In 2010, the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en people established a “soft blockade” over their territory demanding free, prior, and informed consent for anyone seeking entry. In the next few years, this move may prove decisive for both the struggle for indigenous sovereignty and to stop the ecocidal plans of the fossil fuel industry and their government backers.
What's at stake?
Eleven companies currently plan to run pipelines through Unist'ot'en territory. The most immediate threat is Apache and Chevron's Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP) which, if built, would connect their fracking operations in the Laird and Horn River Basins to a proposed LNG processing plant in Kitimat, and transport a billion cubic feet of gas a day. The Unist'ot'en have turned away several workers contracted to Apache and Chevron and have set up a camp near a choke point in the Morice River Valley in order to enforce their blockade.
The spokesperson for the Unist'ot'en, Freda Huson together with her husband and hereditary chief of the Likhts'amisyu clan, speaking at an event in Vancouver on April 4, described the camp as not only a structure that helps them in the fight against the proposed pipelines, but as a way of re-staking their ancestral connection to the land.
The Significance of the camp
The Wet’suwet’en people are fighting to protect the land on which they depend. The river by the encampment is a source of fresh water all year long; the forests are an important hunting ground; the proposed PTP route crosses two main salmon spawning channels which provide the staple food for the community. The Unist'ot'en people have declared that they will not allow any pipelines through their territory. They believe that the fight against the PTP pipeline is a vital stage in the struggle because the Enbridge pipeline is set to be built along side it. The PTP therefore sets the stage for future pipelines.
The camp itself has become an important site for hands-on activist training. Freda and Toghestiy joked that when they first opened up the camps to volunteers they were swamped by people in fatigues ready to take up arms. But this is not a realistic tactic. The camp itself is on unceded territory and so far the RCMP has not made an assault on the blockade (as they did last year against the Mi'kmaq blockade in Elsipogtog). In earlier days, Apache and Chevron tried to sneak surveyors and engineers into the back end of the territory either through helicopter or in the very early hours of the morning. These attempts failed repeatedly, and for now at least, the blockade is being respected. What is needed now, according to Toghestiy, are people willing to learn to do the daily work of helping to build the pit house and bunk cabin, carry water, help with with the permaculture garden, and to do all the other daily tasks involved in maintaining a small community of activists in the area.
Bob Ages, a long time socialist and recent volunteer at the camp gave me an anecdote which helps illustrate the dynamics there. “This wasn't a commune,” Bob said, “ where we sit around an discuss and we have a debate.” It is indigenous land, and activists had to take their cue from the leaders of the community, in particular Freda and Toghestiy. Bob gives an example of a young man who, for some reason was persistently arguing with Toghestiy and who eventually had to be asked to leave. At the same time, volunteers are encouraged to show initiative in doing tasks as they arise: “use your own judgement. You make mistakes, lets talk about it, but take responsibility. That's what being a warrior means. We're still getting our head around that; on the one hand, we shouldn't be substituting for the First Nations or telling them how to do their struggle, on the other hand we can't be just 'what should I do now, what should I do now': be a warrior, even though you're part of the settler community. What that actually means in practice, is something we're still thinking about, and we'll learn as the struggle moves on.”
Wide and growing support
Both Freda and her husband are people of status in their community, but as their stories make clear, the resistance to the pipelines has a wide and growing support. PTP has worked through the elected band chiefs and councils and is claiming “partnership” with 15 First Nations. But this does not reflect the position of anyone besides the elected chiefs. Late in 2012, the band council in Moricetown invited representatives from PTP for an “information session”: the meeting was so thoroughly disrupted by the clan members and especially the hereditary chiefs that it had to be cut short.
Opposition to the pipeline extends far beyond the clan membership, and even seems to include employees of the oil and gas companies themselves! Once, the Unest'ot'en clan intercepted surveyors attempting to sneak into their territory at five in the morning because someone from the company called them to warn them of the plans the night before. In another incident, equipment was discovered that had been brought into the back end of the territory and the workers were given five days to remove it. When the equipment was removed, the workers actually cheered the blockade as they left. There has also been considerable solidarity from the settler community with an influx of volunteers from all over Canada and beyond (for those interested, there is an application form on their website).
Apache and Chevron have already started to clear bush at both ends of the proposed route, apparently planning to pincer the Unist'ot'en camp from two sides. They are mistaken if they think they will not face opposition at every stage of the construction process, but if they should reach the camp, the Unest'ot'en have pledged to lay down their lives in defense of their sovereignty. Given the strength and determination of the opposition, it is incredible that the companies appear to be operating under the assumption that they will be able to finish the pipeline. I asked Bob about this and, based on his conversations at the camp, and he gave an answer that is worth repeating: “They've been rolling over First Nations and First Nations rights ever since contact, and companies like Chevron, and Apache – its like there's a mental block that reveals the incredible arrogance of the 1%. Even though it's the law you can read it and there's all these people supporting it, they still think like a couple of 'radical Indians' and some activist kids can't stop major corporations.”
History has already shown that they are wrong to underestimate what grass roots, indigenous led opposition can achieve. Let's show them that they are wrong once again.
For more information visit unistotencamp.com
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