The Wet’suwet’en nation has been resisting the construction of the Canadian Coastal GasLink pipeline for several years. The struggle has been especially intense in the Wedzin Kwa forest, where the First Nation peoples have established the Gidimt’en checkpoint to defend their land from the advance of the Canadian fossil fuel industry, aided by the Canadian government’s violent police raids. Left Voice’s Sam Carliner interviewed Sleydo, an Indigenous leader and spokesperson for the Gidimt’en checkpoint about the Wet’suwet’en struggle against Coastal GasLink.
What is the struggle against the Coastal GasLink pipeline?
We’re Wet’suwet’en clan. Our governance is divided up into five different clans, and all the clans have in the past gone through our governance system to resist all pipelines to our territories, including the Coastal GasLink project. This movement has been happening over the last decade or so. It’s grown over the years from originally the Unist’ot’en having occupied their territories and controlling access to their territories, and then in 2018 the Gidimt’en started controlling access to our territories, and we’re a neighboring clan. So in 2018 the Gidimt’en Checkpoint was established, which is an occupation on our territory to control access and monitor all of the environmental damages that are happening and any pipelines, specifically the Coastal GasLink project. Since then, our community out on the territory and occupation has grown, and other clans have reoccupied their territory as well. In 2019 there was a militarized raid against the Gidimt’en checkpoint, enforced through an injunction that Coastal GasLink had brought forward. In 2019 and in 2020, there were two militarized raids, and then just recently Gidimt’en had occupied the drill pad site where Coastal GasLink plans to drill underneath our sacred headwaters. That started September 25, and the occupation lasted 56 days until the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) launched another militarized raid over two days on November 18 and 19 and made over 30 arrests of Wet’suwet’en and our supporters. And that’s what brought this thing into the light of mainstream media and internationally. So this has been an ongoing struggle for several years. All the hereditary chiefs, which is our traditional governance system, have said no to the pipeline. There’s a number of things that have happened over the years that are of significance. In 2020, on January 4, all the hereditary chiefs evicted Coastal GasLink from the territory, and that’s what led to the raids in February 2020 and consequently ended up spurring the Shut Down Canada movement, where major infrastructure was blocked and stopped and economy was crippled in 2020 in support of the Wet’suwet’en. Then again, this year, there’s been a series of support, rallies, blockades, and actions taken in support of the Wet’suwet’en. This is an issue of Coastal GasLink and them not having free prior informed consent of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who have full jurisdiction and title over 22,000 square kilometers of our territory. But it’s also a larger issue about the climate crisis and obviously Indigenous rights in general. We don’t have treaties. We’ve never ceded or surrendered our territories. We still maintain title and jurisdiction over all of our territories.
Can you elaborate a bit more on the environmental threat and the threat to your land that pipeline construction either has already caused or could cause?
The Coastal GasLink project is accessing fracked gas from northeastern so-called British Columbia, which is not in our territory, but we’ve had conversations with people from there and we know that this is a huge contributor to the climate crisis and all of the fracking and the destruction of water that’s happening. The pipeline route is over 670 kilometers and plans to move fracked gas from northeastern British Columbia to the coast in Kitimat and then ship it to overseas markets. So the LNG Canada project, where they’re planning to liquefy the gas, will put Canada over their targeted emissions and their hope to reduce carbon. So one of the main reasons why the Wet’suwet’en denied access to the company and withheld consent for this project is that our river that they plan to drill underneath is one of the last clean drinking water sources in our territory. It’s also one of the main, if not the main, salmon-spawning areas. All of our nations rely on, and all of the nations downstream from us rely on, the salmon as one of our staple foods. And this is the main area that all the different species of salmon come to spawn. We also have many communities out on our territories that rely on this drinking water. Specifically, we drink right out of the river. All the infrastructure, all the occupations and communities drink this water, including our children. If this pipeline were to proceed and to drill underneath the Wedzin Kwa, the sediment alone caused from drilling under the river and putting a pipe under the river would destroy our ability to drink that water ever again. And that’s if everything goes perfectly, if the salmon aren’t disrupted. Our law dictates that we have to protect this for all the future generations.
What goes into maintaining these occupations?
All the decision-making happens through our houses and our current system. It’s not one individual in particular who’s making decisions about what happens on the territory. We have a collective decision-making process and also a house chief, Woss, who is our speaker on behalf of our house and our clan. So he’s the one who puts forward the decisions that are made and the actions that happen on the territory. Also, the occupation had quite a bit of infrastructure. There were tiny houses there. There was a log cabin that was built that was occupying the drill site. We have a smokehouse, ceremonial pit house, sweat lodge. And then there were three homes and a series of tents and a kitchen. And so it was like a little village site out at the drill pad. After the raids happened, the RCMP came and cleared the way for Coastal GasLink to demolish and destroy all of our infrastructure, except for the tiny house. So the cabin was burned to the ground, which is a tactic that has been used by industry and government in our territories since the time of contact. They often remove people from the territory and then burn down our homes and our trapping cabins. So that happened. They also bulldozed the other structures and infrastructure and took everything to the dump. And so the whole community out there was bulldozed by Coastal GasLink after the RCMP arrested and removed everybody from our territory.
What kind of repression have you faced from the RCMP?
When I say militarized raid, what I mean is that there’s between 50 to 100 RCMP, and those are specialized units. They mostly call themselves CIRG, an acronym for Community Industry Response Group, and they are their own group of RCMP that’s been developed in British Columbia to address mostly Indigenous resistance to industry. And so they have their own emergency response team. We say that green guys fall from the sky during the raids because specially trained militarized police helicopter in with assault rifles. They had K-9 units. They had sniper rifles. When the arrests happened, there were over 30 people that were arrested over the course of two days. And those weren’t the only arrests that happened during the raid. There were over 30 arrests. Everybody was charged with contempt, civil contempt of the court injunction. So breaching the court injunction, people specifically myself and the other people that were in the tiny house with me, we were in a home. They didn’t have any legal right to enter the home, but they had snipers trained on us, assault rifles pointed at us with a K-9 unit on standby right at the door of the home, and they came in with axes, breaking down the door and chainsaws breaking down the door and then arrested everybody inside. They did that at one of the other structures as well. The house chief’s daughter was also present in that home. That was her cabin that she was living in. And so everybody was removed off the territory and spent four to five days in city cells, and then everybody was forced into signing conditions of release that prevented them from going back to the territory. And so since that time, there have been over 30 people who have been displaced from the territory. On the first day of raids, there were two elders who were living out on the territory and were arrested, and they ended up being brought to a hospital because one of the elders was having chest pains. They had set up an exclusion zone, denying access to anybody, including our house chief. They denied our elders medicine, denied food and supplies. So they basically cut us off from any sort of basic necessities before they raided.
What was the scale of the solidarity actions? Have you found that Canadians support your struggle, or are they siding with the government?
I don’t think that there’s a lot of siding with the government. There are people and community members, of course, who are in favor of the project. They often tout that all the Indian Act bands have signed on to the agreement and that they support it. What these people don’t understand is that the Indian Act bands that are in place are an arm of the federal government. And so those were imposed on us as Indigenous people here in so-called Canada, and they don’t represent our traditional governance system. We maintain that the traditional governance system is our clan system and our hereditary chiefs and that they have the jurisdiction to make decisions on what happens on the territory and not the land councils. The scale of the solidarity actions has been immense and overwhelming. There’s a lot of international support. There have been actions in other countries in the UK, in Japan. We have support and allies all over the world. There have been a lot of rallies. There have been parts that have been shut down, major highways that have been shut down, railways, rail systems that have been shut down. We have close allies, neighboring allies that are currently maintaining a railway blockade that’s been ongoing since the enforcement of the eviction that happened on November 14. And then we also have a lot of other allies out east in the nation and communities that have been supporting us as well.
Have you been in contact with other Indigenous struggles, like the Line 3 fight in the U.S. and struggles in Latin America?
Yes, absolutely. We’re in communication with a lot of different groups and a lot of different Indigenous nations from around the world. Recently I was having conversations with people from the Amazon who are experiencing a lot of the same kinds of displacement and theft of land from industry that’s happening in their communities. Also, there’s a lot of similarities between what’s happening down in Line 3 and what’s happening here in terms of the RCMP and the state actions that are basically privatized and being paid for by industry. With Line 3, a lot of the local police have been paid by Enbridge. We have that same thing happening here with the Community Industry Response Groups, which are specialized in protecting industry. And they actually take direction from Coastal GasLink on how and when to enforce the injunction, when to make arrests, and when to set up the exclusion zones. We also know that Coastal GasLink has a number of violations of their permit conditions, especially around the water. Just in the last several months, they’ve had 11 violations around waterways and watersheds. And there’s just no enforcement of their permit conditions. And so they like to say this project is permitted and lawful. In fact, this project is violating Indigenous law, it’s violating human rights regularly, and it’s violating their permits. And a lot of their permits have been given out illegally And there’s no oversight or no enforcement of any of those things by the government here.
What can people do to support this resistance to Coastal GasLink?
People can follow along and check out our website. We have a section on our website that talks about how people can donate money to the cause, to all our legal fees, and to actions that are happening on the ground. Also follow along and amplify the voices and amplify the messaging that’s coming out, and make sure that people are talking to their family members about it, talking to their community about it, so that these kinds of atrocities don’t continue to happen all around the world. It’s not just here in so-called Canada, in BC. We’re connected to all these other movements and other Indigenous groups around the world. This is a consequence of globalization and capitalism and colonization all around the world. And the stories are very similar. So if we allow these things to happen here, then they’re going to continue to happen all over the world.