British Columbia

Report on artifacts found at pipeline site 'deeply misleading,' Unist'ot'en supporters say

Commission says the place where two Unist'ot'en supporters found stone tools at a Coastal GasLink camp near Houston in B.C.'s northern Interior was 'likely not their original location,' following an investigation by archaeologists.

Commission says place where ancient stone tools were found was 'likely not their original location'

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)

Indigenous artifacts found at the construction site of a contentious pipeline project in northern B.C. were likely not in their original location, according to the province's energy regulator.

A hereditary house group of the Wet'suwet'en Nation complained last month that supporters recovered two ancient stone tools and observed other artifacts at the site near Houston, B.C., where Coastal GasLink is building a natural gas pipeline.

The company suspended work on the line, which is a key part of a $40 billion LNG Canada project, while the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission investigated.

On Friday, the commission released a bulletin saying the artifacts had been moved before they were found.

"The soils upon which the artifacts were found would not typically contain any such cultural artifacts and this was likely not their original location,'' the commission said.

"However, a definitive determination on their exact location of origin cannot be made.''

RCMP officers look on as contractors pass through their roadblock as supporters of the Unist'ot'en camp gather at a campfire off a logging road near Houston, B.C., Jan. 9. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Supporters of the Unist'ot'en, part of the Wet'suwet'en Nation, agree the artifacts likely aren't in their original location — but they say the commission's bulletin is "deeply misleading" in insinuating supporters planted artifacts on the site to condemn the pipeline.

"When I read in the bulletin that this is likely not their original location, that makes sense because their original location would've been in the soil in what used to be a forest," said Anne Spice, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Centre, who supports the Unist'ot'en people.

"We didn't move them — [Coastal GasLink] bulldozers did," she said. "My concern is that this gets picked up by media and people think we've somehow been tampering with this site when, actually, the opposite is true: they've come in and tampered with the site."

An excavator sits idle on a mound of debris at a Coastal GasLink worksite in northern B.C. just past the Unist'ot'en camp. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

'Likely not their original location'

The commission said it sent a team of investigators to the site, including a senior archaeologist, a compliance and enforcement officer from the commission, and an archaeological specialist from the B.C. Ministry of Forests.

The bulletin said the team saw stone artifacts on top of frozen clay soils upon entering the site and clearing some snow, and that the artifacts were gathered for protection and examination.

The commission said it was later determined the ground where the artifacts were found would not typically contain cultural artifacts.

Spice said supporters originally recovered two stone tools before complaining to the commission. Those tools were taken to a healing centre, while the others found by the commission were left behind.

Spice said those artifacts were removed from the site for examination without consent or participation from the Unist'ot'en people.

A Coastal GasLink contractor drives over a bridge at the Unist'ot'en camp on a remote logging road near Houston, B.C., on Jan. 17, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Plan to return artifacts

The bulletin confirmed the artifacts first reported found by the Unist'ot'en were not at the original site. 

The commission said the forest ministry's archaeology branch is working toward returning the artifacts to the appropriate Indigenous communities.

In order for work to restart at the camp, Coastal GasLink must assess the area for other artifacts to make sure none are present, and must supervise construction once it recommences.

The location of the Unist'ot'en camp in northern B.C. (CBC News)

The Coastal GasLink pipeline would transport natural gas from northeastern B.C. to LNG Canada's export terminal in Kitimat on the province's coast.

The company said it has approval to build the pipeline from First Nations along the pipeline, but some Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs say they haven't given their consent.

In January, police arrested 14 people at a blockade in the area.

Later that month, RCMP and Wet'suwet'en leaders reached a tentative deal to let gas company workers through.

With files from Chad Pawson, Maryse Zeidler and the Canadian Press