Members of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation enforced an eviction order against Coastal GasLink (CGL) on Sunday, Nov. 14, ordering the corporation to cease operations and leave Wet’suwet’en territory. The eviction order was originally issued by the hereditary chiefs of all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en in January 2020. In February of that year, the RCMP enforced a court injunction in a militarized raid, violently dismantled blockades and arrested land defenders to ensure the construction of CGL’s pipeline could continue.
In response to the actions of the RCMP, solidarity demonstrations and occupations erupted across Canada throughout February and March 2020. In a wonderful display of solidarity from coast to coast, railways were blockaded in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Ports were shut down in Vancouver. MPs were unable to enter the provincial legislature in Victoria. Roads and bridges, including the Confederation Bridge to PEI, were blocked around the country.
In enforcing the eviction order this year, CGL was given eight hours on Nov. 14 to evacuate work and camp sites in the early hours of the morning before the main access road was to be blocked later that afternoon. Initial reporting in the media indicated that CGL was complying with the eviction order, but the company has since clarified that this is not the case and says that some 500 workers are stranded behind the blockades on the access road.
When the deadline lapsed, with no evidence of workers vacating the territory, Wet’suwet’en land and water defenders along with Haudenosaunee allies seized a Coastal GasLink excavator and permanently closed the Morice River Forest service road.
The hereditary chiefs and land defenders have maintained their opposition to the pipeline since the raids in early 2020, and the eviction order has remained in place despite the police raids. The struggle against CGL was put on the backburner due to COVID-19, as the focus shifted to ensuring community safety during the pandemic. But with the restrictions caused by the pandemic easing and construction on the pipeline continuing, the struggle is once again in the spotlight.
The enforcement of the eviction order comes almost two months after the establishment of Coyote Camp, which was set up by Gidimt’en land and water defenders to stop Coastal Gaslink from drilling under the headwaters of the Wedzin Kwa (Morice River).
Construction is half completed on CGL’s pipeline, with the intention to carry natural gas from fracking operations in northeastern B.C. to a $40-billion LNG terminal in Kitimat for export to Asia. The current stage of pipeline construction requires drilling and tunneling under Wedzin Kwa, which is considered sacred headwaters by the Wet’suwet’en. The river is a pristine source of clean drinking water and important for the salmon spawn. Pipeline construction creates a significant risk that the river will be polluted. The land and water defenders have vowed to defend this precious resource.
Sledyo’, the spokesperson for the Gidimt’en checkpoint, explained in a press release that “The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have never ceded, surrendered or lost in war title to this territory. That means that what they say goes. The eviction order from 2020 says that CGL has to remove themselves from the territory and not return. They have been violating this law for too long.”
In the same press release, Sleydo’ continued: “Wetlands have been destroyed. Our animals have been sick. We need to protect what is left for all the future generations. Wet’suwet’en law pre-dates Colonial Law. It has existed since time began in our territories, and we have that same fighting spirit that our ancestors fought so hard to keep alive in us so that we would be able to defend our future generations, this land and this water.”
Tensions have been rising between CGL and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs since the end of September, when CGL contractors and the RCMP destroyed an archeological site with heavy machinery used in the construction of the pipeline.
After several days of harassment by CGL and the police, it was discovered that CGL’s drill site at Wedzin Kwa had been cleared with drilling to proceed imminently. In response, on September 25, CGL’s access road to the drill site was blockaded and the area occupied by land and water defenders to prevent the drilling under the headwaters.
Since the camp was established, two land defenders have been arrested for breaching an injunction to prevent blocking access of CGL to Wet’suwet’en territory. One of the arrests took place on Truth and Reconciliation Day, when an activist underneath a bus blocking a road to the drilling site was violently assaulted by the RCMP. Using “pain compliance”, they tugged on the activist’s legs while he screamed in pain. They continued to assault him until the bus was removed. Hereditary Chief Dsta’hyl of the Likhts’amisyu clan was also arrested in late October while fulfilling his role as an enforcement officer on their territory.
Memorandum of Understanding
In the background of the struggle of Wet’suwet’en against the CGL pipeline stands the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the federal government, and the B.C. provincial government.
An agreement was reached in principle in late February 2020 as the rail blockades were being cleared by police. The deal was then made public in May of 2020 after it was signed by the various parties.
According to the agreement, the Canadian and B.C. governments would recognize aboriginal rights and title throughout the Wet’suwet’en yintah (territory), with these rights and title held by the Wet’suwet’en Houses under their system of governance. The question of what this governance will look like still remains to be decided. There is a divide between the band councils and the hereditary leadership that still needs to be resolved. However, it is up to the Wet’suwet’en people themselves to decide their system of governance, not the government or the National Post.
The agreement also indicated a series of other jurisdictional matters that need to be decided and agreed upon, including child and family wellness, water, a Wet’suwet’en Nation Reunification Strategy, wildlife, fish, land use, resources, revenue sharing, questions of compensation, informed decision making, and other areas as proposed by the Wet’suwet’en.
The main elements of the agreement, including rights, title, and governance, were to be negotiated within three months of the official signing in May 2020. Over a year later, there has been very little movement in terms of the agreement and nothing has been finalized. The federal government claims that the pandemic and complexities of the agreement have delayed progress. This may very well be true, but in the meantime, construction of the CGL pipeline continues and the question of Wet’suwet’en title and rights remain unresolved, which is exactly what the government has wanted all along.
In many ways, the agreement was typical of the government and how it has dealt with questions of Indigenous rights and title throughout history. The federal government promised all sorts of things to the Wet’suwet’en in an effort to get out of the acute crisis and have the rail blockades cleared. By the time the agreement was announced, many of the blockades had already been cleared by police, and the pandemic had taken the wind out of the sails of the solidarity movement.
So far the federal government and the corporations are getting everything they wanted out of the deal, and the Wet’suwet’en have received nothing. The government got to see the end of the rail blockades and solidarity movement, and CGL has been able to continue pipeline construction. Wet’suwet’en rights, title, and governance have still not been established or recognized.
Beyond that, the MOU also ignored the most pressing issue in relation to Wet’suwet’en rights, title and governance: the question of the pipeline itself. It is very typical of the federal government to propose a deal that avoids precisely the main point of conflict. The MOU does not restrict court actions or protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline, but does specifically state that “there will be no impact on existing rights and interests pertaining to land until jurisdiction is transferred to the Wet’suwet’en.”
It would be in the interest of the government and CGL if the agreement is not finalized until after pipeline construction has moved through Wet’suwet’en territory. If the agreement is finalized before that happens, it would in theory be possible for Wet’suwet’en leadership to use their rights and title to stop pipeline construction. This will be much harder to do if the pipeline construction is already finished.
One of the most important developments in the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en is the strengthening of the ties of solidarity between Indigenous communities as well as with allies. Solidarity in struggle can only strengthen the Indigenous struggle and the class struggle in general. This was demonstrated in the solidarity protests and blockades last year.
During the solidarity blockades in February 2020, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs visited Haudenosaunee chiefs in Ontario. Members of the Six Nations of the Grand River had established 1492 Land Back Lane in a struggle against a corporate housing project that encroached on their lands. The Wet’suwet’en and Haudenosaunee expressed mutual solidarity and support in their respective struggles.
With the recent struggle around the drilling under Wadzin Kwa, this solidarity was put into practice. In October, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council issued a letter of support and solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en.
After the letter was issued, Indigenous activist and revolutionary Skyler Williams and other land defenders from 1492 Land Back Lane travelled to Wet’suwet’en territory to demonstrate their support and solidarity. During their stay, the Haudenosaunee land defenders helped push back against encroachments by the RCMP and walked them out of Wet’suwet’en territory. Haudenosaunee land defenders were also present when the access road was finally blockaded after the deadline to evacuate had passed following the eviction order on Nov. 14.
In a statement in October, Williams explained:
“The Haudenosaunee people are here in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, to amplify, to support, to do whatever it is that we need to do in order to make sure that our people are taken care of, and that RCMP isn’t continuing to brutalize people that are, you know, doing what they can to protect their lands for future generations… We’re sick and tired of watching our children being ripped out of our homes and our lands being destroyed and our water being poisoned. And the fact that we don’t get to be who we are because we’ll get thrown in jail just for trying to be who we are as Indigenous People. Regardless of all their cops and courts and guns and jails, there ain’t nothing that’s going to dissuade people from understanding that connection to the land. That connection to the land for us is something that you can’t jail away. You can’t beat that away. You can’t residential school that away, that connection that we have to each other. There’s nothing that they can do to take that away from us… When our Confederacy chiefs pass a law that says that we’re going to stand behind and support Wet’suwet’en people, that means that’s forever… There needs to be some solidarity. There needs to be some unity within Indigenous communities across the country… If you can’t get here to get boots on the ground… then we need to be making sure that we are on every bit of colonial infrastructure.”
The struggle of the Wet’suwet’en and the Haudenosaunee are the same. While the Wet’suwet’en face encroachments from an oil and gas company and the Haudenosaunee faced encroachments by a housing corporation, both are struggling to defend unceded territory from the encroachment of capital backed up by the state, the courts and the police. Capitalism cannot tolerate Indigenous rights and title because they stand in the way of profits.
Both the Wet’suwet’en and the Haudenosaunee have demonstrated in practice that victory is achieved through militant struggle. After a year of intense struggle against Foxgate Developments, 1492 Land Back Lane was victorious and stopped the housing development on their lands. The struggle of the Wet’suwet’en inspired one of the largest and most significant protest movements across the country in recent memory, costing the capitalists hundreds of millions of dollars and sparking a significant upsurge of awareness. As a result, awareness of Indigenous struggle is higher than it has ever been, as is the potential for solidarity.
The Canadian state and its security apparatus have been worried about the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en for years. The state is concerned that the Wet’suwet’en struggle could become a focal point of Indigenous struggle for rights and title throughout the country. The defenders of capital worry about a “convergence” of Indigenous struggle.
A united, national struggle for Indigenous rights and title could be the spark that lights the wildfire of generalized struggle in Canada, such as has been seen in the United States last year with the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd. The solidarity between the Wet’suwet’en and Haudenosaunee peoples in their common struggle shows us the way forward. The convergence and unity of these different struggles is precisely what is needed to defeat capital and put an end to the oppression of Indigenous peoples.
The Indigenous struggle has been at the forefront of the class struggle in Canada in the recent period. Every instance of struggle we have witnessed in the past few years has been Indigenous actions against a private corporation encroaching on their land. This demonstrates that the struggle is innately anti-capitalist, and an inherent part of the class struggle in Canada.
These are the very same capitalists the working class in general is struggling against. Any action by the working class and its organizations against these corporate interests can only strengthen the struggle against the continued exploitation and oppression of Indigenous peoples. The labour movement must support the struggle waged by Indigenous people.
The Wet’suwet’en land and water defenders have called for boots on the ground to help in the struggle on their lands, and have called for solidarity demonstrations across the country to support them in their struggle. The labour movement must answer the call and stand with the Wet’suwet’en in solidarity and struggle. Through unity we can win!