Interview: the experience of Wet’suwet’en land defenders in Canada

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Several police officers wearing combat fatigues climb over a barrier. In the fourground a large number of activists try to stop them
RCMP police officers climb over a checkpoint
Author(s)
Jennifer Wickham, entrevistada por Andrew Metheven

Maybe you could start by introducing yourself, and the people you represent?

An image of Jennifer Wickham
Jennifer Wickham

I’m Jennifer Wickham, and I’m a Cassyex member, which is a member of the Grizzly Bear House of the Gidimt’en clan, which is part the Bear Wolf clan of the Wet’suwet’en people. I’m also the media coordinator of the Gidimt’en camp, which is a reoccupation site out on our territory, at 44km on the Morice River forest service road. The name of the territory for us is Lhudis Bin and the site we have reoccupied is at Lamprey Creek, which is actually an ancient gathering space. Its a really beautiful spot, right by the river - we call the river Wedzin Kwa – and currently she is under threat.

The thing that kicked us into action was the defence of our neighbours, the Unist’ot’en, which is a separate house group, part of a separate clan. They had a permanent injunction granted against them by the Coastal Gaslink company. We really wanted to show our relatives and our neighbours that they were not alone. All five clans of the Wet’suwet’en nation have stood up in our governance hall, the bahlats, and basically declared pipelines illegal in our 22,000 square kilometres of territory. So, Unist’ot’en have been out on the territory, taking action against all the proposed pipelines for almost ten years now. Two years ago we decided to join them, and help them, and protect them, because we knew the RCMP – the police force here – were going to go in and try and enforce the injunction against them.

Could you describe the governance structure of the Wet’suwet’en people, and its relationship with the Canadian state, and the pipeline company?

The provincial and federal government – the province of British Columbia – and the government of Canada have actively contested our jurisdiction, despite the supreme court of Canada ruling in favour of the Wet’suwet’en and the Gitxsan in the 1997 Delgamuukw vs Gitxsan court case. That decision affirmed we had never ceded or surrendered jurisdiction to our territory.

[A publication called] The Narwhal applied for freedom of information documents, and received proof that the day after the court decision on September 10th 1997, the provincial and federal governments, and industry – all the extractive industries that have vested interest in Wet’suwet’en territory, and I assume Gitxsan territory – formed a committee on how they were going to suppress the decision of the court case, so they could still have free access to our territory.

Obviously its always been about the land. For us, its about the health of the land, and the water, and everything on it. For them its about the resources, and how much they can take from the land. And that’s really what it comes down to – there’s no legal dispute the government can make about who has jurisdiction over this territory. It’s clear that we do. Whatever plan they came up with to suppress the outcome of that court case, they essentially stopped us from implementing the outcome of it, so they could still have access to our territory and our resources. Well, we haven’t gone anywhere! We’re still here, we’re still practicing our governance system, and we’re still accessing and utilising our territories. There are people who live on the territories. I don’t think they’re going to willingly give it all up, so then they will go bankcrupt! I did some research, around the CN rail that comes through our territory, and in 1914, the first year they had the railway, they took out CAN$2m worth of resources [equivalent to CAN$45.6m in 2020].

The current flashpoint is around the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline (CGL)– could you say what that is, and why it’s so important its being resisted now?

They’re selling it as a natural gas pipeline, but its actually fracked gas. And the fracking process, to get the shale gas is horrific. It’s so detrimental to fresh water, and the environment, it causes earthquakes, and so many countries have banned fracking.

There have been multiple projects proposed - I think at one point there were seven different proposed pipelines that want to follow the same route – and the route they would follow would take them directly under the river. They all want to put pipelines under Wedzin Kwa. We believe that when one of these pipelines is successful, it would mitigate the environmental impacts of all the other pipelines, and then they would develop what they call an “energy corridor”.

For us, this is first and foremost about jurisdiction. This is something that the mainstream media has shied away from, because it puts into question the entire idea of Canada, and what it means to be Canadian – that the government have been doing something wrong? And the government has been stealing all of these resources? And the government has been committing genocide? A friend of mine was saying just the other day – if you guys wanted the pipeline, that’s your business. The issue here is that you have the right to say what happens on your territory.

And so with all of these projects, even if by some miracle there wasn’t a spill, because there’s always a spill, putting a pipeline underneath that river would destroy our ability to drink the water, and we have no idea what it would do to the salmon spawning grounds. It’s our headwaters, and we know all the salmon that feed all of the people from here down to the coast, spawn in those headwaters. When – or if – they build a pipeline and dig under there, they will destroy all of those spawning grounds. It’s a balanced system, and it’s something we have been managing for millennia. Our ancestors understood the connection between everything, and successfully managed it – there’s evidence of how we managed berry patches, and did annual burns, and how we would transplant medicines, and we literally managed the territories. It wasn’t just by chance that we would gather in specific places, and that we would alternate where we did our hunting. We managed the populations, and we really understood how things worked together, and how things were connected.

So you’ve been resisting this pipeline by reoccupying, and blocking roads into the territory, and there are people maintaining a long term blockade – what’s the situation now?

Previously we had a checkpoint, so everyone coming into our territory was stopped, and asked who they were and what they’re doing, and whether they had permission from the hereditary chiefs to be there. There was a similar set up at Unist’ot’en, so they had their checkpoint in place for a lot longer. After the first raid in January 2019, they came in and destroyed our camp, so we had to rebuild. – and we did, because we’re not going anywhere – We built a cabin for our house chief, out on the reoccupation site. So, we have people who are holding that space. We did have a couple of other sites out on the territory out of necessity.

When the hereditary chiefs evicted Coastal Gaslink employees and contractors [in January 2020], they [the company] set up what they call an exclusion zone. At first, we set up a camp at 39km, to watch the road and activity, to see when the RCMP were going to be going in to try and enforce the injunction. So they set up an exclusion zone and blocked us off from that camp, so we had to setup another camp at 27km. Each successive camp was a watch camp to keep an eye out on the camp up the road. After the raids we took down the camp at 39km because it wasn’t needed anymore, but we kept the space because there were more permanent structures. In the summertime someone burned down one of our structures. The reoccupation site at 44km is still very much occupied, and growing. We now have three tiny houses at Lamprey Creek, that are nearly finished. And they’re beautiful. There’s one that is quite large for a tiny house, built in the style of a longhouse. One of the other ones is going to be for our House members – so when our house group members are out on the territory that would be a place for them to stay. So we’re still doing everything we can to stop the construction of the pipeline at this point.

What is the RCMP? What was it organised for? And what is its role now?

The Royal Canadian Mountain Police started as the North West Mounted Rifles. Their mandate has always been to protect the crown and its interests. They were tasked with clearing land for settlers, of any “Indians”. They were also responsible for enforcing the Indian Act against indigenous people. If any of our people left the reserve they would be arrested and put in jail. If you did anything that they thought you could be incarcerated for then you were not allowed back on the reserveA lot of our hereditary chiefs now can remember their parents houses being burned down. They remember the RCMP showing up and saying “you have to leave”. They remember that, as children – so it was in their lifetime that this was happening. The RCMP was also responsible for taking indigenous children to residential schools. The RCMP has always been mandated with facilitating genocide.

They have a specific division, who are on the Community Industry Response Group (CIRG), who work out of the Community Industry Safety Office (CISO). RCMP officers volunteer and request to be on this team – so we get the gung-ho guys, who have specially requested to come out there and harass us. They get extra training in “cultural sensitivity” and injunction law. The same teams also go out and harass our friends who are resisting the Trans Mountain pipeline, which is a bitumen pipeline in southern British Columbia.

Could you describe the militarised response you’ve faced? Could you describe your communities experience of militarisation?

So, we expected the RCMP to come in, because they were tasked by the courts to enforce the injunction. We didn’t expect people to come in with semi-automatic weapons. We found out afterwards through a freedom of information request that they had “lethal overwatch”, so they had snipers on site.

When they went into the camp at 39km they went in at 5 o’clock in the morning. The camp at 39km was strictly a watch camp. They were not on the road; they were about 20 feet back from the road and were not blocking access. A drone came in at 4:45am, followed immediately by the “guys in green” and RCMP with semi-automatic rifles. The media were told they had to wait down the road, about 100m down the road, so they didn’t have direct eyes on what was happening, and they were also told that if they took any photos of the “guys in green” then they would have their equipment confiscated and be escorted out.

When you say the “guys in green”, is that the RCMP, or another unit?

We don’t really know. I believe they were military. I don’t know of any RCMP units that wear green, and I don’t think the RCMP would be concerned about knowing they were there if it was RCMP. People did get photos of them though!

Why do you think they came in in that manner?

Because they didn’t want any witnesses to the level of force that they were going to bring in to the 44km, and to 66km. There was one person who locked themselves in a truck, trying to communicate with other people about what was happening. They smashed the windows of the truck and dragged that person out. They took the radio, the GoPro camera, and other equipment that was on site, and it hasn’t been returned. No one who was arrested at any of the camps, in any of the raids, have been charged. Nobody has been convicted.

Is it fair to say that they’re using intimidatory tactics?

Oh yes, absolutely. Every time we go out on the territory we’re threatened with arrest. If we’re doing ceremony, or going hunting – first of all CGL security will show up, and then ten minutes later the RCMP will show up.

In their mind, in their world, being arrested and going to jail is the worst possible thing that could happen. Apart from them shooting us, and killing us, which is also a very real threat, I think. That’s why they keep threatening us with arrest. They really don’t understand that the worst thing that could happen to us – apart from being shot and killed – is the poisoning of our river, and the destruction of our territory. I really don’t give a shit if I get arrested, if I’m defending Wedzin Kwa, and I’m defending the territory that our ancestors have defended for thousands of years.

Our friend Manuel, who is a land defender and has written a number of books on the subject, has described injunctions as a “legal billy club”. The Yellowhead Institute wrote a report on injunctions and how they’re used against indigenous land defenders. Almost 100% of the time that a company seeks an injunction against indigenous people, the courts grant it. And then a very very small percentage of the time that indigenous people apply for an injunction they are granted. So, we saw that recently in the case of the Mi'kmaq people and they’re lobster fishing rights. They were able to get an injunction, but that’s really really rare. And its still up to the racist police to enforce it – and we saw in the Mi’kmaq case that they stood there and didn’t do anything while their lobster were literally being set on fire. So, we’re dependent on this system that is inherently racist, and was developed and created to hunt us down and kill us.

What do you expect to happen in the coming months and years?

I see the pipeline dying, because there’s really no economic benefit, there’s no social benefit, there’s no political benefit. There’s no benefit to this pipeline to our community, or to the province, or to Canada. It’s really been dead in the water for quite some time, and I hope we can assist in the killing of the pipeline.

I see the Wet’suwet’en people – we’ve started this process of reasserting our jurisdiction. I think I’d like to build a place, out on the Yintah. All the frameworks that we would need to really implement our jurisdiction and effectively manage our territories again are already in place. We already have all of the systems that we need, that our ancestors had, in order to do that. It’s just the jurisdiction of these other governments, the colonial governments, that seem to be getting people hung up on just doing it.

I also see this not just being a Wet’suwet’en thing – there are so many First Nations across so-called Canada that are starting to say “we didn’t sign anything over either!” So, I really see a unification happening. It’s started already and I see that growing.

There’s already been a lot of work done between the Wet’suwet’en people and the settlement government here, at a municipal level. The relationships that have been built are pretty strong. There needs to be a lot more education for everyone around what Wet’suwet’en governance looks like, and what our goals are.

I see a lot of work. It may not happen in my lifetime but one can dream – I see a lot of change, and I think that’s going to be really uncomfortable for a lot of people, and I expect backlash because change is hard, even if you want it to happen. But I think that’s the landscape here, in this province and in this country right now. It’s not going to end – the “Indian problem” is still here.

That leads to my last question: how can people in Canada and further afield be showing solidarity?

I think that changes, it fluctuates, from day to day. Right now, we have a callout for direct action, and it’s really a call for all of our relatives, all of our indigenous nations to start asserting their sovereignty. So, calling on settler supporters and allies to support them in doing that, whereever they are and whatever that looks like. Whether it’s taking direct action against a project that is invading a territory, or protecting their inherent rights – like which is happening with the Anishabe and the moose moratorium, or the Mi’qmak and their lobster fishing.

A lot of these projects have offices in places all over the world. KKR, for example, is one of the major investors in the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, and they have offices in London and in New York. I know there is a supporter group in the UK who have targeted the KKR offices. There’re also contractors who are working on these projects – they can be targeted.

A large group of people stand behind a banner reading "Solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, no CGL, no RCMP"

I’ve got messages from different people who have helped to create content – whether it’s an Instagram post series, or pamphlets to hand out at local actions, or holding webinars. I think those things are really important too, because I think the majority of people here in Canada hear the word “Wet’suwet’en” and they don’t really have all of the information. They’ve seen it on the news, and they know about us because the railways or the highways were shut down and they were inconvenienced. So, getting the information out there is always super helpful.

And you can’t discount the monetary contributions either. There are always going to be legal fees, it costs money to run the camp. We’re feeding people and housing people. We have a camp truck and I got a call this morning that it’s broken down, so there are very real, everyday things that are happening that cost money. We have an Amazon wish list which people find it easy to use. Its super nice when I go to the mailbox and someone’s sent us wool socks!

So, there are no excuses for showing some solidarity!

I also want to promote the short documentary, called “Invasion”. It’s 20 mins long, and we are also working on a feature film that will be out in a year or two. Folks can host an online screening of those films.

 

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