A year after RCMP’s violent raid, Wet’suwet’en people fear repeat

It has happened, it will happen again and Wet’suwet’en land defenders say it could be worse than before.

Canada’s federal police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), enforced an interim injunction in January 2019 against Wet’suwet’en group that had set up checkpoints and encampments on their traditional territories in northern British Columbia (BC) to block the construction of the contentious Coastal GasLink pipeline. That raid drew widespread criticism when it was recently revealed that the RCMP had authorised the use of lethal force to disperse the site.

“They’re clearly willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that this pipeline gets built,” Wet’suwet’en land defender Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham) said.

Last week, a Canadian court granted an injunction to allow construction on the Coastal GasLink pipeline, prompting renewed fears of another violent raid.

The court’s ruling instructs those Wet’suwet’en land defenders to allow Coastal GasLink to have undeterred access to build on their ancestral lands.

Sleydo’ was there when heavily armed RCMP officers descended on the Gidimt’en Access Point, a checkpoint and encampment over 1,000km (621 miles) north of Vancouver, on January 7, 2019.

“It’s new to the rest of the world, but it’s definitely an ongoing experience and reality for us,” said Sleydo’, about the RCMP’s tactics.

The Guardian, citing RCMP strategy notes, reported last month that the federal police officers were instructed to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want” during the dispersal, and an RCMP officer said arrests would be needed for “sterilising the site”.

Sleydo’, the spokeswoman for the Gidimt’en checkpoint, said she saw RCMP officers move in with a chainsaw to try to tear down the gate.

“We were screaming and yelling for them to stop,” she told Al Jazeera. “You could just hear people screaming and yelling out in pain because their arms were about to be broken.”

Land rights
The 670km (416 mile) Coastal GasLink pipeline will cut across vast swaths of traditional Wet’suwet’en territory, transporting natural gas from northeast BC to a terminal near the town of Kitimat, where it will be prepared for export overseas.

The company behind Coastal GasLink, TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Corp), has reached agreements with 20 elected First Nation bands along the pipeline’s route, and the project has provincial permits to build. Construction activities began in early 2019.

But the pipeline has been met with staunch opposition from some members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, including the hereditary chiefs who represent the community’s various clans.

The hereditary chiefs – who under Wet’suwet’en law hold decision-making power over the nation’s traditional territories – say that Coastal GasLink doesn’t have their “free, prior and informed” consent, a principle set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In a landmark 1997 case that involved the Wet’suwet’en Nation, the Supreme Court of Canada also found that indigenous claims to their traditional territories had not been extinguished in the area.

On Saturday, the hereditary chiefs issued an eviction order to Coastal GasLink to vacate the area. “Over the past year, Coastal GasLink has operated on our territories despite our opposition to the project,” they said in a letter to the company.

“We must re-assert our jurisdiction over these lands, our right to determine access and prevent trespass under Wet’suwet’en law, and the right to Free Prior and Informed Consent … The denial of these rights has resulted in irreparable harm to the land and our people.”

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