B.C. gas pipeline on hold as company investigates Indigenous artifacts claim

The Unist'ot'en Clan of the Wet'suwet'en Nation says it found two stone tools where Coastal GasLink is currently building the camp that will house workers near Houston in B.C.'s northern Interior.

Coastal GasLink says previous archeological work showed low potential for artifacts, but opponents disagree

The Unist'ot'en of the Wet'suwet'en Nation says these stone tools were found on a work site for a Coastal GasLink project near Houston, in B.C's northern Interior, last month. (Unist'ot'en Clan)

Construction on a controversial gas pipeline project in British Columbia's northern Interior has been suspended while the company investigates claims that Indigenous artifacts were found on a work site. 

The Unist'ot'en Clan of the Wet'suwet'en Nation says it found two stone tools where TransCanada-owned Coastal Gaslink is currently building the camp that will house workers near Houston, B.C.  

"It's scientific confirmation of what Wet'suwet'en and Unist'ot'en people already know, which is that this is a spiritually and culturally important site," said Anne Spice, a spokesperson for a nearby protest camp and healing centre, which is currently home to many who have come to support the Unist'ot'en in their opposition to the pipeline.

In a written statement, the company said Friday it has voluntarily suspended work at the site while it investigates the claims.

Spice said two Unist'ot'en supporters had been searching the upturned ground of the future work camp in the evenings, after crews had left, when they found two stone tools. 

The Unist'ot'en say the company didn't conduct an adequate archeological impact assessment during the permitting process. 

An excavator sits idle on a mound of debris at a Coastal GasLink worksite in northern B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Coastal Gaslink says it did complete an archeological impact assessment as part of the permitting process, and the B.C. Oil and gas Commission confirmed that it met provincial requirements for its permit.

However, the company also says a road blockade prevented it from conducting onsite field work.

In an email, the company says the assessment, which used "regulator approved methods" conducted by "experienced, licensed archeologists from Northern B.C.," found low potential for artifacts at the site which it says has been previously cleared for forestry work.

It also said archaeologists worked with local Indigenous groups to identify traditional ecological knowledge and identify "heritage resources."

The company says it has has notified the required regulatory authorities. The Oil and Gas Commission says it has sent an operations officer, senior archaeologist and support staff to conduct a site visit. 

Spice said the Unist'ot'en want the company to agree to cease work until a full assessment is conducted.

"We're just really concerned that that clearing will continue to happen and that they might damage more artifacts in that area," she said.

Protests and arrests

The gas pipeline, which will run through Wet'suwet'en territory to LNG Canada's planned $40-billion export facility near Kitimat on the province's North Coast, has been the site of protests and arrests in the past few months. 

Twenty First Nation band councils along the route have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink, including elected leaders of the Wet'suwet'en. Some have been outspoken in their support for the project. 

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-sq.-km of traditional territory that was the focus of a landmark Supreme Court of Canada case.

In early January, RCMP and Wet'suwet'en leaders reached a tentative deal to let gas company workers through.

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).  

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press and Chantelle Bellrichard