Dispute in Wet’suwet’en territory over natural gas line has high economic and political stakes
The conflict over a natural gas pipeline in northwestern British Columbia is the latest flashpoint between resource development and Indigenous rights and title in a province where large swaths of territory are not covered by any treaty.
At the centre of the conflict is a multi-billion dollar natural gas project — touted as the largest private sector investment in Canadian history — and an assertion by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs that no pipelines can be built through their traditional territory without their consent.
The $6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline has received approval from the province, and 20 First Nations band councils have signed agreements in support of the project, including five of the six band councils in the Wet’suwet’en nation.
However, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say those band councils are only responsible for the territory within their individual reserves because their authority comes only from the Indian Act. The hereditary chiefs — who are the leaders of the nation’s governance system in place before the imposition of the Indian Act — assert authority over 22,000 square kilometres of the nation’s traditional territory, an area recognized as unceded by the Supreme Court of Canada in a 1997 decision.
In British Columbia most of the land has never been ceded or surrendered and Supreme Court decisions have grappled with the uncertainty left in that wake.
B.C. was also the first jurisdiction in Canada to pass legislation to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — an international document that sets minimum standards on how countries deal with Indigenous peoples.
What happened a year ago
The conflict is centred on a forest service road that leads into the heart of Wet’suwet’en territory, about 300 kilometres west of Prince George, B.C. The road is the only access point for workers to build the Coastal GasLink pipeline through that area.
The Wet’suwet’en have established at least three camps along the road, including the Unist’ot’en healing village that began as a Wet’suwet’en-operated checkpoint on the road in 2009, preventing people working on the pipeline from accessing the territory.
An interim court injunction in December 2018 ordered people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink from gaining access to the road and bridge. Police came to enforce the injunction at the Gidimt’en camp on Jan. 7, 2019, arresting 14 people.
That led to an agreement between the nation’s hereditary chiefs and police to allow pipeline workers through Unist’ot’en for pre-construction work.
What’s happened over the last few weeks
Dec. 31, 2019
Justice Marguerite Church rules in favour of Coastal GasLink and orders an interlocutory injunction. Church rules that Coastal GasLink has all the required approvals to proceed with the pipeline project.
The injunction orders specific Wet’suwet’en defendants and supporters to stop preventing Coastal GasLink and contractors from accessing the Morice West Forest Service Road.
Jan. 5, 2020
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs issue an eviction notice to Coastal GasLink, citing Wet’suwet’en trespass laws.
RCMP report finding fallen trees on the Morice West Forest Service Road along with notched trees and other materials they characterize as “traps likely to cause bodily harm,” including stacks of tires, kindling and jugs of oil and gas products.
The road is impassable.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say the trees were felled by people on the territory out of fear for their safety.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs hold a news conference marking the one-year anniversary of the RCMP enforcement of the previous, interim injunction against them. The chiefs publish a list of demands including calls for the province to cancel all the permits for the project and for the RCMP leave the territory.
“We are the title holders, and the province must address the issue of our title if they want to gain access to our lands,” says hereditary Chief Na’moks, who is also known as John Ridsdale.
The chiefs cite a report from the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination urging Canada to halt the construction of the Site C dam, Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The committee says these projects do not have the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples.
The UN letter draws criticism from groups including the First Nations LNG Alliance who say Indigenous groups who support the project were not consulted before the committee took a position on the project. Coastal GasLink says in a news release that it will “delay re-mobilization” at the site under dispute “while engagement and a negotiated resolution remain possible.”
The company says it requested a meeting with Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership. This request is repeated in the days and weeks after Jan. 7 and the chiefs maintain they’re not interested in meeting with the company and only want to have government-to-government conversations with the provincial and federal governments.
Also on Jan. 7, Coastal GasLink posts the injunction order. Under the terms of the court order this triggers a 72-hour window of time for the road to be cleared of debris and made passable for the company and its contractors.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs send a letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requesting a meeting.
RCMP set up a checkpoint restricting access on the Morice West Forest Service Road, citing safety concerns. In particular, they note concern for fallen trees and notched trees along the road.
The RCMP has had a temporary detachment, dubbed a Community-Industry Safety Office, on the road since January 2019.
Also on Jan. 13, Horgan says the “rule of law” needs to be respected, the pipeline will be built and Coastal GasLink has all the necessary approvals to proceed.
Horgan sends hereditary chief Na’moks a letter offering to send B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser to the Wet’suwet’en office in Smithers to meet.
Fraser travels to Smithers planning to meet with hereditary chiefs.
The hereditary chiefs send their office staff to meet with Fraser instead. Meanwhile, the chiefs spend their day in meetings with the RCMP.
Horgan announces former NDP MP Nathan Cullen has been appointed as an intermediary in the dispute. He is tasked with attempting to “de-escalate” the situation.
Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer holds a media briefing and stresses that the company would still like to meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. They continue to refuse.
The RCMP announces it will stand down on enforcement of the injunction while province and hereditary chiefs engage in a seven-day discussion period.
The B.C. government, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and Coast GasLink all issue statements in the late evening saying the talks have failed to find a resolution.
RCMP announce at a news conference they are ready to enforce the injunction order and urge pipeline opponents to leave the area or face arrest.
Before dawn, RCMP begin enforcing the injunction. Six people are arrested at a camp at kilometre 39.
RCMP dismantle the barrier at Gidimt’en checkpoint at the 44-kilometre mark of the Morice West Forest Service Road. The Mounties say support beams appeared to have been cut on the bridge, making it unsafe. Police make four more arrests.
Wet’suwet’en supporters block the only road back to Houston, temporarily preventing RCMP from returning to their detachment with those who’d been arrested. Police announce the exclusion zone and checkpoint would be relocated more than 20 kilometres closer to Houston on the road.
RCMP arrest 11 people at a warming room after they refused to leave. Police say in a statement that several people had “barricaded themselves inside, some using chains in an effort to prevent their arrest.”
Police move into Unist’ot’en, where the Wet’suwet’en have, for more than a decade, been re-establishing a presence in what began as an effort to block proposed energy projects through the area.
Among seven arrested are Karla Tait, the director of clinical programming for the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, and Freda Huson, longtime spokesperson for Unist’ot’en and one of the named defendants in the injunction brought forward by Coastal GasLink.
RCMP say they have concluded “major enforcement operations.”
What are the stakes?
The stakes, economically, politically and internationally, remain high.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline is a key component of a $40-billion LNG Canada export terminal at Kitimat, B.C., designed to ship natural gas to international markets. It is on the territory of the Haisla Nation, which supports the project.
The LNG export terminal is backed by one of the world’s largest energy companies and three state-owned firms owned by Korea, China and Malaysia. In 2011, Shell, which owns a 40 per cent share of the project, issued a tender to build a pipeline to feed the terminal, which was won by a subsidiary of TC Energy Corp — then known as TransCanada — which created Coastal GasLink.
LNG Canada’s decision to move ahead with the project was announced in Vancouver in October 2018 with Horgan and Trudeau in attendance.
It came at a time when the Trudeau government was facing dark skies over the energy sector with a year left before the next federal election. The federal Liberal government had recently approved the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, only to see it fall apart. The Energy East pipeline project had collapsed and the Trans Mountain pipeline was tangled in the courts.
At the announcement, Trudeau said the project was the “largest private sector investment” in Canada’s history.
“It shows what’s possible when you consult with Indigenous and local communities.”
Now, despite calls for the prime minister’s involvement from hereditary chiefs, the Trudeau government has distanced itself from the ongoing conflict over the pipeline integral to the overall LNG Canada project.
The Prime Minister’s Office and the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett referred questions to Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan’s office.
O’Regan’s office said in an emailed statement that the issue was up to the province to deal with.
“Our government is committed to a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership,” said the statement.
“This project went through a provincial review, and remains fully under provincial jurisdiction. We encourage all the parties involved to work together towards a solution.”
Protests and blockades
The arrests by the RCMP in Wet’suwet’en territory have triggered railway blockades and other protests across the country.
Members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation staged a demonstration near railway tracks east of Belleville, Ont., that led to a shutdown of passenger and rail traffic through eastern Ontario.
Indigenous youth have been occupying the front steps of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria and a CN railway line has been blocked near New Hazelton, B.C. affecting rail traffic in and out of Prince Rupert and Kitimat.
With files from Rhiannon Johnson