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Stop the construction of the CGL pipeline on indigenous land!

October 02, 2020
topic:Indigenous people
tags:#indigenous rights, #Fracking, #oil and gas industry, #corruption, #colonialism, #Wet'suwet'en
by:Yair Oded
A bitter battle is being fought over the construction of the TransCanada Coastal GasLink pipeline in British Columbia, Canada, which would tear through territory belonging to the Wet’suwet’en nation. While the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has diverted national attention away from the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en people, the grave threats to indigenous land, water, and communities persist, as does the construction of the pipeline. 

At the beckoning of TransCanada, Canadian police have been staging violent crackdowns on indigenous people protesting the invasion of their lands, thus perpetuating a centuries-long practice of expulsion, exploitation, and oppression of native populations. 

A petition launched by Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa is now calling on people across Canada and the world to stand in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en nation and pressure the Canadian government to halt the construction of the pipeline. 

The pipeline

The Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline is one of several proposed and existing pipelines whose routes cut through indigenous lands, both in Canada and the United States. Owned by TransCanada (the same corporation funding two other major pipeline projects), the CGL is a 670-kilometer (417 mile) Hydrofracturing (fracking) gas pipeline that will transport liquefied gas from fracking centres in Northern B.C. to a liquefied gas facility in Kitimat, B.C. The pipeline will cut through Wet’suwet’en traditional lands that span across 22,000sq km. 

The CGL project would cost an estimated $4.8 billion, and is on course to become the single largest private sector investment in Canadian history, relying mostly on foreign investment.

Despite the fact that the Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) industry is expected to become the province’s greatest driver of climate change in the coming decades, the local government granted the project generous tax breaks. 

Damage to indigenous land and communities

Don’t let the word ‘natural’ fool you. Despite concerted efforts by government, industry, and the media to portray it otherwise, fracking of natural gas is linked to great environmental and health risks, from pollution and the wasting of water to the emission of large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. 

The CGL pipeline thus poses an imminent threat to Wet’suwet’en land (Yintah), water bodies, income sources, and communities. “Coastal GasLink is preparing to drill beneath the Wedzin Kwa river, forcing a four foot wide pipeline beneath the headwaters of Wet’suwet’en territory,” Gidimt’en activists (belonging to one of the five Wet’suwet’en clans) wrote in a Facebook group titled Wet'suwet'en Access Point on Gidimt'en Territory. “The river nourishes all of our territories and flows into the ocean. It is critical habitat for our salmon and medicine. It feeds our communities and is central to Wet’suwet’en identity and survival [...] As we are criminalised by the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and private security that trespass on our lands, our safety, sustenance, and survival as Wet’suwet’en people is threatened,” the post reads. 

The CGL has not been granted all the necessary permits from the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) in order to clear the project for work in wetlands within the Wet’suwet’en traditional territory. This is, reportedly, due to CGL’s failure to conduct effective negotiations with tribal leaders about the ramifications of the construction on their land and communities. Without such permits — which ascertain that environmental, social, and cultural health effects are considered before construction commences — the project has no legal authority to launch; any construction underway currently is therefore illegal.  

Based on its planned route, the CGL is also posing a threat to the Unist’ot’en clan’s Healing Centre. The centre offers programmes that are predicated on the connection to and traditional usage of the land, as well as addiction treatments, women’s groups, cultural workshops, and language schools.  

Furthermore, according to Al Jazeera, the pipeline’s construction is predicted to pose a particularly grave threat to indigenous women, as a research by the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, linked rises in the presence of transient extractive industry workers with violence against indigenous women. 

Violating indigenous sovereignty 

In a 1997 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada recognised the Wet’suwet’en nation as having “aboriginal title” to their land, which gives them the right to continue to occupy and use it, and mandates that any external entity seeking to enter and operate on their territory must obtain their consent. As per the Indian Act of 1876, it is band councils (a group of elected officials from within the tribes) and chiefs who have the authority to manage First Nation territories and must be consulted on any prospective encroachment into their land. 

While CGL obtained the consent of five out of six of the Wet’suwet’en band councils, they did not secure that of the hereditary chiefs who, in the eyes of many, are endowed with legitimate authority over the lands. As far as many Wet’suwet’en nation-members are concerned, the resistance of hereditary chiefs to the pipeline project renders it illegitimate and illegal. 

Beyond Canadian law, indigenous peoples’ entitlement to their land has also been cemented in international law with the institution of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to which Canada is a signatory. According to UNDRIP, any government intrusion into indigenous territory that will affect their rights in any way must obtain the clan’s “free, prior and informed consent.”

But the temper and outcome of previous negotiation attempts, and the industry’s dismissal of hereditary chiefs, indicate that the government and TransCanada are acting in violation of UNDRIP. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Brenda Gunn, associate professor at the University of Manitoba faculty of law, stated that "[O]ne of the key aspects of free, prior and informed consent is the notion of 'free' - and this means without coercion and it also means the right to participate according to their own government institutions and determine for themselves who represents them," adding that ‘free’ also encompasses not sowing divisions within Indigenous communities and, as is seen in this case, pitting hereditary chiefs against band council members. 

Drawing on the sole consent of band councillors, the Supreme Court of B.C. has granted CGL an interlocutory injunction in 2018 to commence preparatory work on the pipeline in Wet’suwet’en territory. In defiance of the Supreme Court’s 1997 ruling, the 2018 injunction has effectively sanctioned the removal of all camps and structures in the designated area and the arrest of protesters.

“The granting of the interlocutory injunction by BC’s Supreme Court has proven to us that Canadian courts will ignore their own rulings and deny our jurisdiction when convenient, and will not protect our territories or our rights as Indigenous peoples,” Wet’suwet’en leaders said in a statement back in January 2020. 

Commenting on the dangerously cosy relationship between industry and government, which accelerates foreign encroachment on native lands, hereditary chief Na’Moks (also known as John Ridsdale) told Vice in January 2020 that “We always knew that industry was directing government, but this is the first time we’ve ever seen them say it publicly, right there in our meeting minutes.”

Violent crackdowns, silencing, and intimidation

As preparations for the construction of the pipeline advanced, members of various Wet’suwet’en clans had set up camps and roadblocks at the entrance to their territories. At the request of CGL, and relying on the interlocutory injunction, the RCMP and private security forces have staged violent crackdowns on camps and roadblocks. On numerous occasions, starting in 2019, heavily militarised police forces, carrying assault rifles and accompanied by dogs, have conducted pre-dawn raids on camps and forcibly removed and arrested tribe members in order to clear the area for the pipeline construction. 

The RCMP’s pre-dawn raids bore a chilling resemblance to settler invasions into native lands that have taken place throughout history, and symbolised to many the perpetuation of the colonial enterprise. This, prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, stirred a wave of nationwide protests by indigenous peoples and thousands of allies who expressed solidarity with their cause. 

As pressure from the industry and government abounds, mainstream media outlets have remained largely silent on the matter. When coverage does appear, it often fails to portray the picture in its entirety and reveal the full facts concerning the Wet'suwet'en people’s plight. Even Facebook reportedly suspended hundreds of accounts associated with a virtual protest against the CGL pipeline. 

Back in August, Kristian Lindhart, a Danish journalist working on a documentary film about indigenous opposition to a different pipeline (Trans Mountain) had been deported back to Denmark from the Vancuver airport. Lindhart had been denied entry to Canada despite presenting press accreditation and all the necessary proof demonstrating that he intended to quarantine for 14 days. 

The fact that Lindhart had been questioned for hours about the subject matter of his investigation and was suddenly barred entry before leaving the airport, points to a broad-gauge effort by those in power to keep news regarding indigenous resistance to industry encroachment under wraps. 

An ongoing battle

Despite failing to obtain the consent of hereditary chiefs and lacking all the necessary permits, CGL continues the construction of the pipeline on indigenous territory.  

“We’ve recently learned the bad news that Coastal GasLink (CGL) got the green light to start pipeline work near the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, the scene of a RCMP attack and arrests in February, although the company does not have the consent of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs who are overseeing and caring for the territory where the pipeline is planned to pass,” the authors of the petition wrote in August. 

CGL planned to begin test drilling, construction of workers’ camps, and installation of the pipe on either end of the route throughout September. 

In the face of this mounting pressure, the Wet’suwet’en have continued to organise and oppose the CGL project. In addition to taking legal action, tribe members have maintained a presence in the various camps and roadblocks, albeit at smaller numbers due to COVID-19. 

"What we were always here to do is to protect our yintah [land] ... We say to all the developers out there, our pristine waters, our headwaters, our wildlife habitats, our traditional sites [...] we are going to protect it," Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Frank Alec Woos said at a news conference in Ontario. 

The significance of the Wet’suwet’en people’s fight over their land extends far beyond the boundaries of their territory; it is part of a global battle against the devastation brought on by corporate greed and an economic system that is predicated on infinite growth and inevitably depletes resources, annihilates species, degrades the earth, and violates the human rights of millions across the world. This fight concerns us all.

Please take a moment to sign the petition and raise your voice against the CGL project and the forces operating behind it. Click here to find out about additional ways in which you can support the Wet’suwet’en people and their effort to retain sovereignty over their lands.

Article written by:
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Yair Oded
Managing Editor, Author
Embed from Getty Images
Canadian police have been staging violent crackdowns on indigenous people protesting the invasion of their lands.
Embed from Getty Images
A petition launched by Indigenous Solidarity Ottawa is now calling on people across Canada and the world to stand in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en nation.
Embed from Getty Images
The Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline is one of numerous proposed and existing pipelines whose routes cut through indigenous lands, both in Canada and the United States.