On the front lines of the ‘war within Canadian borders’ | indigenous rights

Snow fell as Chief Gisadeva’s truck made its way down the mountain’s pine-tree-lined roads. It was a Friday evening and the Wet’suwetan hereditary chief and his family were taking me with them to the Wet’suwetan yinta (land or territory).

This is the territory of his ancestry, where he grew up hunting, fishing and living off land, but as his eyes wandered around the landscape, looking for intruders, it felt like he was smuggling me out.

As we approached a bridge that ran parallel to the Wadzin Quai, a sacred Wet’suwetan River, we saw a checkpoint manned by two Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers. With their faces partially covered, they lit their torches in the truck, asked to see the chief’s driving license and demanded to know what our business was on these roads.

Gisdawa informed him that he was the hereditary head of this land, and the officer turned to his superior radio for instructions. The bones of the chief’s ancestors are buried here and the ancient routes of war and trade of the Wet Suweten clans weave through the vast area, but now he must ask permission to enter it. Permission was granted after waiting for 10 minutes.

But not all negotiations with the RCMP go so smoothly. In less than two hours, more than a dozen people, including indigenous land defenders and two of my journalist colleagues – photojournalist Amber Bracken and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano – were arrested at gunpoint on the 45-minute drive up this mountain .

A lookout post at Camp 44 on Morris River Forest Road [Brandi Morin/Al Jazeera]

They were in a cabin at a coyote camp set up by land guards on the Morris River Forest Service Road, a remote road that serves as the main point of access to project sites and work camps for the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline. The $6.6 billion liquefied natural gas pipeline will run for 670 km (416 mi) in northern British Columbia (BC). It has an area of ​​about 193 km (120 mi) that stretches through unincorporated Wet’suweton territory – land that was never legally signed to the Crown or Canada. The camp was established to prevent CGL’s plan to drill a tunnel for the pipeline under the Wedzin Qua, a river so that purebreds could drink it directly.

On 14 November, members of the Gidimten clan – one of five in the Wet Suwetten Nation, each made up of several clan houses – along with members of other Wet Suwetten clans and supporters, served a notice of eviction to the CGL.

Have hereditary chiefs representing the five Wet Suwetan clans CGL rejected, which is approved only by the leaders of the Band Council.

The band councils are part of a system established by the Canadian Indian Act, a racist law enacted more than 100 years ago to attempt to guide every aspect of the First Nation’s political, economic, infrastructure and community development. Can go But many First Nations reject this colonial institution and instead look to their hereditary chiefs for leadership, which is part of the traditional system of governance that dates back to ancient times.

When TC Energy, CGL’s parent company, and the provincial and federal governments signed deals with the band council leadership, they bypassed the hereditary chiefs.

Gisxtan Land Guard Colin Sutherland-Wilson [Brandi Morin/Al Jazeera]

‘Things are happening’

A few hours earlier, I was texting Amber, who had been embedded with the Gidimten land guards at Coyote Camp for a few days, telling her I was on my way. Then the RCMP rushed to implement a BC Supreme Court order granting CGL access to the pipeline work site.

The last message Amber sent me before I was arrested said: “Things are happening now.”

The RCMP had brought with him a dog, an assault rifle and a chainsaw.

Among those arrested at the same time as Amber were Gedimtaine’s spokesperson Slido’, also known as Molly Wickham, and Jocelyn Alec, daughter of Gedimtaine hereditary chief Voss (Frank Alec).

One of Slido’s last social media posts read: “They are smashing the door with an ax and they have k9 units!!”

By the time I arrived at Camp 44, another camp down on the Morris River Forest Service Road, the fort surrounded by a six-foot-high wooden fence and a small lookout post was illuminated only by moonlight and a small smoke structure that burned to the ground. Was. Inside other cabins and tents were canned food, torches and sleeping bags. Outside, hand-drawn banners proclaimed “Water is life” and “No consent”. Those who were not were not people. It felt like a ghost town. The land guards were gone – sitting in the concrete prison cells at Smithers. Peace shook my spine.

‘Exposed to the Light’

My destination was Unistoten Healing Camp, on top of the mountain. The Unist’ot’en ​​camp is affiliated with Yex T’sa Wilk’us of Gilsehu (the Dark House of the Big Frog Clan), which is part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. It is supervised by Freda Hewson, also known as Hovilhkato, The fearless matriarch is at the helm of this epic battle to save his land and the sacred Wedzin Kwa. She has been leading the fight to protect the Wet Suwetan regions for more than a decade, setting up camp on its traditional territory to claim its indigenous rights and protect it from CGL and other pipeline developments .

Freda Husson at Wedzin Kwah at Unistoten Healing Camp [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

When I arrived at the camp, Freda and the other matriarchs were busy processing the meat of the moose harvested at Yintah—skinning, chopping, wrapping, and canning. Freda seemed surprisingly calm and undisturbed, not far from the camp doors and the RCMP helicopters that had circled over it over the past week.

“It’s disappointing… I only know it won’t do,” Freda told me as she cleaned the steel lid covering the fresh canned mousse meat.

“They [the CGL and provincial and federal governments] He will have his own demise because you can’t move forward with evil and corruption, this is about to come to light,” she continued.

A Bunkhouse at the Unist’ot’en ​​Healing Camp [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

“They [the RCMP] Here’s protecting the industry because their pensions are invested in it and the governments have to pay back each of the investors…the pension fund has invested in TC Energy.

Freda invited me to stay the night at the Treatment Center—a refuge and place of solitude where people dealing with addictions, trauma, and mental health problems can reconnect with the land.

‘This fight is not over yet’

The next morning, I left with a camp helper as RCMP helicopters were flying over us. We went to Smithers and from there, I made my way an hour northwest to New Hazleton, where neighboring Jisqton Nation members were building a blockade near the Canadian National Railway in support of Wet’suweton.

The day before, dozens of police officers had brought dogs and guns with them to guard train tracks from unarmed Gistons.

Gisken allies blockade a railway in support of Wet’suweten’ [Brandi Morin/Al Jazeera]

In the blockade, I talked to Colin Sutherland-Wilson, a young Jixton land guard. “We have a mutual defense agreement going back a millennium,” he explained. “This fight is not over yet. Those RCMP officers are not from here. It’s the unceded Gisxtan Lak Yip with Unceded Wet’suwet’en Yintah on top. And they will know that your actions have consequences. This is not a matter to be resolved in the judiciary. These are international matters in which the Crown has an obligation to meet directly with our leaders.

The next day, two land guards were violently arrested by the police. One of them was Colin’s brother, Denzel, who had already had a painful encounter with the police while protecting indigenous lands. In February 2020, Denzel was filmed atop the Gidimten Camp watchtower as police pointed assault rifles at him from below and helicopters were hovering over him.

‘We are power’

Outside the RCMP station in New Hazleton, Sabina Dennis, a land guard for the Carrier Sekani Nation who has been arrested several times, came to show her support for Denzel and the others arrested. She is fighting for everyone’s future, she explained.

“These military forces that are being applied to us are acting illegally, immorally and taking away our civil liberties as we speak. Everyone in Canada should be outraged,” she said.

‘Your face doesn’t deceive us,’ Sabina Dennis, right, told PM Trudeau – outside RCMP station in New Hazleton [Brandi Morin/Al Jazeera]

He had a message for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Trudeau I know you’re powerless, I know you’ve lost your power long ago,” she said.

“Your face does not deceive us, your beautiful lies do not deceive us. We know that we are power and we will never surrender our autonomy and our power because that is love; for our families and our future generations.” “

The recent arrests weren’t the first Wet’swet’en land defenders and RCMP. showdown between, In January 2019, RCMP officers dressed in military-style uniforms and assault rifles walked into the Wet’suwetan Gidimten checkpoint after the BC Supreme Court granted the CGL a civil injunction against Wet’suwetan land guards. and camp and 14 land guards arrested, it was later informed of That the RCMP was ready to use lethal force against the land guards.

Then on February 6, 2020, the RCMP was re-armed in the dark of early morning. raid on land defender camps Pipeline is installed to block. Indigenous nations of the Allies responded outrage and solidarity, shutting down major infrastructure across the country for nearly two weeks.

The land guards and journalists who were arrested last week have now been released, but on the front lines of this battle, it is clear that Canada is at war with indigenous nations within its colonial borders.

What is happening here is a fight for existence (PDF) and it comes at a time when indigenous peoples are still grappling with the pursuit of summer graves of thousands of native children Those killed in residential schools were forced out – a law imposed by the Canadian government and enforced by the RCMP. For months, Canadians wore orange shirts in solidarity with the mourners, but they now feel they have their backs.

Indigenous land guards and supporters wait outside the court [Brandi Morin/Al Jazeera]

Outside the courthouse, I saw Wetsuwetan and other Indigenous mothers crying for their children, arrested for defending their land, just as many Indigenous peoples in the past and now have wept for the children buried in those graves.

A few nights ago, when I was back at Uniston Healing Camp, I learned that an eagle had been hit by an industry truck in Wait’suwetan Yintah and left on the side of the road. To Die. A land guard finds the sacred bird infested and takes it to the coyote camp, which has now been retrieved by the Wet’suweton. At the ceremony an elder blessed the bird and its spirit slipped away. It seemed a heart-wrenching symbol of what was happening here.


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