A standoff between heavily armed Canadian police and Wet’suwet’en tribal activists opposing a $40 billion pipeline project running through their ancestral lands is inviting comparisons with Standing Rock Sioux protests in the US.
Solidarity rallies were held across Canada on Friday, including outside the parliament in Ottawa, backing the Wet’suwet’en nation’s resistance to the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline. Meanwhile, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers continued dismantling the indigenous activists’ barricades in the snow-covered northwest mountains. Wet’suwet’en activist Rob Alfred posted video of the events on Facebook.
On Monday, the RCMP arrested 14 protesters at a bridge over Morice River. Images of heavily armed mounties in military-style gear detaining First Nations activists has generated substantial outrage in the country that prides itself on tolerance, politeness and multiculturalism.
At a contentious town hall meeting in Kamloops on Wednesday, some 800 km away from Unist’ot’en, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended Coastal Gaslink and TransMountain pipelines as a way to combat climate change. The $40 billion project to export Canadian liquid natural gas (LNG), he argued, “will supplant coal in Asia as a power source and do much for the environment.”
Several First Nations members in the audience were having none of it, accusing Trudeau of benefiting from the tribes’ “oppression and suffering” and demanding to see a deed to the land. The PM admitted he did not have one, saying it was the “old way” of doing things and that he wanted a “partnership” with indigenous communities.
TransCanada, which seeks to build the Coastal Gaslink, says it has had over 15,000 “interactions and engagements” with First Nations groups, and that the result of Monday’s raid was “not the one we wanted.”
While the company says it has written agreements signed with all First Nations along the pipeline route, protesters say the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have not given their consent. Canada refuses to recognize the hereditary hierarchies of First Nations, dealing with elected officials instead. There are no formal treaties between Canada and the Wet’suwet’en, or any other First Nations in British Columbia, as of yet.
“I shouldn’t have to be dragged into the courts to prove that I own land that I know is ours. Our people owned these territories since time immemorial,” Freda Huson, member of the Wet’suwet’en nation, told the Guardian. “We’re in the right. We’re not doing anything wrong. This is my home. This is my land. They want to break down my door.”
Gordon Christie, a scholar of indigenous law at the University of British Columbia, described the hereditary chiefs’ legal claim to the land as “airtight.”
There are approximately 2,500 Wet’suwet’en (People of the Wa Dzun Kwuh River) in northern British Columbia, divided into five clans: Gilseyhu (Big Frog), Laksilyu (Small Frog), Gitdumden (Wolf/Bear), Laksamshu (Fireweed) and Tsayu (Beaver).
Their resistance to the pipeline has attracted comparisons with the Standing Rock Sioux activists, who sought to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) starting in early 2016. The protest camp was forcibly dismantled in February 2017, after the newly inaugurated Trump administration ordered the pipeline project to proceed.
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