Photo: Canute Planthara
by Andy CrosbyT
wo hundred people took to the streets of Ottawa’s downtown on Jan. 10 in a display of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation who are protecting their traditional territories from pipeline expansion.
The demonstration was organized in response to a call-out from the Wet’suwet’en for a week of international solidarity actions after the B.C. Supreme Court granted an injunction to Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd. (a B.C. subsidiary of TC Energy Corporation, formerly TransCanada) with an enforcement provision for the RCMP to forcibly remove the Wet’suwet’en from their territories.
The Ottawa march commenced on Parliament Hill, with stops at the World Exchange Plaza and Royal Bank, before it arrived at the Extinction Rebellion encampment across the street from the Prime Minister’s Office on Elgin Street, where traffic on Wellington Street was blocked.
Amber Dyck, a graduate student studying biology at the University of Ottawa, helped organize the march with Climate Justice Ottawa.
“I came to the work of climate justice a few years ago, from a previously environment-first perspective, when I started learning about intersectionality of colonial oppressions and earth-life-spirit destruction,” Dyck told The Leveller. “The Wet’suwet’en Nation never gave up their land, title, sovereignty, or laws and they are expressing them now by protecting their land, water, culture and life for future generations, and refusing to let a pipeline through.”
Hannah Morikawa, a University of Ottawa student and co-founder of the Indigenous Ally Network expressed the importance of settler solidarity work with Indigenous land defenders.
“As a non-Indigenous person, I feel it’s important to not only be an online presence sharing posts about advocacy, but also a physical presence to show solidarity,” Morikawa told The Leveller.
Over 40 separate rallies were organized in response to the Wet’suwet’en call-out, including a rolling blockade of Highway 401 on Jan. 10. Two separate convoys of vehicles — one emanating from Akwasasne with support from Kahnawake, and the other near London with members from the Chippewas of the Thames and the Oneida of the Thames First Nations — slowed morning rush hour traffic in eastern and southwestern Ontario.
At presstime, some local activists are quietly preparing for action if the RCMP raids Wet’suwet’en territory again, The Leveller learned, after the RCMP set up an exclusion zone on Jan. 13. In the meantime, Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa have started an online campaign to put pressure on the Canadian government to respect Wet’suwet’en sovereignty.
Injunctive Relief: A Colonial Remedy
Fears have heightened surrounding the possibility of an RCMP raid after the B.C. Supreme Court granted an injunction on Dec. 31. Injunctive relief was sought by Coastal GasLink to remove the Wet’suwet’en and their supporters, who have been impeding access to work crews at multiple blockade camps in their traditional territories on and around the Morice West Forest Service Road in central B.C.
Justice Church wrote in her decision that refusing to grant the injunction would cause the plaintiff “serious and irreparable harm” in its ambitions to construct the $6.6 billion, 670-kilometre pipeline to carry fracked natural gas from Dawson Creek to Kitimat on the coast.
In response, the hereditary chiefs issued a press release charging that the decision criminalized Wet’suwet’en law.
“Coastal GasLink (CGL) has never obtained consent from the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs to enter or work on our territories,” it read.
“Ultimately, we are our own government, and we decide who comes on our territory,” said hereditary chief Dini’ze Na’moks (John Ridsdale) in the press release. “We are the hereditary chiefs. British Columbia and Canada only have assumed and presumed authority on our lands.”
The court’s ruling that the Wet’suwet’en blockades have caused “serious and irreparable harm” to a pipeline company is a stark reminder of whose interests are protected and served by the Canadian justice system. This ruling demonstrates that the court is a colonial mechanism that serves to further the aims of resource extractive industries, criminalize Indigenous peoples who are living on and defending their land, and grant license to the RCMP to use lethal violence (if necessary) to remove Indigenous peoples from their unceded and unsurrendered territories.
In the ruling, the judge repeatedly refers to this ongoing struggle in terms of dollars and cents, that Indigenous peoples stand to economically benefit from the project, and that those preventing construction have perpetrated a loss of $5 million, with tens of millions more expected in the event of further delays. For the Wet’suwet’en, a price cannot be placed on their land. The intrusion of industry, the loss of access to portions of the land, and the risk of a spill far outweigh any monetary value the justice system and industry present.
“Since obtaining the initial interim injunction order, CGL has bulldozed through our territories and destroyed our archaeological sites, while private security firms and RCMP have interfered with the constitutionally protected rights of Wet’suwet’en people to access our lands for hunting, trapping, and ceremony,” the press release continued.
On the one year anniversary of an RCMP raid on the Gidimt’en checkpoint, which saw 14 land defenders arrested, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs issued a media advisory announcing the successful peaceful eviction of Coastal GasLink work crews from their territory.
“There is no access to Wet’suwet’en territory without our consent,” according to the advisory. “We are the title holders, and the Province must address the issue of our title if they want to gain access to our lands.”
Their list of demands included the suspension of all pipeline construction and the withdrawal of the police and security forces from the territory.
Canada Condemned at the UN
The demands were in line with and cited those produced by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The committee issued a report in December 2019 calling for the immediate suspension of work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the Trans Mountain pipeline and the Site C dam until free, prior and informed consent is obtained from all affected Indigenous peoples.
The committee noted being “disturbed by forced removal, disproportionate use of force, harassment and intimidation by law enforcement officials against Indigenous peoples who peacefully oppose large-scale development projects on their traditional territories” and “alarmed by escalating threat of violence against Indigenous peoples.”
The committee urged Canada to immediately cease forced evictions, to guarantee that no force will be used, and that the use of lethal weapons — most notably by the RCMP — be prohibited. The report further urged the withdrawal of the RCMP and all police and security forces from Indigenous traditional territories.
Taken aback, oil and gas industry representatives and their backers in government responded. Alberta’s Energy Minister Sonya Savage issued a press release on Jan. 7 declaring the report “beyond rich.” Savage further attempted to undermine the United Nations referring to it as an “unelected, unaccountable” body.
“Canada’s duly elected representatives — not unaccountable international committees — are responsible for governing decisions in this country,” Savage concluded. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers released a statement of their own that same day, claiming the UN Committee’s statement “reflects an embarrassing ignorance of Canadian law.”
Despite these interpretations, the committee is responsible for holding signatories such as Canada accountable to international human rights law, in this case to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
“Lethal Overwatch”: Targeting the “Radicalized”
Concerns about police using lethal force stem from documents The Guardian obtained containing notes from an RCMP strategy session before the January 2019 Gidimt’en checkpoint raid.
The RCMP anticipated making arrests deemed necessary for “sterilizing [the] site,” according to The Guardian. Further, an RCMP commander argued that “lethal overwatch is req’d” and instructed officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want.”
According to the RCMP, “‘Lethal overwatch’ is a term given to a second person who is providing back-up to the primary person. In situations where the threat level is high and lethal force may have to be used, this second person is prepared to use lethal force because the first person is not in a position to exercise lethal force.”
Further RCMP documents paint a picture of how the RCMP interprets and frames those at the blockade site, as criminals and extremists as opposed to sovereign land defenders and their supporters. As reported in The Globe and Mail, those whom the RCMP deemed could be shot during the raid were “radicalized,” according to court documents surrounding the January 2019 raid.
“I am aware that critical infrastructure can be targeted by persons with radicalized ideology,” wrote Sergeant John Uzelac in an affidavit signed one day after the raid. These documents were revealed during court proceedings against two blockade arrestees facing criminal charges in a Houston, B.C. court.
These documents further reveal the involvement of the RCMP Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET), the Emergency Response Team (ERT), and tactical troops as part of a multi-pronged raid strategy that included a five-step process for arrests.
The designation of “critical infrastructure” is a strategy increasingly used to deploy substantial national security policing resources against Indigenous and environmental activists who oppose energy projects. In this case, the “critical infrastructure” referenced by Uzelac is non-existent. There is no pipeline, only a proposal and permits. What is critical here, however, is the issue of jurisdiction and consent. The Wet’suwet’en have never surrendered their land to British Columbia nor Canada.
“Wet’suwet’en people have been the rightful title holders, stewards, and protectors of their traditional territories for thousands of years,” said Sophia Sidarous, an Indigenous activist and co-organizer of the Ottawa solidarity mobilization. “Now, the Canadian and B.C. governments are disrespecting Anuk’nu’at’en (Wet’suwet’en law) to push through another extractive project that threatens their people, culture, and land.”