Canadian Police Raided Indigenous Territory To Make Way for a Pipeline

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Land defenders on the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
Photo: BunkerFilms.com

In Canada, indigenous rights and climate justice advocates are holding protests all over the country, blockading trains, ports, streets, bridges and other transit. Things escalated on Tuesday when protestors blockaded a major rail line connecting Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal halting traffic and forcing nearly 250,000 Via Rail passengers to cancel trips. Students are mobilizing, too, occupying administration buildings and walking out of class.

The mass wave of actions are being held solidarity with indigenous land defenders in British Columbia on the Wet’suwet’en Nation. There, militarized police have attempted to remove indigenous protestors from the territory where they live in order to make way for the construction of the massive Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline. Their land is unceded, meaning it is not covered by a treaty and therefore should still be under indigenous control.

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The fight to stop the pipeline’s construction is at the nexus of some of the top issues facing Canada today: indigenous sovereignty, climate action, and the right to protest for and report on both. If the pipeline is finished, it will be another nail in the coffin of a stable climate and another example of the Trudeau government talking about working with tribes while running roughshod over their rights.

“I think people all over the country are really outraged,” Jen Wickham, a media coordinator for the Wet’suwet’en Nation land defenders, told Earther. “We have all of these supposed rights as indigenous people in Canada, we haven’t ceded our land, and this is still how we’re treated, we’re still being bulldozed through.

Wet’suwet’en land defenders have been blocking roads where the project is under construction for over a year, but things came to a head this past week. In December, British Columbia’s Supreme Court granted an injunction against members of the Wet’suwe’ten Nation, allowing Coastal GasLink to remove them and continue construction. Then last Thursday, Canada’s national police force brought helicopters, heavy machinery and police dogs onto the site to remove anyone in the way of construction. The police claimed they had already attempted to come to a peaceful resolution, but that they weren’t able to achieve one and therefore had no choice but to escalate. Police have arrested 28 land defenders, including Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chief Freda Huson.

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“It was an invasion,” said Wickham. “There was a five day invasion of our territory.”

Twenty-seven of the arrestees have been released and are facing civil charges, and one demonstrator is still in custody. The police also detained at least two journalists and blocked others from covering the raids. On Tuesday, the police announced that they’d cleared protestors’ blockades and that they plan to resume construction this coming Monday. They say they’re ending “major enforcement operations” of the camps in northern British Columbia where indigenous land defenders are holding blockades, but it’s not clear if or when they’ll restart the campaign.

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Canadian police on the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
Photo: Jesse Freeston

The 416-mile, $5 billion pipeline is set to link eastern British Columbia’s gas wells to a new liquefied natural gas terminal on the coast for export sales to Asia. The project has strong backing from the government of British Columbia, and natural gas company Coastal GasLink has signed construction agreements with 20 First Nation Indigenous councils along the proposed route.

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But chiefs who hold Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership and title rights to the land fiercely oppose the pipeline and are demanding British Columbia revoke their permission to Coastal GasLink to build. They say the council band leaders with whom Coastal GasLink consulted—leaders who are elected by indigenous people, but are accountable to the federal government—shouldn’t have authority over traditional, unceded territory.

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Canada’s constitution protects aboriginal title rights. And the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada adopted in 2016 but has not incorporated into law, calls for “free, prior and informed consent” from First Nations communities in matters affecting them. That consent, the hereditary chiefs say, should come from them directly, as it’s their nation and not the band leaders that will be affected. They say the project will restrict access to their territory and jeopardize the area’s natural resources drinking water.

All the natural gas the pipeline is set to transport will also contribute to the climate crisis. Last year, natural gas was the single biggest contributor to global greenhouse emissions rising. 

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Canadian officials—especially Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—have long claimed that Canada is a leader on climate policy, and British Columbia’s government has positioned itself at the vanguard. The province implemented a carbon tax in 2008 and plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. The tourism board has even branded the province “Super, Natural,” alluding to the beautiful wilderness that, ironically, the new pipeline will cut through.

Both the British Columbia and federal governments have backed the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The federal government has also come under fire for buying a project to expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline, a major conduit planned to shuttle tar sands from Alberta to the coast. Trudeau is also on track to approve one of the largest oil sands mines ever proposed. 

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All three projects will run through (or over) indigenous territory and have faced widespread protests from First Nations and supporters. The fight is over sovereignty and protect local land and waterways. But the protests have also focused on the climate as each project further locks the country into decades of increased carbon pollution, even as the nation strives for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Canada’s national police force said they will continue to monitor the Wet’suwet’en territories where the pipeline is slated to be built “in order to ensure it remains open and free from obstructions.”

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But solidarity blockades are still taking place all over Canada, pushing the government to halt the pipeline’s construction. And the Wet’suwet’en land defenders plan to continue the fight.

“Honestly, I don’t believe that the provincial government is ever going to willingly say, ‘yes, this is your land, and yes, you have jurisdiction.’ I don’t believe they’ll do that freely,” said Wickham. “But I do hope that all this attention is going to help people come to realize that we do have rights and title over our territory. And we’re just going to have to keep pushing for that recognition and for some accountability.”

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