Hereditary chiefs in B.C. stand opposed to Coastal GasLink pipeline despite injunction

Hereditary chiefs and their supporters are standing their ground in a remote area of B.C., despite a court injunction saying they must move and grant access to a company trying to build the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

'They can go anywhere they want, except for on Wet'suwet'en territory,' chief says at checkpoint gates

Chief Madeek, hereditary leader of the Gidimt'en clan, stands in front of the red gates at the checkpoint built in his traditional territory. 'We want them right off Wet'suwet'en territory,' he said Sunday of the proposed Coastal GasLink project. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Hereditary chiefs and their supporters are standing their ground in a remote area of B.C., despite a court injunction saying they must move and grant access to a company trying to build a pipeline in the area.

"We want them right off Wet'suwet'en territory," Chief Madeek said Sunday of the proposed Coastal GasLink project, which would carry natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to a plant near Kitimat.

TransCanada has said it signed agreements with all First Nations along the proposed pipeline route to LNG Canada's $40-billion liquefied natural gas project on the coast.

But the hereditary leaders say those agreements don't apply to the traditional territories. 

Madeek, speaking during a news conference in front of checkpoint gates on Sunday afternoon, was among the hereditary leaders from the Gidimt'en clan of the Wet'suwet'en nation who spent much of the day on site. They gathered at a checkpoint erected in traditional territory, determined to stop the pipeline company from doing construction without their consent.

Hereditary leaders' opposition to the proposed pipeline ramped up in December, after the company secured an interim injunction  in B.C. Supreme Court that calls on people to stop blocking a remote logging road the company says it needs to access.

The injunction was initially made against a group within the Wet'suwet'en known as the Unist'ot'en, which has maintained a presence along the logging road for years.

When news of the injunction spread among the Wet'suwet'en, the hereditary leadership from all five of the nation's clans showed up to stand in support of the Unist'ot'en to show they weren't alone in objecting to having a pipeline built through the nation's traditional territory.

"This is what we're here for, is to protect the 22,000 square kilometres 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. 

'I think it's really uplifting'

After the company won its case, the Gidimt'en​ checkpoint was established. The population at this second camp has grown in recent weeks, with people coming from across Canada and elsewhere to show their support.

Karla Tait, a member of the Unist'ot'en house group, said she's been glad to see the Gidimt'en come together to build a second checkpoint along the route.

"I think it's really uplifting … I really hold up my hands to our next-door neighbours who are upholding their own responsibilities, to protect their rights and title," she said.

With news of the RCMP potentially coming into the area to enforce the injunction in the near future, she said people at the Unist'ot'en camp have been increasingly afraid about what might happen next.

"Our historic relationship with police forces of Canada and of the province have been contentious in the past," she said.

RCMP have offered few details about how they plan to proceed. But police have said their main concern around enforcing the injunction are "public safety, police officer safety, and preservation of the right to peaceful, lawful and safe protest, within the terms set by the Supreme Court in the injunction."

'They're not the title holders'

The protest is not without complications.

Supporters at the camps remain opposed to the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in the territory, despite the fact elected band councils along the route have made agreements with the company.

Alexander Joseph gifted a talking stick to Gidimt'en member Molly Wickham and the camp on Sunday. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

But the hereditary chiefs said that under Wet'suwet'en law, the band councils don't have authority or jurisdiction over what happens in the nation's traditional territory.

"They're not the title holders or the caretakers of the land. The hereditary chiefs are," said Madeek​.

The elected chief and council only have authority over reserve lands, he said.

The Wet'suwet'en territory covers a sprawling area that was part of the landmark Delgamuukw case: the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed the Indigenous nation's land rights and title had never been extinguished.

The volunteers at the small but growing camp, meanwhile, have been enforcing the wishes of hereditary leaders, even with the looming worry over potential arrests at the site. With large red gates set up on a bridge along the service road, it's impossible to drive through without someone opening the gates to let you pass, if they do at all. 

B.C. minister visits camp

Among the visitors on Sunday was Doug Donaldson, the NDP MLA and B.C. minister of forests, lands, and natural resources operations, who along with his wife came to the camp and donated a box of goods.

News of his arrival spread quickly through the camp and he was greeted by Gidimt'en​ member Molly Wickham, who asked him to go through the camp's protocol before coming further in.

"What is your purpose of coming to the camp?" she asked.

"The purpose today is to support and recognize that the hereditary chief have a responsibility for stewardship of the yintah [land]," responded Donaldson.

"Are you willing to offer your support publicly?" she asked him.

"Yes, I'm going to be talking to the hereditary chiefs," he said.

She replied it's important that he came, and he was welcome.

But what the B.C. government plans to do about the project and the protest isn't clear. 

NDP Premier John Horgan said it was a "great day" for northern B.C. when he learned the companies backing the LNG project in Kitimat would proceed.

Donaldson didn't shed any light on Sunday — he left without speaking to reporters, as volunteers continued to guard the checkpoint. 

Protests are expected to take place across the country this week as various groups call for people to express support for those in the camps.

With files from The Canadian Press