Indigenous protesters in Canada have called a growing police presence near their makeshift checkpoint “an act of war,” as tensions mount over a stalled pipeline project in northern British Columbia.
In defiance of a court order, dozens of protesters have gathered on a logging road nearly 700 kilometers (430 miles) northwest of Vancouver, to block the construction of a natural gas pipeline.
“We want them right off Wet’suwet’en territory,” Chief Madeek, a hereditary leader, told reporters at the gates of the checkpoint, where temperatures have dipped to -15C (5F).
On Monday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) announced they would enforce a court order to remove the demonstrators from the area, and at least 10 police cars and a helicopter arrived at the protest camp.
“The conflict between the oil and gas industries, Indigenous communities, and governments all across the province has been ongoing for a number of years. This has never been a police issue. In fact, the BC RCMP is impartial and we respect the rights of individuals to peaceful, lawful and safe protest,” they said in a statement.
Energy company TransCanada is attempting to build the Coastal GasLink, a 670-kilometer line stretching from Dawson Creek to the coastal city of Kitimat. The C$6.2 billion (US$4.6 billion) project is part of a broader plan to ramp up natural gas exports in the province.
The company has previously said it has the support of all elected Indigenous leaders along the proposed route, but Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have signaled they do not support the project — and argue that elected band leaders are not in the position to negotiate with the company.
“They’re not the title-holders or the caretakers of the land. The hereditary chiefs are,” said Madeek.
The pipeline project has previously faced numerous delays, after a group of protesters constructed a blockade — named Unist’ot’en Camp — in order to prevent construction vehicles from accessing the area.
On December 14, a British Columbia court granted TransCanada an injunction permitting them access to the construction site and ordering the removal of the blockade. Within days, activists erected the new barrier, named the Gidimt’en checkpoint.
On Sunday, Unist’ot’en Camp issued a statement of support for the Gidimt’en checkpoint: “The RCMP’s ultimatum, to allow TransCanada access to unceded Wet’suwet’en territory or face police invasion, is an act of war. Canada is now attempting to do what it has always done — criminalize and use violence against Indigenous people so that their unceded homelands can be exploited for profit.”
Both the Unist’ot’en and Gitimd’en are part of the five clans which make up the Wet’suwet’en.
In recent years, British Columbia has been the site of a number of high-profile legal cases surrounding the issue of land title. Because few of the province’s First Nations signed treaties with colonial governments, the courts have often been the arbiters of land rights disputes.
The Delgamuukw v. British Columbia case — which covers part of the Wet’suwet’en territory — previously found that Indigenous rights to their historical territory are not “extinguished” for lack of a treaty.
Wet’suwet’en claim they retain title to the land and as a result, have sole authority to deny or grant access to the territory.
The pipeline feud comes as energy companies in Canada are facing numerous delays and barriers to their infrastructure projects, including environmental assessments and adequate consultations with Indigenous communities on whose territory the projects would pass through.
Another high-profile pipeline project, Trans Mountain, was halted over the summer after a federal court determined Indigenous communities had not been adequately consulted during the approvals process.
British Columbia premier John Horgan, who made headlines for his fight against the Trans Mountain pipeline, has cheered on the C$40 billion liquid natural gas project — of which the Coastal GasLink is a critical piece — citing the large number of jobs and revenue that will result from its completion.
While the provincial government has said the facility will be the cleanest of its kind in the world, a report from the Pembina Institute found that the project would increase the province’s emissions by 8.6 megatonnes by 2030.
Protesters at the Gitimd’en checkpoint have vowed to prevent the project from being built on their territory.
“This is what we’re here for, is to protect the 22,000-square-kilometer and this section of the territory for our grandchildren and our great-great-grandchildren that aren’t even born yet so they can enjoy what we enjoy today out on the territory,” said Madeek.