Wet'suwet'en protests: Economy being held hostage or fighting for land rights?

What’s happening

Across the country, protesters are blocking railroads and port entries and staging sit-ins and rallies to show solidarity and support with the Wet’suwet’en Nation in British Columbia. 

The hereditary chiefs of the First Nations band, which is comprised of five clans, oppose a $6.6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline that would transfer natural gas across the northern part of the province. It would also cut the Wet’suwet’en territory in half. 

The Wet’suwet’en territory is an expansive traditional territory located west of Burns Lake in the central interior of the province. The nation is on unceded territory, which means the Wet’suwet’en govern the land, and has for generations, since a treaty was never signed. 

Protesters walk down Granville Street in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. The protesters are standing in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to the LNG pipeline in northern British Columbia. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

Why there’s debate

Since 2018, there has been dialogue between Ottawa and the people of the Wet’suwet’en nation over accessing the territory to make room for the pipeline. 

While the Wet’suwet’en elected chief and council signed on to the agreement, most of the hereditary chiefs are said to have opposed it. They argue that elected chiefs could only have authority over the band’s reserves, while hereditary chiefs hold authority over the traditional territory.

When B.C.’s premier declared the province’s support of the pipeline in 2018, members of the Wet’suwet’en nation began taking action, through blockades and checkpoints along a major road on the territory. 

On December 31, 2019, the B.C. Supreme Court permitted Coastal GasLink an expanded injunction, which granted them access to the land and the power to remove anyone in the way.

Tensions spiked this year when the RCMP moved in on blockades, as a result of the court injunction, which resulted in arrests. 

Supporters of the indigenous Wet'suwet'en Nation march as part of a protest against British Columbia's Coastal GasLink pipeline, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada February 17, 2020. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

As a result of the current blockades, CN Rail and Via Rail have been forced to cancel or shut down parts of its network of service throughout the country. This has lead to a backlog of transport goods, like food and medical supplies, as well as delayed travel plans for many Canadians. Additionally, CN Rail has laid off several employees as a result of the disruption to its service.

Outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has been very vocal with his criticism about the blockades and how the Liberal government is dealing with the situation.

“Radical activists – many of whom have no connection to the Wet’suwet’en people – are holding the country’s economy hostage,” he said.

Scheer also called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent plea for patience from the country the “weakest response to a national crisis.” 

What’s next

Trudeau says his government is committed to engaging in dialogue with the protesters, and appears to be ruling out police intervention as part of a resolution. 

"Finding a solution will not be simple. It will take determination, hard work and cooperation," he said. "We are creating a space for peaceful honest dialogue with willing partners ... We need Canadians to show both resolve and collaboration. Everyone has a stake in getting this right."

Meanwhile, Via Rail has resumed some service in Eastern Canada.

Perspectives

Cons:

Law enforcement is in a no-win situation

“If we enforce the law … we’re criticized often for being too aggressive. On the other hand, if we don’t enforce the law … then we’re criticized for not enforcing the law. We’re in effectively what’s a no-win situation.” - Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, National Post 

Protesters are privileged 

"These protesters, these activists, may have the luxury of spending days at a time at a blockade, but they need to check their privilege, they need to check their privilege and let people whose job depends on the railway system – small business, farmers – do their job."  - Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Global News

Where are the protests for First Nations that support the pipeline?

“The voices of band members from 20 First Nations along the Coastal GasLink project route who want it to continue – those who have indicated, through elections or other means, that they want construction on the natural gas pipeline to move ahead – have been eclipsed by the views of a small group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who hold jurisdiction over just a portion of the land the pipeline will cover.” - Robyn Urback, Globe and Mail

Pros: 

Most Canadians want justice

"(Scheer’s) words are an embarrassment, shameful and hateful and thankfully don't represent those of most Canadians. Canadians continue to be our strongest allies in seeking justice for our peoples - that's what the treaty relationship is all about,” - Indigenous rights activist and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University Pam Palmater, CTV.ca

Wet’suwet’en deserve “meaningful consultations”

“So there were “consultations” with the company, but the company rejected the proposal, which leads to the question of whether those consultations were “meaningful.” There have been consultations between the hereditary chiefs and the B.C. government, not with the federal level, which is responsible for Indian Affairs including land claims and self-government – that is, with the Wet’suwet’en.” - Ed Whitcomb, Ottawa Citizen 

This shows that reconciliation is dead

“For reconciliation to be anything more than an empty signifier, Canada and all provincial governments would have to cease justifying land appropriation when consent has been denied by those with that authority in particular nations.” - Gina Starblanket and Joyce Green, Globe and Mail