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Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders, supporters call for stop work order on Coastal GasLink pipeline

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Driving along the forest service road outside Houston, B.C. voices come in and out over the radio channels as people co-ordinate with one another at a worksite for the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline.

About 15 minutes down the road from the worksite is the Unist’ot’en camp and healing centre. The camp is located on the edge of the Wedzin Kwah (Morice River) and is currently home to dozens of people, many of whom have come to support the Unist’ot’en in their opposition to the pipeline.

The bridge that crosses the river has been used as a checkpoint by the group for nearly a decade. People at the camp have been controlling who has access to the territory past the bridge in an effort to put Wet’suwet’en law into practice on the land.

Approaching the bridge on Wednesday it’s clear much has changed since the RCMP arrived earlier this month to enforce a court injunction for access. That led to an agreement between the nation’s hereditary chiefs and police to allow pipeline workers through Unist’ot’en.

As it stands, work continues on the TransCanada-owned Coastal GasLink pipeline while Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership are still fighting the project, calling for a stop work order from the province. 

Depending on who you ask, the work taking place along the forest service road past Unist’ot’en is either scheduled pre-construction work on a welcome, $40 billion natural gas project that has all the necessary approvals or it is the unlawful destruction of a landbase, according to Wet’suwet’en law, in an era when governments are publicly committed to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).  

Police approach the Gidimt’en checkpoint Jan. 7 to enforce an injunction ordering people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink workers from accessing the road and bridge. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

In addition to the workers who have been moving through the area regularly, staff and chiefs from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en have also been visiting on a regular basis.

A pair of fisheries staff from the office are stopping in at the Unist’ot’en healing centre on their way to check on streams in the area.

But they’re stopped on the bridge because a group of people are standing in the road.

Several members of the RCMP are talking to camp spokesperson Freda Huson. She’s telling them about a truck that drove through and knocked out an electrical box earlier that day and wants to know what the police are going to do about it.

A woman stands next to her with a notebook that is being used to track how many vehicles are coming and going through the area.

Freda Huson (left) at the entrance to the Unist’ot’en camp and healing centre with a supporter, speaks to a member of the RCMP Division Liaison Team. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Interactions with the RCMP have become a daily occurrence in the area, with police fielding complaints from both sides. Officers have been coming and going through the territory, sent in from detachments across B.C.

People at Unist’ot’en are growing increasingly frustrated with them and a perceived lack of action on complaints.

List of complaints, allegations

At the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, where several of the nation’s hereditary chiefs work, that frustration has grown into a formal request to the province to issue a stop work order against Coastal GasLink, at least until the litany of complaints and allegations can be properly addressed.

The chiefs have taken issue with several incidents and work activities that have been happening since the enforcement of the injunction at the Gidim’ten checkpoint Jan. 7.

In particular, they’re upset that Coastal GasLink workers razed the buildings at Gidim’ten and about the heavy machinery brought into the area past Unist’ot’en, where workers recently cleared a large treed area the Wet’suwet’en say is a historic trapline site where people were actively trapping.

The buildings that were constructed by the Gidimt’en on the Morice Forest Service Road were razed by Coastal GasLink contractors in late January. The company said the buildings were torn down for safety purposes. The area is now being used by RCMP working in the area. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

“Having the RCMP stand idly by when there is personal and private property being destroyed is not anything that the hereditary chiefs would agree to, nor would we expect it,” said Chief Na’Moks, who estimated the area recently cleared is about 20 hectares.

“There’s miscommunication between the RCMP at all levels.”

CBC sent requests to the RCMP to find out how many complaints it’s received and files it’s opened since the enforcement at Gidimt’en but has not received a response.

Remnants of traps that were set in a treed area since cleared by heavy equipment in a pile on the side of the road at the Coastal GasLink worksite. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC )

Coastal GasLink said it stopped work temporarily after the trapline incident, stating in a release “Fully approved and permitted work was shut down temporarily today due to safety concerns arising from a number of individuals entering an active construction site and the continued placement of traps on the construction site.

Work resumed and Coastal GasLink directed any questions about the matter to the RCMP.

On the road

The fisheries staff from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en stop and talk with members of the RCMP Division Liaison Team on their way to the site.

They’ve been there several times recently and have watched as the bulldozers and excavators level an area where the company plans to build a work camp for construction crews.  

“They’re digging a lot,” Gary Michell says to his brother Brian as they pass workers in hardhats and high visibility vests and the heavy machinery on either side of the forest service road.

Pre-construction work on the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline is underway along the Morice Forest Service Road near Smithers in northern B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The brothers point out the trapping tents set back from the road, in the snow. This is the area where the trapping equipment was destroyed by the heavy equipment that was clearing the area.

They spot a pile of wooden boxes and traps piled on the side of the road amid tree debris.  

After checking the streams, the brothers drive out where the road ends and point out the signs of another trapper in the area, a pickup truck parked on the side of the road, the trapping sign tacked to a tree and tracks in the snow leading into the bush.

‘Nobody will take responsibility’

Several provincial bodies are involved with fielding the complaints and allegations from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters: conservation officers, the oil and gas commission, the environmental assessment office.

A joint investigation into allegations from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en of non-compliance by Coastal GasLink with its permits is underway and said officials visited the area to conduct a site inspection this week.

“It will take some time subsequently to determine whether any non-compliances are evident and, if so, the appropriate enforcement action,” wrote a spokesperson from the province’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

A man stands at a Coastal GasLink worksite where the company gained access to after receiving an interim injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court in December 2018. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

In an email response to CBC about the recent allegations from the hereditary chiefs, a Coastal GasLink spokesperson wrote: “We are committed to undertaking all work in a safe and respectful manner that minimizes any impacts to traditional activities and meets regulatory requirements.

“We will continue to co-operate with the regulators and address any identified deficiencies. We remain open to dialogue with all stakeholder and First Nations.

A previous complaint against Coastal GasLink from the hereditary chiefs took at least a year to resolve. The chiefs say the complaints began in 2013 but the province said the complaint wasn’t received until January 2018.

Site inspections were carried out last summer and found Coastal GasLink was not in compliance with six of the 23 conditions of its Environmental Assessment Certificate specific to pre-construction.

The Environmental Assessment Office issued a warning to the company and an investigation report posted on Jan. 16 said the company is now in compliance at those sites.

Coastal GasLink says it is on track with pre-construction and construction activities. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

In a statement on its website, Coastal GasLink said it was its understanding “that certain work required prior to construction, such as geotechnical earthworks or the placement of monitoring wells typically and routinely done in advance of construction, was appropriate.

“The inspection has since clarified that these activities fell under the definition of construction. Coastal GasLink has since satisfied all the conditions and is on track with pre-construction and construction activities.”

Knowing the results of the current investigation could take a while, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en wants elected officials in the B.C. government to step in.

Na’Moks said at this point it looks like the different provincial bodies and politicians are busy “trying to point fingers at each other.”

“So they’re going to play the name game for a little bit here and nobody will take responsibility,” he said.

“That’s why the cease and desist must happen.”

The elected and hereditary divide 

Twenty First Nation band councils along the route have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink. Some have been outspoken in their support for the project. But others, particularly currently elected leaders within the Wet’suwet’en, have been less eager to talk about the situation.

From left: Hereditary Chief Smogelgem, Chief Warner Williams, Chief Madeek, Chief Hagwilneghl and Chief Na’Moks speak to media following a meeting with RCMP members and Coastal GasLink representatives to discuss ways of ending the pipeline impasse on Wet’suwet’en land earlier this month. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The hereditary chiefs at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en have said the band councils have jurisdiction only over reserve lands, and not over the nation’s 22,000 km of traditional territory that was the focus of a landmark Supreme Court of Canada case.

The plaintiffs in the Delgamuukw case were the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan Nations. The Supreme Court’s decision confirmed Aboriginal title to land in British Columbia had never been extinguished, laid out the nature and scope for Aboriginal title, and how to prove such a claim in court. 

The court decision did not however go so far as to decide on the nations’ land claims to their territory and instead recommended a new trial.

Victor Jim is someone who knows the Delgamuukw case intimately. He worked as an interpreter on the case for several years. Jim is also a hereditary chief, former teacher and currently the elected chief in the village of Witset.

Sitting in his office on Friday he is visibly drained talking about everything that’s happened in the last couple of months.

“It’s been pretty hard on me,” he said, mentioning that it’s had an impact on his health. He mentions the names of a couple of close friends from whom he hasn’t heard in recent months.

Jim says he’s been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism and name calling over his council signing an agreement with Coastal GasLink. But he said it’s not right to frame this pipeline conflict as hereditary chiefs vs. elected band councils.

It’s more about the unfinished business between the Crown, province and Wet’suwet’en post-Delgamuukw.

Signs at the Unist’ot’en camp. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

“They need to go back to litigation for jurisdiction and title, and they’ll win it,” he said, in reference to his fellow hereditary chiefs.

“I think if we had ownership and jurisdiction things could have played out a lot differently. You know the governments would realize that they can’t push industry on us if we had title and jurisdiction.”

When it comes to his own band’s agreement with Coastal GasLink, Jim said it came about after they realized the project would go ahead with or without their support.   

“We support [Coastal GasLink], but the way they do business I’m beginning to have my second doubts. You don’t run roughshod over a nation to get what you want as industry,” he said.

He said the band has received some financial benefits from the company already that they plan to put toward language instruction and facilities.

Looking forward, Jim said he hopes someone can take leadership to bring the Wet’suwet’en people together so they can talk about what’s gone on and where things go from here.

Injunction case still before the court

The interim injunction that led to the spotlight on this pipeline and those opposed has yet to go to trial. Coastal GasLink has said the injunction application was a last resort after repeated attempts to gain access to the area past the Unist’ot’en camp.

A group of people hold up signs expressing their solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en outside the constituency office of local MLA Doug Donaldson on Thursday. His office was occupied by a group of people for several hours. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The named defendants in the case, Freda Huson and hereditary chief Smogelgem, said they’re expected to file their response in court in late February. They haven’t said what their legal strategy will be but they do have the option to file for a counter injunction against Coastal GasLink.

Meanwhile supporters of the Unist’ot’en, Gidimt’en and the Wet’suwet’en continue to organize rallies and actions across the country. On Thursday two people were arrested for mischief after occupying MLA Doug Donaldson’s constituency office in Smithers for several hours.

Those arrested at Gidimt’en in early January are expected to be in court on Monday.

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