A hereditary chief with the Wet'suwet'en Nation said a work site for the Coastal GasLink pipeline near Houston, B.C., has been vacated after he and other hereditary chiefs issued an eviction notice.
"We've tried the avenues available," said Na'Moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale.
The pipeline is owned by Calgary-based TC Energy, which agreed to sell a 65 per cent stake in the project to private investment firm KKR and the Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo) in December. The sale is expected to close later this year.
The company has said it signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline's path, but five hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suweten First Nation say the project has no authority without their consent.
First Nations communities have an election for chief and council — based on the number of members they have — every two years. Band council leadership is not a traditional form of government; they are creations of the federal Indian Act.
Wet'suwet'en leadership is hereditary: a chief inherits his or her role through their matrilineal line through the potlatch system, which is the First Nation's governing structure.
The different levels of decision making and authority have created tensions between the hereditary chiefs, provincial and federal governments, and band councils.
On Dec. 31, a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted Coastal GasLink an injunction against protestors who had blocked access to the project inside their territory.
In a letter issued to Coastal GasLink representatives, hereditary chiefs with the First Nation wrote all staff and contractors must leave the territory immediately.
"Coastal GasLink is in violation of Wet'suwet'en law, and it is our responsibility now to uphold Wet'suwet'en law to maintain the integrity of our territories for future generations," the letter reads.
Upon receiving the eviction notice, Na'Moks said employees of Coastal GasLink initially reacted with "arrogance and entitlement."
"But it was explained to them that we are peacefully there," he said. "We witnessed them leaving, because we were staying there until they did. Then they left, and it was peaceful.
"We sang our songs and drummed and wished them well. These are employees, but we needed to let the decision-makers know that we do not agree with them — we follow our law."The specifics of these individual agreements have been kept out of public.
Felled trees make road to worksite impassable, company says
In a statement, Coastal GasLink said staff discovered felled trees near the work site on Sunday, making the road impassable.
The company said it was disappointed about recent developments after a year of "successful joint implementation of the access agreement."
"Our preference has always been to find mutually agreeable solutions through productive and meaningful dialogue," the statement reads. "We have reached out to better understand their reasons and are hopeful we can find a mutually agreeable path forward.
"To that end, we are requesting to meet with Unist'ot'en and the hereditary chiefs as soon as possible."
A spokesperson said despite the notice, construction is planned to resume later this week.
The employees who left the site on Saturday were security staff, the company spokesperson said.
The site has remained vacant since the notice was served, and Na'Moks said he is unsure whether or not the eviction notice will be respected.
We needed to let the decision-makers know that we do not agree with them — we follow our law. - Na'Moks, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief
"We do expect [RCMP and Coastal GasLink] to meet and discuss things. They're working hand-in-hand," he said. "We're open to meeting with them."
CBC News requested comment from British Columbia RCMP but did not receive a response Sunday.
Construction on the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink project started in January 2019.
Expecting further police action
The Dec. 31 injunction effectively restrained protestors from barring workers from getting through checkpoints and allowed RCMP to enforce that ruling.
Saturday's developments are likely to exacerbate the dispute, but Na'Moks said Wet'suwet'en law — to protect land, people and culture — dictated this move had to be taken.
"We need them to understand that what they are doing is destroying our lands, our ecological sites, our burial sites," he said. "They have no comprehension of how important it is to our people."
Fourteen people were arrested in January 2019 when RCMP enforced a court injunction handed down by the same court, drawing international attention.
In December, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reported RCMP had argued for "lethal overwatch" of the site, according to notes from what was described as a RCMP strategy session.
RCMP were prepared to shoot the activists if necessary, according to The Guardian's reporting, and were instructed to use "as much violence towards the gate as you want."
CBC has not independently verified those documents.
When asked whether he was concerned about a similar situation unfolding after the eviction, Na'Moks said his side would be peaceful.
"In January, we were the peaceful ones. We were the ones being invaded. That's we will continue to be," he said. "I'm sure they are all meeting today to plan their next steps … Everything they do is premeditated.
"We'll do it our way, make sure it's peaceful. We have nothing to hide. We are doing the right thing."