What you need to know about the Wet'suwet'en protests, arrests
TORONTO -- Protests held in solidarity with a blockade of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia by members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation continue to grow as experts sound the alarm on what they call “unlawful and unjust” arrests.
Tensions have been escalating since Dec.31, when the B.C. Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an expanded injunction against the Wet’suwet’en Nation members blocking access to the project.
Last Thursday, the RCMP began enforcing that injunction, asking protesters to leave the camp blocking access to a service road near Houston, B.C. The RCMP have since arrested more than 20 protesters in the area.
The ongoing conflict has prompted several solidarity protests across the country, with protesters blocking access to rail lines, legislatures and port entries.
But Indigenous advocates says the conflict goes well beyond pipeline opposition: it’s a rights issue.
WHAT IS THE PIPELINE PROJECT?
The $6.6-billion, 670-kilometre pipeline would carry natural gas across northern B.C.
According to Coastal GasLink’s website, the approved route was determined considering “Indigenous, landowner and stakeholder input, the environment, archaeological and cultural values, land use compatibility, safety, constructability and economics.”
The company says it has signed agreements with the elected council of all 20 First Nations along the route, including the Wet’suwet’en.
However, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose the pipeline construction and say they never consented to its construction on their traditional territory.
Hereditary chiefs are a traditional form of Indigenous governance that pre-date colonization. The Indian Act established elected band councils, made up of elected chiefs and councillors, who have authority over reserve lands.
WET’SUWET’EN NATION ‘ALWAYS CLAIMED THE LAND’
The underlying concern of the Wet’suwet’en Nation surrounds the control of their traditional territory.
The Canadian government previously recognized that all of the land in the country was originally owned by Indigenous people. Before Canada can rightfully claim the ability to make decisions about the land, it has to take ownership of it.
But Wet’suwet’en Nation never surrendered its Aboriginal title, otherwise known as its inherent right to the land.
“The Wet’suwet’en Nation have always claimed the land in question,” Brenda Gunn, associate professor of law at the University of Manitoba, explained to CTVNews.ca by phone from Winnipeg.
“From their perspective there was no action that was taken to remove their jurisdiction over the land.”
In 1997, the Wet’suwet’en themselves were involved in a landmark Supreme Court ruling regarding Aboriginal title. Known as Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, the ruling confirmed that Aboriginal title entails rights to the land itself, not just the right to extract resources from it.
The case also outlined specific requirements for Indigenous people to prove their Aboriginal title -- the most important of which, Gunn explained, is continuous occupation of the land. However, the case did not answer specific questions of title by the Wet’suwet’en.
“The Wet’suwet’en are now in a precarious position of acquiring the land by occupying it… and are now being criminalized for following the laws that have been set out by the government,” she said.
Indigenous advocate Pamela Palmater notes that the occupation of traditional territory is “fully within the legal right of the Wet’suwet’en,” noting that the RCMP’s use of force is concerning.
“These shouldn’t be viewed as anti-pipeline protests. These are really demonstrations by Indigenous people all over the country to say we don’t want the government using the RCMP to violently take down people who are living on their own territories,” Palmater said during an interview Monday on CTV’s Your Morning.
‘SERIOUS VIOLATION OF INDIGENOUS RIGHTS’
On Sunday, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) issued a renewed complaint regarding what it describes as “improper and increasingly unlawful actions of the RCMP.”
The letter, addressed to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, requests to initiate a policy complaint and public investigation into the so-called “exclusion zone” on Wet’suwet’en territory.
“There is absolutely no legal precedent nor established legal authority for such an overbroad policing power associated with the enforcement of an injunction,” reads the letter.
“The arbitrary RCMP exclusion zone and overbroad access restrictions are completely unjustified and unlawful, and constitute a serious violation of Indigenous rights.”
Greenpeace Canada Executive Director Christy Ferguson echoed that sentiment, noting that Canadians are “right to be disturbed” by government response and RCMP action.
“We’ve seen people from all walks of life take to the streets, blockade ports, occupy government buildings and even interrupt rail service across the country in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people, who are being forced to put their lives on the line in an effort to protect their territory and their rights,” Ferguson said in a press release Monday.
Both Palmater and Gunn also note that government response points towards a conflicting message of reconciliation with Indigenous people.
“What becomes frustrating for many Indigenous peoples is that the government states they support Aboriginal rights yet fail to take action to support those rights,” Gunn said.
“You begin to question Canada belief in the rule of law when they disrespect the law that even their courts set out.”