As tensions mounted in the stand off in Wet’suwet’en territory and public discourse grew increasingly polarized, I felt compelled to learn more about the situation on the ground there. I contacted Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Na’Moks and requested permission to visit the territory. Permission was given, and on Sunday January 19th I flew to Smithers.
A Political Failure
The injunction and stand-off in Wet’suwet’en territory are a political failure. We are in this situation because our provincial and federal governments have failed to follow the legal principles established by the Supreme Court and the constitution, which require them to engage in good faith negotiations with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs.
The Green Party has called on the provincial and federal governments to do what is required by law, to engage in negotiations with the Hereditary Chiefs. To frame this as a legal battle between the Wet’suwet’en and Coastal Gas Link, one that must be dealt with in the courts and by law enforcement, is a misrepresentation of the situation. One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is whether I support or oppose the decisions of elected band councils who have signed benefit agreements with Coastal Gas Link or LNG Canada. I want to be absolutely clear on this: I find no fault with any of the First Nations elected band councils that signed these benefits agreements, not the Wet’suwet’en, and especially not the Haisla whose territory the LNG Canada plant is being built on. Since colonization First Nations communities have been left out of economic development as their territories have been industrialized, developed, stripped of resources and polluted. The Haisla lost their traditional eulachon and salmon fisheries after Alcan polluted the Kitimat River estuary. These Nations deserve prosperity, and the "choice" they’ve been given is this: agree to accept an environmentally destructive project (which they know from history will be pushed through anyway) and get much-needed funding for their communities, or refuse the project and get no funding.
Many people following the developments in Wet’suwet’en territory are unaware that the Hereditary Chiefs suggested an alternate route (see paragraph 59 of this document) for the Coastal Gas Link pipeline that would have been acceptable to them. Coastal Gaslink rejected those options and insisted on a route that drives a pipeline through ecologically pristine and culturally important areas of Wet’suwet’en territory, and sought approval for their proposed route from the elected band councils. Community meetings and feasts were held. The offer was presented to the Wet’suwet’en people, and I am told that many opposed the proposed pipeline. The band councils ultimately voted to allow the project to proceed, and signed a benefit agreement with Coastal Gas Link. This has created division and animosity in the community. It is essential that we recognize this divide as the result of colonial policies and decision making.
The pipeline route, once established, could see a number of other pipelines follow its course. This is the same route that the Enbridge Northern Gateway diluted bitumen pipeline was going to follow.The route runs right through the historic Kweese War Trail which was established thousands of years ago and is in the middle of a pristine untouched wilderness that is used for hunting, trapping and cultural training and also contains culturally sensitive sites and burial grounds, some of which have already been bulldozed and desecrated.
A Difficult Position
Once on the ground in Smithers, I met up with BC Green Party interim leader MLA Adam Olsen, who had flown up the previous day. After a quick lunch, where Adam filled me in on what he had learned in his meetings the previous day, we had a scheduled appointment with the detachment commander of the Smithers RCMP.
I learned that if an injunction enforcement is carried out, the Smithers detachment will not be directly involved. Their detachment is small and does not have the personnel or resources to carry out such an operation, and to do so could sour the relationships they have with the community.
The RCMP are in a difficult position. As someone who has family members who have served as peace officers, I can empathize with the people who sign up to serve and protect our communities. It’s another symptom of political failure that the RCMP are in this position and responsible for enforcing an injunction.
After our visit with the RCMP in Smithers, Adam and I met up with Hereditary Chief Na’Moks and Wet’suwet’en fisheries ranger Gary Michell and traveled to a new warming cabin / meeting place located at the 27km mark on the Morice West Forest Service road, before the first RCMP checkpoint. You may not recognize the name of this road, but if you have been following the situation in Wet’suwet’en you are familiar with it. Further up the Morice West Forest Service road Wet’suwet’en land defenders have set up camps, a healing centre, and a gate, to assert their sovereignty and protect their lands. I met several of the Wet’suwet’en people who are actively involved with these efforts when I visited the new warming centre, along with supporters from across BC, Canada, and even other countries. They are there to peacefully occupy the land, and non-violently resist development that the Wet'suwet'en have not consented to. They are determined not to give up.
The provincial government approved this pipeline and the proposed route. The opposition of the Hereditary Chiefs indicates a clear failure in the duty to consult and seek free, prior and informed consent. Some wonder how this can be the case if the elected band councils have signed agreements to allow the project to proceed. Our courts have affirmed Aboriginal Rights and Title in the Delgamuukw vs British Columbia Supreme Court case brought forward by the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en nations in 1997, and reaffirmed this decision in the Tsilhqot’in v British Columbia Supreme Court case in 2014. Aboriginal rights are also enshrined in section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. In the Delgamuukw case the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs were the plaintiff, not elected band councils. The Supreme Court recognized them as holders of Aboriginal Rights and Title as the traditional protectors of the Wet'suwet'en territory and upholders of its laws. It’s also important to note that in the landmark Tsilhqot’in case the BC Court of Appeal ruled that it is the viewpoint of the Indigenous people making the claim that determines Aboriginal title.
Environmental Impacts and Sacrifice Zones
The Coastal Gas Link pipeline is being built to carry fracked gas (methane) from the North East of British Columbia to the LNG Canada facility being constructed near Kitimat, for export to overseas markets.
It is widely understood now that fracking is the very destructive process of releasing methane (aka natural gas) from shale rock formations. Fracking consumes vast amounts of fresh water, poisons aquifers, pollutes airsheds, causes earthquakes and leaks methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas and a climate change accelerant. When we take into account the end to end environmental impacts, it becomes clear that natural gas (methane) is not an emissions reducing bridge fuel, in fact it is as destructive to our climate as burning coal. Jurisdictions in California are banning natural gas in new buildings and neighbourhoods because of its climate impact.
LNG Canada and the increased fracking that it will require will increase BC’s share of GHG emissions by as much as 10%. That almost wipes out all of the emissions reductions that BC consumers have achieved. The provincial and federal governments talk a good game about addressing climate change, but there is an obvious disconnect between talk and action when it comes to fossil fuel mega projects like this one.
The Green Party of Canada does not support liquified natural gas exports and has called for a national ban on fracking, following the lead of other jurisdictions around the world. The intensity of fossil fuel extraction in north east British Columbia, primarily through fracking, has already created environmental sacrifice zones. First Nations communities bear the brunt of the impact, from habitat loss that impacts traditional hunting grounds, to higher rates of cancer and respiratory illness.
Questionable Economic Benefit
Ever since the former provincial Liberal government first began promising a huge windfall for British Columbia through the LNG industry, questions have been raised about it’s true economic viability.
The Coastal Gas Link pipeline is being constructed by TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) to service LNG Canada’s plant and shipping terminal near Kitimat. There is nothing Canadian about LNG Canada, it’s a consortium of five foreign corporations, three of which are state owned.
Billions of dollars for the plant's construction are being spent in China where the modules are being built. Tariffs for Chinese steel and aluminum for the plant have been exempted by the federal government forgoing hundreds of millions in revenue and cutting out the Canadian steel industry on the plants construction. It’s also expected that a significant percentage of the work will be done by temporary foriegn workers due to skilled labour shortages in BC.
Our provincial government has provided almost $6 billion in tax subsidies to LNG Canada, and is constructing the Site C dam on the Peace River which will provide heavily subsidized power to both the plant and fracking field operations. It is BC ratepayers who will shoulder that cost. The federal government has also provided hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies. But there’s more. Royalty rates - the monies that companies pay to the government for the resources they are extracting - are tied to market prices for LNG, and market prices have dropped, a lot. According to an analysis done by Ben Parfitt (which I highly recommend reading) “In 2018/19, the total value of all natural gas royalties was $102 million compared to a decade earlier when it reached $1.3 billion.” That would be a steep drop in royalties if natural gas production had remained the same during those ten years -- but production actually increased 70%!. And we won’t see those royalties increase anytime soon because the industry has racked up $2.6 billion in “royalty credits” thanks to another government program initiated 17 years ago to incentivize horizontal drilling.
Why are our governments pushing forward with this plant and this pipeline when the economic outlook is so bleak and the environmental costs are so high?
In the absence of market distorting taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuel development, one can’t help but think we would be seeing even greater numbers of Indigenous led geothermal, wind and solar energy developments that First Nations communities could reap real economic benefits from long into our low carbon future.
On Monday morning I met Hereditary Chief Na’moks at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, where he showed me a map of their clan and house group territories. Wet'suwet'en Fisheries Ranger Gary Michell then drove us out to the RCMP Community Industry Safety Office (CISO) at the 30km checkpoint on Morice West Forest Service road.
The CISO detachment, which was established after the injunction enforcement that took place in January 2019, is made up of a series of Atco trailers and storage containers. The commander and staff are rotated out weekly, most of the officers we met were from Surrey & Chilliwack.
I expressed to the detachment commanders, both in Smithers and at the CISO, that the Green Party does not want to see a repeat of the kind of enforcement action that happened last year. That was an embarrassment to Canada and Canadians, and reflected poorly on the government and the RCMP. Both commanders told me that they want to see a peaceful resolution to the situation.
After our meeting we left the detachment with the intention of traveling further into the “exclusion zone” to visit the camp at the Gidimt'en access point, but unfortunately the pick-up got stuck in deep snow. An RCMP officer came along and attempted to pull the pick-up out so we could carry on to the camp. Sadly the effort was not successful and I was unable to visit the camp before I had to travel home to Nanaimo. It was hours before the truck was freed and I am grateful to the RCMP liaison officer for giving me a ride with them back to Smithers so I could catch my flight.
The BC government was the first jurisdiction in Canada to legislate the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Our federal government has promised to pass legislation implementing UNDRIP in the first year of its new mandate.
UNDRIP requires that “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”
The implementation of UNDRIP means that First Nations determine how they will be self governed. In the Wet’suwet’en territory they have a hereditary system that survived colonization and they have the elected band council system which was imposed through the Indian Act. Both of these forms of government are legitimate but it is up to First Nations to determine how these governing bodies work together. This means that the provincial and federal governments can no longer take a divide and conquer approach in determining who they will consult.
Time for Peaceful Negotiation
The Green Party of Canada is calling on Prime Minister Trudeau and BC Premier Horgan to pause this project, suspend the enforcement of the injunction and direct the RCMP to stand down. They need to respect the ‘rule of law’ including the Constitution, the Supreme Court rulings on Indigenous rights and title and Wet’suwet’en institutions and laws.They need to meet with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs to work out a diplomatic nation to nation agreement before any work continues on this project. Canada’s commitments to reconciliation demand nothing less. Our next generation of political leaders do not need another national disgrace to apologize for.
The Green Party is not alone in this call for a different approach to this issue. We are among many making this call. A long list of legal professionals from across Canada are “urging BC and Canada to meet with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and to commit to a process for the peaceful and honourable resolution of this issue.”
My trip to Wet’suwet’en territory was illuminating. I’m grateful I was able to travel there, and honoured to have spent time with Hereditary Chief Na’Moks, to listen and learn about the current situation, and also about Wet'suwet'en culture and laws. I would like to thank the RCMP detachment commanders for taking the time to meet with me and share their thoughts.
On Wednesday January 22nd I was interviewed by CFAX 1070 about the Green Party’s support for the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs. You can listen to the full interview here.
For more information:
Unist'ot'en: Heal the People, Heal the Land Green Party calls on Trudeau and Horgan to respect Wet’suwet’en rights
Who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en people? Making sense of the Coastal GasLink conflict