By Andy Crosby
A series of protests were held in Ottawa and throughout Canada in January in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en peoples and their hereditary chiefs, who are currently facing police suppression in B.C. for blocking construction of a pipeline.
On Jan. 8 in Ottawa, dozens of Indigenous peoples and their supporters pushed through lines of security and police personnel to enter the John G. Diefenbaker Building on Sussex Drive, disrupting a planned speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Canada-Modern Treaty and Self-Governing First Nations Forum.
The RCMP are engaging in state-sponsored terrorism against Indigenous people, which is funded by oil companies, and it’s time that we face up to this truth
Earlier on Parliament Hill, Ashley Courchene, a Carleton graduate student from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, called the RCMP action against the Wet’suwet’en an invasion.
“The RCMP are engaged in a media campaign to convince the average Canadian that they are the ones who are rational and peaceful while painting Indigenous peoples as criminals on their own homelands,” said Courchene.
“What the RCMP are doing right now in B.C. are not upholding the rule of law,” he continued. “They are engaging in state-sponsored terrorism against Indigenous people, which is funded by oil companies, and it’s time that we face up to this truth.”
Inside the Diefenbaker Building, Trudeau refused to come out and address the crowd of over 100 Indigenous peoples and their settler allies. This crowd held the space by chanting, making noise, and delivering a variety of speeches over a megaphone in open-mic fashion.
Among the dozens of speakers was a seventeen-year-old Mi’kmaw girl named Sophia, who addressed Trudeau directly from outside the meeting room.
“Justin Trudeau, I know you are listening, and this (RCMP raid) cannot happen ever again.”
“Decriminalize us!” Sophia demanded.
“We want to be sovereign nations,” she continued. “Why do we need to take you to court? This is our land, these are our rights, these are our traditions, this is our culture. We just want respect like every single other person on this planet.”
After over an hour, the large group left without incident.
Activists responded to a call from the Wet’suwet’en for “rolling actions” with another rally on Jan. 15, which began at Confederation Park before taking to the streets.
A benefit concert is scheduled for Jan. 26 at Barrymore’s, with more actions and events to come.
RCMP INVASION AN “ACT OF WAR”
The numerous actions in support of the Wet’suwet’en were prompted after a large force of RCMP officers – some dressed in camouflage with heavy weapons – moving in on the Gidimt’en checkpoint on Jan. 7 and arresting 14 land protectors.
All five clans of the Wet’suwet’en nation have unanimously opposed all pipeline proposals, and the Gidimt’en recently established a checkpoint to support the Unist’ot’en camp.
For the past decade, the Unist’ot’en Clan’s camp has sat at the intersection of a number of proposed pipelines slated to transport oil and gas from Alberta to B.C. ports, denying access to pipeline companies.
On Dec. 14, TransCanada Corporation obtained an injunction from a B.C. court to remove Indigenous obstacles so that construction could commence on its Coastal GasLink pipeline.
The Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous nations along the pipeline routes have never surrendered title to their territories, which the Supreme Court of Canada recognized in the 1997 Delgamuukw case.
An international call to action for Jan. 8 was issued to support those defending the Gidimt’en checkpoint.
This call to action, which circulated among media and activist groups, said that “Despite the lip service given to ‘Truth and Reconciliation’, Canada is now attempting to do what it has always done – criminalize and use violence against indigenous people so that their unceded homelands can be exploited for profit.”
The call to action invoked Article 10 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which states that “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their land or territories.”
“We are now preparing for a protracted struggle,” the call concluded. “The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en and the land defenders holding the front lines have no intention of allowing Wet’suwet’en sovereignty to be violated.”
CANADIAN SECURITY APPARATUS TARGETS UNIST’OT’EN
Indigenous land defenders and water protectors have come under increased and intensified scrutiny from the Canadian security establishment for asserting their sovereign title to the land. These assertions have been interpreted as a direct challenge to the authority of the Canadian state and economy – and so they are framed as a threat to national security.
In particular, Indigenous activists have challenged Canada’s energy superpower ambitions, which centre on the tar sands and efforts to pipe oil and gas over unceded Indigenous territories to tide water for export.
Over the past decade, numerous internal documents obtained through Access to Information requests have revealed extensive scrutiny and surveillance by security agencies monitoring and reporting on Indigenous resistance.
In particular, security agencies have fixated on the Unist’ot’en Clan and their “blockade camp” as being “the ideological and physical focal point of Aboriginal resistance to resource projects.”
Canadian security officials anticipated using force against the Unist’ot’en as early as 2015, drafting a “secret” risk assessment of the “blockade of TransCanada proposed pipeline” after the company signaled it would seek an injunction to remove the Wet’suwet’en from their land. Public Safety Canada’s Government Operations Centre (GOC) assessed the risk to the national interest as “medium-low.”
In the report, GOC officials framed the Unist’ot’en as a “faction (that) is led by an aboriginal extremist who rejects the authority of the Crown over his perception of what constitutes traditional territories.”
Unist’ot’en spokesperson Freda Huson told APTN National News that she believes the “aboriginal extremist” referred to in the report is Hereditary Chief Smogelgem.
The report warns that attempted “removal of protesters through a court-approved injunction will result in continued protest action and blockade efforts by Unist’ot’en activists,” and this “may have impacts on critical infrastructure.”
As Jeff Monaghan and I argue in our book Policing Indigenous Movements, the rubric of critical infrastructure has become a prominent element in the surveillance of social movements – as well as a tactic to “criminalize Indigenous movements that challenge extractive capitalism, demand self-determination, or contest federal and provincial claims to Indigenous lands.”
As examples of potential threats to critical infrastructure, the report lists previous examples of the Gitxsan nation – co-appellant with the Wet’suwet’en in the Delgamuukw case – blocking highways and rail lines in their territory in opposition to pipelines.
Although backed by Indigenous law, UNDRIP, and a Supreme Court case recognizing Aboriginal title, the Wet’suwet’en are framed as violent extremists and a threat to national security.
For example, Unist’ot’en opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline was underscored in a January 2014 RCMP report by its Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Team on “Criminal Threats to the Canadian Petroleum Industry.”
In this report, the RCMP frame the Unist’ot’en as violent criminal extremists: “the most urgent anti-petroleum threat of violent criminal activity is in Northern British Columbia where there is a coalition of like-minded violent extremists who are planning criminal actions to prevent the construction of the pipeline.”
This sensationalist framing was prompted by the peaceful eviction of pipeline survey crews by the Unist’ot’en.
In addition, the RCMP’s Aboriginal Policing Services in B.C. have tracked Unist’ot’en Camp activities on a monthly basis from at least as far back as 2010 and up to at least the end of 2015. The monthly intelligence reports track resource development projects in British Columbia and Indigenous opposition, frequently outlining the economic benefits of such projects while framing opponents as unreasonable. To that end the Unist’ot’en are framed as a “splinter group” in each of the reports.
The use of categories such as “splinter group” and “faction” are tactics to delegitimize, marginalize, and undermine Indigenous land defenders and demands for self-determination.
Taking it one step further, a 2013 report by the B.C. RCMP’s Criminal Analysis Section on law enforcement implications related to natural gas pipelines referred to the Unist’ot’en as a “break-away sub-clan.”
The Unist’ot’en are also featured in Project SITKA, a March 2015 RCMP investigative report which we obtained over the course of writing Policing Indigenous Movements.
Project SITKA: Serious Criminality Associated to Large Public Order Events with National Implications identified “subjects” associated with the Unist’ot’en Camp who were swept up in the quasi-criminal investigation that pinpointed and created protestor profiles of 89 individuals “who pose a criminal threat to Aboriginal public order events,” predominantly surrounding “natural resource development, particularly pipeline and shale gas expansion.”
Project SITKA identified 69 “Aboriginal public order events” over a five-year span attended by the 89 subjects, including 16 in B.C. These were not only protests, “but to events related to public order such as speaking tours, disruption of political proceedings, and direct action training camps.”
As a key “criteria for criminality,” SITKA investigators attempted to identify the “background, motivation and rhetoric” of the 89 individuals classified as either “disruptive” or “volatile.”
Project SITKA made national headlines at the time it was released to media in late 2016, as it exposes the tactics and tools of criminalization and surveillance deployed by national security agencies against Indigenous peoples protecting their land.
THE PROTRACTED STRUGGLE CONTINUES
Faced with the ongoing threat of violent injury and death from police forces, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs entered into negotiations with the RCMP and TransCanada.
On Jan. 10, they reached an agreement to let pre-construction crews onto the territory in exchange for guarantees that the Unist’ot’en Camp would not be attacked and that RCMP “exclusion zones” be removed.
The interim injunction is set to expire on Jan. 31, the deadline where the named defendants – Warner Naziel (Smogelgem), Freda Huson, and Jane and John Doe – can file a response with the B.C. Supreme Court to affirm Wet’suwet’en title and jurisdiction.
“The governments of Canada and British Columbia are blatantly ignoring the Supreme Court of Canada’s precedent-setting Delgamuukw case which confirmed that the Wet’suwet’en’s Title and Rights have never been extinguished,” according to Union of BC Indian Chiefs President Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in a press release condemning RCMP aggression.
The Canadian government has stalled on recognizing Indigenous title as laid out in landmark cases such as Delgamuukw and Tsilhqot’in (2014). It has also failed to implement the numerous recommendations and principles laid out in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, UNDRIP, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – all of which deal directly with important issues of Indigenous land and title.
Instead, the approach has been to attempt to address services on reserves and to recognize Indian Act Band Councils as the legitimate governing bodies as opposed to the hereditary chiefs and grassroots people. These councils are responsible exclusively for reserve administration – which comprise 0.2 per cent of the Canadian land mass. In the case of Wet’suwet’en, the nation’s full territory comprises some 22,000 square kilometres.
Chief Na’moks told the press following the negotiations that “We are adamantly opposed to this proposed project and that will never change, but we are here to ensure the safety of our people.”
The Unist’ot’en Camp published a notice on their website, vowing that “this is not over.”
“While the chiefs have a responsibility to protect the land, they also have a duty to protect our land defenders. Our people faced an incredible risk of injury or death and that is not a risk we are willing to take for an interim injunction. The agreement we made allows Coastal GasLink to temporarily work behind the Unist’ot’en gate. This will continue to be a waste of their time and resources as they will not be building a pipeline in our traditional territory.”
Video surfacing on social media in the days following the agreement shows the RCMP openly violating the terms of the negotiations.
RCMP exclusion zones are still erected on Wet’suwet’en territory with the dual purpose of “protecting” TransCanada crews as well as preventing Wet’suwet’en access to their territories.
In one video published on the Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidumt’en Territory Facebook page, Elder Rita David of the Gidimt’en Clan, links the current exclusion and land dispossession over many decades, recalling her family being forced out of their home in Smithers.
“It hasn’t stopped, they’re still trying to get rid of us here,” she said. “This is our land.”