Several dozen protesters were in Spirit Square on Sunday afternoon to show solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose Coastal GasLink’s planned natural gas pipeline across northern B.C.
The demonstration came just days after leaders of the Unist’ot’en camp – a longstanding centre of resistance to pipelines in the region – agreed to comply with a court injunction by removing their blockade south of Houston, B.C. This followed the arrest of 14 people at the Gidimt’en checkpoint, another road blockade south of Houston, on Jan. 7. They have reportedly been released.
George Quocksister Jr. (Tsahaukuse), a hereditary chief of the Laich-Kwil-Tach Nation, challenged the legitimacy of elected band councils that signed deals with Coastal GasLink to allow for the pipeline.
He said the Canadian government imposed band councils on First Nations to undermine hereditary forms of governance.
“The elected chief and council never existed,” he said. “The Indian Act created that to divide the people, that’s the bottom line.”
He said the jurisdiction of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs across a wide stretch of land has been recognized by the Supreme Court.
Other speakers included Sonny Assu of Wei Wai Kai Nation, who said the hereditary chiefs removed the Unist’ot’en blockade against their will following the arrests.
“I believe the Wet’suwet’en chiefs did this in order to protect their people from further harm,” Assu said, adding that Indigenous people in the Campbell River area who oppose fish farms may face similar police actions.
Speakers at the demonstration also included George Hunt Jr. (Nagedzi-Yathlawalth), who pledged solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs leading the movement against the natural gas pipeline.
“We stand with our brothers in the Interior,” Hunt said. “If there’s only one hereditary chief in that territory that wants to hold on to his traditional rights, that’s all it takes.”
Darren Blaney, the elected chief of Homalco First Nation, said that Indigenous traditions are under threat as man-made climate change affects areas including northern B.C., which witnessed devastating forest fires in 2018. Those wildfires are impacting the fisheries, he said.
“Those people are not going to be able to fish where they fished for thousands of years,” he said. “The environment and our culture are hand-in-hand, you can’t have one without the other.”
He said the need for police actions proved that Indigenous people don’t consent to the pipeline, putting the project at odds with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
“When you have to go in and bulldoze the people from Wet’suwet’en, that means there’s no respect or consultation,” he said. “With the UNDRIP, where you have free, prior and informed consent, you’ve lost that if you’re gonna bulldoze ‘em.”