The economic boom promised by a natural gas pipeline is coming at a steep human price for a northern B.C. First Nation.
“I’ve had looks that would kill,” said Chief Victor Jim.
“I should be dead many times over.”
Jim, elected to Witset band council a year ago, said the battle over the Coastal GasLink (CGL) project has left a deep scar on his Wet’suwet’en community of 2,000.
That battle led to the RCMP moving in Monday to arrest band members from the Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en clans who oppose the development, backed by five hereditary chiefs.
Jim said it was painful to learn of arrests.
“That never should have happened,” he said of the RCMP operation that continued Tuesday south of Houston, B.C.
“This has divided the community.”
RCMP took 14 people into custody at a homemade checkpoint on the Morice River Forest Road leading to the Unist’ot’en camp on the other side of the Morice River bridge.
Police were enforcing a court injunction approved Dec. 14, 2018 – something the company said Tuesday it wanted to avoid.
“It has been a long, and sometimes difficult, journey but we are proud of the relationships we’ve built, and the support of the communities and all 20 elected Indigenous bands along the route as well as the many hereditary chiefs who also support the project,” CGL president Rick Gateman said in an open letter released Tuesday.
The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said using force against peaceful protesters was “a violation of their human and Aboriginal rights.
“Building consensus under duress will make the resolution of the situation in northern British Columbia very difficult,” Perry Bellegarde said in a statement Tuesday.
“Real consensus will be built when the parties, with very different views, come together in meaningful and productive dialogue.”
The 10-year-old Unist’ot’en camp, while serving as a homestead and protest site, is also an addiction treatment centre.
Jim said his own brother was treated there.
“I’m between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “I’m an elected chief and a hereditary chief.”
The Wet’suwet’en system of clans and houses of membership has been around much longer than the Indian Act and its rules for Indigenous governance in Canada.
The hereditary chiefs describe themselves as caretakers of the land while elected officials look after government programs and allowances.
Jim said the pipeline was coming through the territory whether his people liked it or not. So they agreed to accept the financial benefit that came along with it and the promise of employment for 80 per cent of the population.
“There were no payments to individuals (on council),” he said in an interview Tuesday.
“That money will be used for the community – to improve roads, (help) save our language… and build houses.”
His is one of 20 elected band councils along the 670 km pipeline route to accept financial and other incentives in exchange for allowing construction.
CGL said it tried for six years to meet with hereditary chiefs.
Jim said his council did, too.
“We tried to talk to them. They refused,” he said.
But seeing his people arrested to make way for the pipeline was upsetting, Jim said.
Carmen Nikal, one of the 14 arrested Monday, said it was also a bit scary.
“I stood my ground and I was somewhat to the side,” she said, “but police were aggressive.”
(Carmen Nikal at home after her release by the RCMP. Photo: APTN)
Nikal said a homemade alarm sounded at the checkpoint to alert them RCMP were coming over the wooden barrier.
She said there was jostling and yelling as she tried to think of a message to shout out.
“I said, ‘This is not reconciliation,’” she said in an interview at her home in Smithers, B.C. a day after being released from custody.
“I don’t even want to hear that word again. This is not my idea of reconciliation.”
Nikal said police were polite but somewhat disorganized as they arrested her, unable to find a vehicle to transport her to their detachment in Houston.
She was one of two older women processed locally, she said, while a larger group of younger protesters was driven four hours to Prince George, B.C., to spend the night in cells before appearing before a justice of the peace.
A charge sheet shows Nikal faces one of count of civil contempt of the court order.
RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Madonna Saunderson confirmed RCMP were back at the site Tuesday, and continued to keep it blocked off to the public and members of the media.
She declined to reveal details of the police operation, such as the number of officers involved, how long it took to plan and why the road block went up where it did.
But she said it was for everyone’s good.
“There are a number of safety concerns for the public, the police officers involved and media, and anybody else who came to the scene.
However, “I will not speak specifically to the exact safety concerns.”
Once the RCMP leave, Jim said his community has to move forward.
“I don’t know if we’ll come together again,” he said.
“I can’t tell (hereditary chiefs) what they should do. I can’t tell anyone what should happen.”