Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have responded to a new British Columbia Supreme Court injunction by issuing a notice evicting the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline company from Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.
“The eviction of CGL is effective immediately,” says a press release issued Jan. 5, “and applies to ‘Camp 9A’ on Dark House territory, as well as the neighbouring Gidimt’en, Tsayu, and Laksamshu clan territories. Hereditary chiefs have gathered on Gidimt’en and Gilseyhu territories to monitor the eviction.”
Unist’ot’en (or Dark House) spokesperson Freda Huson, named as primary defendant in the new injunction, hand delivered a copy of the eviction notice.
“We’re just sending a message to the province and the federal government that they can’t bulldoze over Indigenous lands,” she says in a video posted on Twitter.
“We’re making a stand, and we’re doing it peacefully. We’re not aggressive, we’re not wanting to harm anybody. We’re doing this peacefully for them to take us serious that we’re trying to protect our lands for our kids and our grandkids.”
A Gidumt’en Clan spokesperson told APTN News that CGL’s contractors have abided by the eviction and vacated the sites.
CGL acknowledges that it received the eviction notice. A post on the company’s website says it also received notice that Unist’ot’en intends to withdraw from an agreement that describes the protocol by which CGL can access the pipeline sites.
“We are disappointed that after nearly a year of successful joint implementation of the access Agreement the Unist’ot’en has decided to terminate it,” the statement reads.
“The Court found that this project is in the public interest and will bring substantial benefits to First Nations, local communities, British Columbia and Canada.”
Though hereditary chiefs oppose the billion dollar project, the pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nation governments.
The completed 670-kilometre pipeline would carry natural gas through B.C.’s northwestern interior to an ocean terminal near Kitimat.
“There are many Wet’suwet’en Nation members working on this project today who are directly benefiting from the project through training and employment, and who want to see those benefits continue,” CGL writes.
The injunction – granted by Judge Marguerite Church on New Year’s Eve – prohibits anyone from stopping CGL from accessing or constructing this pipeline.
It includes provisions “to provide a mandate to the RCMP to enforce the terms of the order,” obliging the federal police to deconstruct any blockade on CGL’s behalf.
It’s not clear how the RCMP will interpret this eviction or respond to the eviction notice.
APTN has asked the RCMP for comment but has not yet heard back.
But the Wet’suwet’en say they know what to expect.
“We do expect the RCMP to bring it to another level. They did it last year, they’ll do it again this year,” Hereditary Chief Na’moks tells the Canadian Press on Friday.
On Jan. 7, 2019, the RCMP enforced an interim injunction issued by the same judge, arresting 14. Heavily armed officers stormed a gate which the Wet’suwet’en erected on the Morice River Forest Service Road (FSR) near Houston, B.C.
The RCMP was criticized for the tactics it used enforcing the interim injunction. Citing court documents it obtained the UK-based Guardian newspaper reported last month that the RCMP employed “lethal overwatch” (or snipers) in the raid and instructed officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want.”
Wet’suwet’en traditional law was important to the court’s decision, but Church ultimately concluded it was of “limited assistance.”
She writes that she “cannot accept the defendants’ submission that their conduct in blockading the Morice West FSR and the Morice River Bridge was simply to prevent the plaintiff from violating Wet’suwet’en law by entering Dark House territory without permission.”
The blockade aimed to prevent industrial pipeline construction, not uphold traditional governance structures, Church goes on to say.
“The defendants may genuinely believe in their rights under indigenous law to prevent the plaintiff from entering Dark House territory, but the law does not recognize any right to blockade and obstruct the plaintiff from pursuing lawfully authorized activities,” she decides.
The Wet’suwet’en have pushed back and continue to assert inherent jurisdiction over the area they claim as their traditional territory.
“Anuc‘nu’at’en (Wet’suwet’en law) is not a ‘belief’ or a ‘point of view,” state the chiefs.
“It is a way of sustainably managing our territories and relations with one another and the world around us, and it has worked for millennia to keep our territories intact. Our law is central to our identity. The ongoing criminalization of our laws by Canada’s courts and industrial police is an attempt at genocide, an attempt to extinguish Wet’suwet’en identity itself.”
The Wet’suwet’en, having never signed a treaty, say they maintain Aboriginal title over their territories. But from the B.C. court’s point of view, this means that Wet’suwet’en law has no influence over Canadian domestic law.
“While Wet’suwet’en customary laws clearly exist on their own independent footing, they are not recognized as being an effectual part of Canadian law,” Church writes.
It will remain this way until the government recognizes Wet’suwet’en law “through incorporation into treaties, court declarations, such as aboriginal title or rights jurisprudence or statutory provisions.”
This means that avenues exist for the Wet’suwet’en to assert their traditional jurisdiction over provincial laws.
But challenge of this nature often take years and millions of dollars. And there’s no guarantee the Wet’suwet’en would prevail.
They launched a similar challenge in the past, in the form of the 1997 case of Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa v. The Queen.
In the case, Earl Muldoe, known by the hereditary title Delgamuukw, laid claim to 58,000 square kilometres on behalf of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
The hereditary chiefs say Delgamuukw proves they “have never ceded nor surrendered title” to their traditional territory.
Although the case explored the nature, definition, and extent of Aboriginal title, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial, which never occurred.