On January 7, the RCMP arrested 14 people at the Gidimt’en camp in Northern BC. The RCMP was acting on a court injunction granting Coastal GasLink workers access to a road and bridge to continue the construction of a pipeline central to the $40-billion LNG project run by TransCanada Corp (now known as TC Energy). The recent Wet’suwet’en pipeline conflict emerged as members of the Wet’suwet’en community prevented Coastal GasLink workers from passing through this area, citing the lack of consent from their hereditary leaders.
While TC Energy has signed deals with all the elected chiefs of the First Nations along the pipeline route, they have not received consent from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. The Wet’suwet’en have a complex system of government and leadership, as many Indigenous communities do. Their traditional hereditary leaders are important representatives of their community. Elected indigenous councils were formed under the Indian Act in 1876. These were intended to replace traditional Indigenous leaders, streamlining decision-making processes.
Typically, Indigenous people recognize both forms of leadership, with hereditary leaders allocated more responsibility to protect their land. Professor Sheryl Lightfoot, the Canada Research Chair in Global Indigenous Rights and Politics and an associate professor, First Nations and Indigenous Studies and Political Science at UBC, stated: “Hereditary leaders have responsibilities. When we talk about traditional leadership, it’s much heavier on responsibilities than it is on authority. Hereditary leadership goes back to time immemorial, and it is intrinsically tied to a territory and the land.”
The Supreme Court of Canada noted this in an oft-cited 1997 ruling, Delgamuukw v British Columbia. As Terry Teegee, regional chief for B.C. with the Assembly of First Nations, explained about the case, “The decision stated that hereditary chiefs have the right to make decisions on the land whereas the elected chiefs of chiefs and councils, band councils, have to deal with on-reserve issues.”
Despite this legal standing, however, their voices are often not seen as legitimate as those of their federally-sanctioned, elected counterparts.
Access Granted But Opposition Remains
In the interest of protecting their community from further conflicts with the RCMP, the Wet’suwet’en chiefs reached an agreement with Coastal GasLink on Thursday, Jan. 10, to allow pipeline workers into their traditional territory. “This is not consultation or accommodation in any sense,” said Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Na’Moks. The interim injunction enforced by the RCMP would allow for pre-construction work to begin in the contested territory.
The chiefs described the arrests as a “traumatic experience” they do not want to put their community through again. Some people who were arrested at the Gidimt’en camp are now alleging inappropriate use of force against the RCMP.
Here in Winnipeg, a Wet’suwet’en solidarity rally and round dance blocked off the Portage and Main intersection on Thursday, January 10, at 4 pm. An Indigenous demonstrator said, “Anishinaabe people have been putting up with this shit for 500 years, they can wait 41 minutes in traffic.” After around forty-five minutes of round dance, drum circle, and chants of “water is life,” “stop the violence” and “stop the pipeline”, traffic in the area resumed. This was one of many demonstrations in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en community that took place across Canada over the past week.
At the rally, a demonstrator held up a poster that read “Consultation is not consent”. The lack of Indigenous consent is a pivotal part of the controversy surrounding pipeline projects in Canada today. Under current Canadian law, the federal government does not require the consent of Indigenous people to build on it, but merely has a “duty to consult”. While the extent and depth of consultation required, and what this entails, has been shaped by jurisprudence over the last few decades, gaping holes remain – such as who all needs to be consulted to fulfill this duty?
The Rule of Law According to Who?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments on the Gidmit’en arrests underplayed the injustice occurring at the site.
“No, obviously, it’s not an ideal situation,” said Trudeau, continuing to state that there always needs to be room for people to voice their concerns. “But at the same time, we’re also a country of the rule of law.”
Trudeau’s interpretation of the rule of law, however, fails to consider the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which both the federal and BC government have pledged to uphold. UNDRIP specifically states that resource projects, such as Natural GasLink’s LNG Canada project, must have the free, prior and informed consent of affected Indigenous communities to be constructed. Coastal GasLink has obtained consent from Indigenous leaders and representatives that the Canadian federal government has deemed legitimate without recognizing that other chiefs have been declined a seat at the negotiating table.
Lawyer Bruce McIvor also notes, “Under Canadian law, the exclusive occupation of Indigenous lands is both a requirement to prove Aboriginal title and a right that flows from Aboriginal title. The Gidmet’en Checkpoint was an indicator of Wet’suwet’en Aboriginal title and an expression of that title.” That is, the occupation of their own traditional unceded territory makes the Wet’suwet’en people’s presence at the Gidmet’en Checkpoint legal under Canadian law.
Yet despite exercising their legal rights in a peaceful manner, members of the Wet’suwet’en community were met by armed members of the RCMP.
“Forget about wringing our hands over ‘reconciliation’—the fact that the Chiefs and their supporters found themselves facing heavily-armed RCMP officers is a testament to a complete and shameful failure of the rule of law,” wrote McIvor.
The RCMP’s legally sanctioned, heavily armed incursion is an expression of the Liberal federal government’s real attitude towards reconciliation. While Indigenous people are “permitted” to “express their concerns” over their own territory, when it gets down to profit and revenues, too often Indigenous peoples do not have the final say over what occurs on their own land.
“That’s not a “nation-to-nation” relationship. It is one nation enforcing its will without any interest or regard for others. Wars have been fought over such actions,” wrote Niigaan Sinclair in an opinion piece for the Winnipeg Free Press.
The Wet’suwet’en community is concerned about the effects this project’s pipeline would have on their land and water. During the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, “Mni Wiconi”, or “water is life”, was an oft-repeated slogan by the resistance group. These concerns are present across Indigenous communities facing pipeline expansion projects on their land.
Similar concerns are raised about Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project. This pipeline, in operation since the 1960s, travels from Alberta through Saskatchewan and Manitoba before crossing the border into North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Enbridge has proposed to abandon the existing pipeline (leaving it in the ground) and replace it – while nearly doubling its capacity. According to Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition, “If built, the new Line 3 pipeline would transport 760,000 barrels of crude oil per day through Manitoba.”
Local organization “The Spirit of the Buffalo” is organizing peaceful protests against the Line 3 pipeline project, and is holding events in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en community. Join them for their fundraiser at the Pyramid Cabaret on January 24th!