Wet’suwet’en protests: what you need to know

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The protests of the Wet’suwet’en people have been forefront in the news in the last few weeks. Some may be unfamiliar with the situation, or may want to understand more of the context of the ongoing issues. Here’s some information to help you understand what’s going on. 

The Wet’suwet’en peoples are receiving support nationwide (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

Who are the Wet’suwet’en?

The Wet’suwet’en people are First Nations Indigenous peoples whose lands are located in the Northern B.C. area. Their hereditary chiefs are the ones who are opposed to the building of the Coastal Link natural gas pipeline that would pass through their territory. Though the company claims they consulted with the Indigenous peoples, they consulted with the Indian Act-imposed band chiefs, who agreed to let the project proceed.  

Hereditary vs. band chiefs

The Indian Act is a law enacted in 1876 that controls many aspects of the lives of First Nations peoples in Canada. It has a long history of being unfair, discriminatory and of allowing the government to take advantage of the Indigenous peoples. Hereditary chiefs have governed the traditional Wet’suwet’en land since before colonial times, and are the ones that people across the country, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, are in solidarity with. When consulting with Indigenous peoples on projects, governments must do so with the hereditary chiefs, and not the Indian Act chiefs, which Coastal Link did not do. 

Wet’suwet’en territory is unceded

It is also important to know that the Wet’suwet’en territory is unceded. This means that the land was never signed over to Canada, as many of the other parts of Canada were. This is the basis for the hereditary chiefs’ claims that they have the final right to what happens to their lands. The 1997 Supreme Court case of Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia determined that the Indigenous peoples have claim to unceded lands (such as Wet’suwet’en). 

Timeline of the protests

The protests against the pipeline began when the government issued an injunction on December 31, 2019, ordering anything blocking the construction of the pipeline to be removed (camps, cabins, gates, etc). The next day, the Wet’sewet’en First Nation served the Coastal Link company with an eviction notice stating that they were trespassing on unceded territory. On January 27, the B.C. government appointed a liaison to work with the hereditary chiefs. The talks failed after just two days. By the beginning of February, blockades arose all over the country, causing Via Rail to halt many of its services. By mid-February, both Via Rail and CN shut down even more of their services, causing temporary layoffs and the disruption of the movement of certain essential products such as chlorine to clean drinking water, and propane. 

Lack of response from the government

(CTV News/Website)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally made a statement on Friday, February 21 after much criticism on both sides for his lack of action on the issue. Those who side with the Wet’suwet’en peoples criticize Trudeau for being hypocritical, saying that reconciliation is an important issue to his government, but not acting in a way that shows this. On the other side, Trudeau is accused of allowing the Indigenous peoples to be exempt from the rule of law (meaning that no one is above the law), and allowing them to damage the economy. He stated that the government is ready to talk with the Indigenous peoples on the issue, but that the blockades must come down, saying that the situation is “unacceptable and untenable”. The hereditary chiefs have said that they also are willing to meet with the government once they pull back the presence of the RCMP in their territories. The RCMP was deployed to enforce the court injunctions, bringing helicopters, armed officers and dogs to do so. They have since arrested 28 people, including three elders.  

As of now, there is no indication that the issue will be resolved in the near future.