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‘This is Not Okay’: Protests Across Canada Stand Up for Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders

Protests in support of Wet’suwet’en land defenders in British Columbia have been sweeping across Canada, with rail lines blocked in Quebec and Ontario, the B.C. government’s Speech from the Throne disrupted, and rallies or blockades reported in at least seven provinces.

“I think people are starting to wake up to the fact that we have the right to our territory,” said Jen Wickham, spokesperson for one of the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, in a Canadian Press story picked up by both the Toronto Star and the fossil industry daily JWN Energy. “They’re upset and they’re taking to the streets. They’re occupying offices, they’re stopping traffic, and they’re stopping trains. They’re saying, loud and clear, ‘This is not OK.’”

On Monday, RCMP said they had concluded “major enforcement actions” against four checkpoints along a service road through Wet’suwet’en territory. “Earlier in the day, police moved into Unist’ot’en, where the Wet’suwet’en have, for more than a decade, been re-establishing a presence in what began as an effort to block proposed energy projects through the area,” CBC reports.

“People at the site, including journalists, provided updates on Twitter and Facebook on Monday, reporting that RCMP arrived with dogs, tactical members of the force, and that some police had been dropped on the backside of the checkpoint via helicopter,” the national broadcaster adds. “In one of the livestreams posted by the Unist’ot’en, police were heard reading the injunction to a group of women standing in the road—but the women didn’t acknowledge the RCMP presence and instead continued drumming and singing in a circle.”

The people arrested Monday included longtime Unist’ot’en spokesperson Freda Huson and Karla Tait, clinical programming director at the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre.

“The $6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline has received approval from the province, and 20 First Nations band councils have signed agreements in support of the project, including five of the six band councils in the Wet’suwet’en Nation,” CBC notes. 

“However, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say those band councils are only responsible for the territory within their individual reserves because their authority comes only from the Indian Act. The hereditary chiefs—leaders in place before the Indian Act—assert authority over 22,000 square kilometres of the nation’s traditional territory, an area recognized as unceded by the Supreme Court of Canada in a 1997 decision.”

CBC summarizes the economic benefits the elected band councils were offered by the company, and the resulting divisions in the community. The Tyee has a detailed report from one of the Wet’suwet’en checkpoints.

“We know people are standing up for what’s right,” Tait said over the weekend. “We know they have to push back against the status quo, push back against force, push back against threats of arrest. We know that a lot of people are taking risks by taking a stance with us and we really appreciate them.”

Wickham told CP her community is defending its territory against construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, one part of the lavishly-subsidized, C$40-billion LNG Canada shale gas export megaproject. “We are the rightful title owners of our territory and we will continue to assert our sovereignty,” she said. “It’s not a question of protesting. It’s a question of their homes. They’re defending their homes.”

Support for those defenders spread rapidly, with the Star and CBC both publishing national roundups of the local action.

Near Belleville Tuesday afternoon, Ontario Provincial Police were preparing to enforce an injunction against Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation protesters who had blocked the CN Rail line for five days, drawing attention in Ottawa to the economic impact of the action. VIA Rail had cancelled 157 trips through the corridor as of 8:00 AM, forcing at least 24,500 passengers to change their pans. “CN said the shutdown is also affecting shipments ranging from propane to feedstock, and has disrupted the only rail link between Eastern and Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest,” CBC says.

The Tyendinaga protesters, who haven’t blocked the track but have set up too close to the rails for a train to pass safely, say they’ve no plans to leave until RCMP vacate Wet’suwet’en territory. CBC says the tracks fall outside the boundary of the Tyendinaga reserve, but within the community’s claimed territory.

When three OPP liaison officers in civilian clothes tried to approach the protesters earlier Tuesday, it didn’t go well for them, CBC reports.

“You can’t come here on our land and evict us off our land. You don’t have the authority to do that,” said Kanenhariyo (Seth LeFort), who identified himself as a community member but not a Tyendinaga spokesperson. “There’s agreements, and there is a process and protocol,” he added, pointing to a two-row wampum belt on a table nearby.

“I know I would really like to go home and I wonder if you guys would maybe like to go home too, to your families,” said OPP Sgt. Diana Hampson. “We are home,” replied a community member. “We are on our front lawn.”

CBC says the OPP officers brought along a gift of maple syrup.

“I don’t know that we are in a place to have gifts at the moment,” Kanenhariyo told them. “You did kind of come here to threaten us.”

Elsewhere in Quebec and Ontario, Kahnewake Mohawks blocked a commuter rail line on Montreal’s South Shore, about 50 protesters clogged an intersection in downtown Toronto, and pickets occupied the office of Waterloo MP Bardish Chagger after about 100 people rallied at the University of Waterloo.

“It must stop,” said Quebec Premier François Legault, who urged Ottawa to shut down the protests. “It can’t last a long time.”

In British Columbia, hundreds of people rallied in Vancouver and Victoria, 57 were arrested at port entrances in Vancouver and Delta, and B.C. Premier John Horgan had to cancel a post-Throne Speech news conference after protesters blocked all the entrances to the provincial legislature. “These events show us why meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is our shared responsibility and is critical to our province and our country,” he said in a statement, adding that reconciliation is “hard work”.

In Calgary, an estimated 200 marchers “drummed, smudged, and held a round dance” outside Coastal GasLink headquarters at TransCanada Tower, briefly blocking traffic after a march to the city’s Reconciliation Bridge, CBC writes. “The Earth doesn’t have a voice, the air doesn’t have a voice, water doesn’t have a voice, animals don’t have a voice, so we’re here to be that voice today and we’re here to just stand up and say no consent, no pipeline,” said local protester Maskwasis.