time,” he explains.

An illustration shows land defender Jocey Alec being hugged by her partner, their foreheads pressed together, as he holds a blanket around them both. There is snow on the ground and tall fir trees behind them.
Chief Woos' daughter, Jocey Alec, is hugged by her partner, Corey 'Jayohcee' Jocko, after they were released from jail. "My partner Corey and I met on the territory," Jocey explains. "After that, it was life as we know it. Day after day creating something so beautiful in the middle of chaos such as defending the land against an industry that wants to destroy our river for the sake of their paycheques. We did not defend the territory only for ourselves but for the future generations, the animals, the salmon. Any living being that thrives off of the land is what we are fighting for." [Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

“We mean no harm to anyone,” he says. “We’re protecting Wedzin Kwa, it’s our sacred headwater.”

The water in the river is pristine, fresh mountain water, he explains. “Animals depend on it .., not to mention our salmon,” he says, referring to the fish that fill the river during spawning season.

“This is why we are so devastated and beside ourselves as to why this pipeline is going through such an incredible ecosystem.

“This sends a dangerous signal to the wildlife and to this river that there’s going to be a major disaster,” he adds.

Chief Woos says the Wet’suwet’en offered an alternative route for the CGL about five years ago but that “that wasn’t taken into consideration”.

“They just circumvented the hereditary chiefs and started,” he adds.

One of the land defenders arrested in November was Chief Woos’ daughter, 27-year-old Jocey Alec. He went to the courthouse in Prince George for her bail hearing. “This is wrong and they [the CGL] will be held to account,” he told Al Jazeera as he stood outside the courthouse.

After the arrests, Woos learned that his cabin near a CGL drilling site had been burned to the ground.

“This is not what reconciliation looks like,” he says.

Auntie Janet

'This is my home and I'm not leaving'

An illustration shows Wet'suwet'en elder and matriarch Auntie Janet. Snow covers the ground and the fir trees behind her.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Auntie Janet is a Wet’suwet’en elder and matriarch of the Cas Yikh House of the Gidimt’en Clan. She lives with her husband, Lawrence, in a cabin on the yintah.

On November 18, as the RCMP moved in to make arrests, younger land defenders encircled Auntie Janet and sang a water song. But the police broke through the protective circle and began to violently arrest the land defenders.

“It was pretty hard when I saw all my - I call them my kids [the younger land defenders],” she stops to catch her breath and wipes a tear from her cheek. “When they all got arrested, I was yelling at them ‘don’t hurt my kids, don’t hurt my kids’.”

But, she says, “they picked them all off one by one around me. It was really sad.”

“It’s still hurting me because I love them so much. I love everybody that comes here. They’re in my heart,” she says.

After they had arrested the land defenders, the police took Auntie Janet to hospital as she had not had her prescribed heart medication for several days since the RCMP had blocked entry to the territory, meaning that had she left to get it, she might not have been able to return to her home. She was checked over at the hospital and returned to her cabin with her husband a few days later.

She is proud of the land defenders and their supporters who are helping to save the sacred Wedzin Kwa and her ancestral lands. “They will fight to the end,” she says.

So, says Auntie Janet, will she.

“This is my home here and I’m not leaving. CGL and the governments are not going to do anything, we’re going to keep fighting them. There’s just no way in hell that they’re going to get through,” she says.

“We’re going to continue what we’re doing. CGL and the government can f*** themselves,” she adds with a chuckle. “I’m sorry for swearing but that’s how I feel.”

Chief Gisday'wa

'This is our land'

An illustration shows Chief Gisday'wa. Snow covers the large open space behind him and there are fir trees and mountains in the distance.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Fred Thom is the hereditary chief of the Kaiyexweniits (House in the Middle of Many) House of the Gidimt’en Clan. His hereditary title is Chief Gisday’wa.

In 2020, a cabin he had built near a logging road on his territory and which he used for cultural and hunting purposes was burned down. Two suspects were questioned by the RCMP but released without charge. He is angry about that and the fact that Chief Woos’ cabin was burned down in November.

We [have] had enough of that in the past, people tearing up our territories, burning our houses down. Like in Smithers, BC when I was a kid and they wanted us on the reserve so they burned us out of town.

“This is really uncalled for; tearing our cabins down on our territory,” he says. “We aren’t bothering anybody. CGL is just pushing their weight around, just like a bunch of bullies. They want to ruin everything that belongs to other people and that’s not right. They should build those cabins back up. We [have] had enough of that in the past, people tearing up our territories, burning our houses down. Like in Smithers, BC when I was a kid and they wanted us on the reserve so they burned us out of town. How can the UN let them get away with this?”

He is fed up with the constant struggle for survival of the Wet’suwet’en. These days he has to show his ID and obtain permission from the RCMP just to enter his own territories.

But he has a strong message for the provincial and federal governments and the industry and police invading Wet’suwet’en lands.

“This is our land. Everything on it belongs to us. All of Canada belongs to the First Nation people - the Mohawks, the Inuits, the Crees, the Wet’suwet’en - we all belong to this land. Before they [industry] take anything off this land they should consult us and if it’s OK then they can do it, otherwise, it’s a no-go situation. CGL is a no-go for sure.”

He knows about other Indigenous communities whose lands and waters have been ruined by industrial projects, such as those near the Alberta tar sands. There is too much at stake for him to back down now, he says.

“This is our beautiful river, Wedzin Kwa, [which] we’ve been protecting and nobody cares about that. Well, look at all the other reserves after they’re [industry] finished with the river, they can’t drink their water.”

Logan Staats

'We became the river'

An illustration shows land defender Logan Staats standing in front of an old yellow school bus with a warrior or unity flag attached to the front of it. The red flag depicts an Indigenous man with a single feather in his hair over a yellow sunburst.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Logan Staats is a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois or Mohawk) ally from Six Nations of the Grand River First Nations reserve in Ontario. He is an award-winning singer/songwriter and father to an 11-year-old daughter. But in October, he left his home, gave up performing on stage and travelled thousands of kilometres to serve on the frontline of the Wet’suwet’en battle to save their territories. It is, he says, his duty to help his Indigenous relatives.

All I could think about was saving this river, and I could feel it coursing through my veins.

“As soon as I came out here it was family vibes,” he explains.

He quickly understood the importance of protecting the Wedzin Kwa.

“As soon as I tasted that river – we were drinking this water every single day, so we became the river. After my first visit, all I could think about was saving this river, and I could feel it coursing through my veins. I had to come back.”

An illustration shows Uncle Adam standing in front of a snow-covered mountain.
Adam Gagon is a wing chief from the Likhts'amisyu Clan known as Chief Dsta'hyl [Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

But as the RCMP approached the land defenders and their allies on November 18, it was, he says, “one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever endured”.

“There was like a sense, ‘Oh my God, they’re two miles down the road’. Then your heart’s pumping, ‘Oh my God, they’re getting closer’. And then we’re on the bridge face-to-face with these men and the numbers they had were like, I couldn’t believe how many police were there and how many dogs and automatic weapons were there.”

Logan says it requires tenacity to be a land defender knowing that armed police could easily fire on you.

“We’re never on the offensive,” he explains. “No matter how scared I am, I know I can protect. Suddenly, your blood starts to boil, you’re there with your peers, friends and in great peace. It’s just… power comes in your blood.”

“I instinctively knew what to do… and then boom I get hit in the right ear with a fist. I realised he just f****** hit me! Before I knew it my hands were tied up behind my back, they had grabbed me by my braids and slammed me on my face. When they slammed me down the wind got knocked out of me, it hurt my heart. It felt like I was having a heart attack. I was telling them, ‘for real, I can’t breathe.’ I was bleeding on the ground, suffocating and looking to my right and Skylar [a fellow Mohawk land defender] was right there looking into my eyes. He said, ‘deep breath brother, deep breaths’.”

Logan was arrested and spent two days behind bars before being released without charge. He felt an immediate urge to return to the yintah, he explains. The Wedzin Kwa was calling him.

We still pray for our enemies, we still fight for you, and we still fight for your children.

“We will continue to walk the path of the peacemaker, with love, with great peace under each footstep, with fear and anger at our backs,” he says.

“Our ancestors, future generations, are profoundly offended by the desecration of our physical bodies and our lands. But we still pray for our enemies, we still fight for you, and we still fight for your children.”

Sabina Dennis

'A global uprising is needed'

An illustration shows land defenders Sabina Dennis and her sister. Sabina is holding a frame drum. There are fir trees in the background and snow on the ground.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Sabina Dennis is a Carrier Sekani mother and land defender whose home territories of the Dakelh neighbour the Wet’suwet’en. She has been arrested and jailed several times while on the frontline of this years-long battle to save the lands and waters of her Indigenous relatives. It is, she believes, a universal battle and one that she will not give up fighting.

“Truly, a global uprising is needed due to the severity of what’s happening upon these lands and all over the world to Indigenous Peoples on our lands,” she explains.

“The RCMP tactics are much more brutal and much more illegal than they’ve ever been. And the Canadian public needs to know that these military forces that have been employed upon us are acting illegally, immorally and are taking away our civil liberties as we speak. Each and every individual in Canada should be outraged.”

She says reconciliation in Canada is dead and has a message for the Canadian prime minister.

“Trudeau, I know you’re powerless. I know you lost your power long ago. 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, and love for our families and our future generations.”

Kolin Sutherland-Wilson

'This fight is far from over'

An illustration shows land defender Kolin Sutherland-Wilson surrounded by snow-covered fur trees. Two tracks run through the snow on the ground toward the trees.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Kolin Sutherland-Wilson is a Gitxsan land defender from the Wilp Git’luuhl’um’hetxwit House. His Nation borders the territorial boundaries of the Wet’suwet’en to the west and the two have lived side-by-side for thousands of years. They have an ancient pact going back millennia, Kolin explains, and it is their duty to protect one another.

“We are here in solidarity with our Wet’suwet’en allies with whom we have a mutual defence pact,” he explains.

In November, in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, the Gitxsan set up a railroad blockade in New Hazelton, BC. Within hours, the police had arrived with dogs, assault rifles, tear gas and helicopters. The Gitxsan did not want violence so moved off the tracks and instead built a protest camp on the hill beside them. Two small fires burned day and night as supporters from neighbouring Nations streamed in and out and Kolin kept an eye on the police who watched from across the tracks.

“This fight is far from over, those RCMP officers don’t belong here,” he says. “This is unceded Gitxsan Laxyip and over there is unceded Wet’suwet’en Yintah and they will know that there are consequences for their 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. We are sovereign people.”

'We have everything to lose'

An illustration shows two young land defenders, Megan and Madeline, raising their clenched fists in the air. They are both wearing hats and warm coats, one of which has the message 'You are on Native land' on a patch on the sleeve. Thick snow covers the ground and a small building and trees can be seen in the distance.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Quendauxw (Megan) and Kumxlaqs (Madeline) are two young land defenders and best friends from the Haisla Nation, which neighbours Gitxsan borders to the west at the North Pacific Ocean. The CGL’s LNG processing plant is being constructed in the bay of Kitimat in their home territories and they are furious about how it will increase pollution and endanger the waters and marine life there.

“Everything is at stake. We have everything to lose,” Madeline says.

“We’re here to protect the water and land. We can already see the speeding up effects of climate change from global warming, the forest fires that affect the root systems. Now we’re seeing increased rainfall and mudslides. Fracking and drilling six feet under for a pipeline isn’t going to help, like we live on a fault line too. We’re here trying to stop that. We are doing nothing other than asserting our inherent birthright as sovereign people to protect our territories.”

When the rights of one nation are at risk then the rights of all of us are at risk.

When the two friends learned of the raids on the Wet’suwet’en resistance camps, they dropped everything to join the blockade set up by the Gitxsan in New Hazelton.

They were there, Megan explains, to “honour the northwest tribal treaty that the Haisla Nation has signed alongside the Wet’suwet’en”.

“Part of it is that we will help each other assert our Indigenous rights and title. When the rights of one nation are at risk then the rights of all of us are at risk, of being questioned, of being overlooked and diminished,” she says.

“Our rights and titles and names are older than Canada itself. So, we need to stand by them as they go through this because it could be us one day.”

When asked about the enforcement of the injunction against land defenders in November, Natasha Westover, Coastal GasLink's External Issues and Media Lead, told Al Jazeera in an email: "At Coastal GasLink, we respect the rights of individuals to lawfully, safely and peacefully express their point of view. Our top priority remains the safety of those in the area, including our workforce, contractors, and the Indigenous and local community members."

When asked about the use of force to enforce the injunction and arrest land defenders, RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Madonna Saunderson told Al Jazeera: "As with previous enforcement operations, the RCMP took the remote location of the CGL workers' camps along the Morice FSR [Forest Service Road] into account, as well as the unpredictable nature of what we could be facing in the area."

Source: Al Jazeera