You are here

Unist'ot'en Heals: pipeline resistance and decolonization

Eric Lescarbeau

August 22, 2015

Oil giant Chevron is increasing their attempts to build the Pacific Trails Pipeline, with the backing of the RCMP. In response, Unist'ot'en chiefs, with support from other Wet’suwet’en chiefs, have issued a declaration asserting title to their traditional territory and the right to free, prior and informed consent to anyone, including work crews, entering their territory.

Citing supreme court rulings including the 1997 Delgamuukw decision, of which the Office of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs were co-complainants, as well as last year’s Tsilhqot’in decisions they state: “The Unist'ot'en settlement and camp is a peaceful expression of our connection to Unist'ot'en territory. It is also an expression of the continuing and unbroken chain of use and occupation of our territory by our clan. Flowing from this continuous use and occupation, our traditional structures of governance retain complete jurisdiction in our territory and further, dictate the proper use and access to our lands and waters.”

LNG threat

The camp has come under increasing pressure as the BC Liberal government desperately tries to seal Final Investment Decisions (FIDs) on LNG plants and pipelines to make good on its fantastical election promises. Prices for natural gas in Asia have fallen as competitors in Australia and Louisiana rush in to fill the demand and the Japanese government moves to restart its nuclear reactors. Without an FID, LNG companies won’t be able to lock in export contracts at prices that are profitable.  

The LNG industry has not been as high on people’s radar as tar sands pipelines like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway or Kinder Morgan’s Transmountain, but it should be. LNG in BC poses almost as big a threat to the climate as the Alberta Tar Sands. A 2014 report from the Pembina Institute, “BC ‘s LNG Boom: At what cost to the climate?” estimates that if current plans for LNG development are fully realized, by 2020 BC’s LNG industry would produce 75 per cent of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions of the Alberta Tar Sands. Local impacts are also devastating. Just one fracking well wastes 77 million litres of water. An estimated 30,000 wells will be required to support the proposed 7 to 9 LNG cooling plants by 2021, representing a massive assault on local ecosystems and populations both by draining lakes and rivers and by leaving behind massive amounts of contaminated waste water. The cooling plants will also burn upwards of 30 per cent of the gas just to generate enough energy to cool the rest for shipping, threatening local airsheds with acid rain, increased respiratory illnesses, and acidification of local lakes and rivers with vital salmon spawning grounds.

The tradeoff is supposed to be the Liberal government’s ridiculous claims of 100,000 jobs but this has recently been soundly debunked by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  The report “LNG and Employment In BC” shows that “BC’s LNG sector could be expected to support only 2,000 to 3,000 construction jobs per plant over three years and 200 to 300 permanent workers once operational.” The report also points out that FIFO (Fly-in, Fly-out) workers have become standard in the industry and a significant number of the construction jobs would likely go to workers whose incomes would not be spent locally and therefore not create local jobs or stimulate the local economy. 

It’s also clear that the kind of jobs produced would be destructive to First Nations and local communities. A presentation prepared by two Wet’suwet’en women, “LNG: A Socio-economic Impacts Overview” points out that most of the jobs that would go to First Nations people would be in short term and seasonal construction phases, and offer little or no training in transferable skills. The presentation also points out that the cumulative effects of multiple resource development and pipeline projects poses a significant threat to more sustainable jobs in agriculture, fisheries, recreation, tourism etc—as well as hunting, trapping and traditional ways of life that depend on preservation of the local environment. 

The boom and bust construction economy also produces a huge in-migration that drives up local prices and displaces low-income residents as rents skyrocket. Terrace, Kitimat and Prince Rupert have already seen rents double and triple in recent years as renovictions have exacerbated a pre-existing First Nations housing crisis. BC Housing Minister, Rich Coleman (and also Minister for Gas and Natural Resources) callously responded last year that “we wouldn’t build social housing to fill the gap—we would actually let the market do that.” It also comes with huge social costs including increased racism, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, gang violence, and weapons possession. High school dropout rates often also rise along with falling enrollment and increases in youth suicide. In particular, the combination of these factors and mostly male work camps with no ties to the local community present significant risks to aboriginal women in a region which has already seen hundreds of stolen sisters disappear or turn up murdered along the highway of tears leading to Prince George. 

Unist'ot'en Heals

In response to the LNG threat, the Unist’ot’en Camp focuses on restoring traditional relationships to the land, decolonization and respect for aboriginal title and rights. Standing under the banner “Unist'ot'en Heals” they enforce a camp protocol which requires the free, prior and informed consent of the Unist’ot’en people to enter the yinta or territory.

David DeWit, Natural Resources Department Manager for the Office of the Hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en (OW), explains the significance of this in the video “Your Voice, Our Future”: “We have a word for our territory and it’s ‘Yin Tah.’ But it’s not just a word. It’s almost a philosophy and it not only refers to the territory but the territory is comprised of the trees, the soil, the insects, the birds, the fish, the water and also human beings; and each action affects another component. Something that happens in the water will affect the bugs. The bugs feed the fish and there is a chain reaction. I think that’s what the ecosystem, the food web is. So the health and well being of a territory reflects the health and well-being of a people.”

For three summers since it was established, hundreds of supporters from across the region and beyond have travelled to the camp to support the blockade, receive decolonization training and assist in building the settlement. The Unist'ot'en have inspired and built solidarity with thousands of climate activists across the region and the world, and we need to increase this support to stop the Liberal’s LNG plans.

A major wrench was thrown into the LNG works in May when the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation rejected Petronas’ $1.15 billion benefits deal for its proposed Pacific Northwest LNG terminal to be built in the heart of the Skeena River estuary near Prince Rupert. Up until that time the Petronas deal looked like the Liberals’ best bet. The rejection has also cast doubt on BC’s plans to build a second LNG terminal on the island next door.

In the wake of this defeat, Kitimat LNG, 50 per cent owned by Chevron, now represents the best hope for getting the gas flowing. The plant is supposed to be fed via the proposed Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP) which would carry fracked gas to it from the Horn River Basin in Northeastern BC. Standing in the way is the Unist’ot’en blockade, deliberately built in its path. As many as 11 pipelines are proposed to cross Wet’suwet’en territory including the PTP, Shell’s Coastal Gaslink and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway. One concern is that Enbridge’s plans for Northern Gateway follow the same route as large sections of the PTP and Coastal Gaslink across Unist’ot’en territory. In addition any of the fracked gas pipelines can easily be converted to carry diluted bitumen from the Alberta Tar Sands once they’re built. So stopping the PTP is crucial to stopping all the other pipelines and isolating the climate destruction industry from international markets.

In July Chevron opened an office in Houston, 40km from the camp, to oversee pipeline construction. At the same time RCMP began harassing camp supporters entering and exiting the camp. The head of the local detachment visited the camp and told Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en Chief, and one of the leaders of the blockade, that they intended to “ensure the work crews can do their work safely” echoing similar statements made to protestors at last year’s Kinder Morgan protests on Burnaby Mountain. Several camp supporters have subsequently been threatened with arrest for blocking a “public road.”

Then, on July 23, Chevron representatives approached the checkpoint to ask permission to enter the territory. A nameless Chevron spokesperson addressed camp supporters with what sounded like a pre-recorded message and refused to engage in meaningful dialogue. Freda Huson stood her ground and spelled out what was at stake: “Everybody is pushing, pushing for money but you’re not going to be able to eat that money.  You have all that money in your bank account and you guys are destroying the planet so agriculturists can’t even grow the food that you buy on your grocery shelves. Are you guys prepared to watch your children suffer? You’ll be long gone and your children and grandchildren are going to be the ones suffering. You’ll have no clean water to drink. You’ll have no food to eat because agriculturists will have no water to grow because fracking takes too much water to produce. These pipeline projects will wipe out vast tracts of land that will prevent us from doing our berry picking, our medicine, and the fur bearing animals which we trap and depend on for income, and our salmon is our staple food.  You’ll be wiping out all our food sources.”

Then, demonstrating that he hadn’t listened to a single word, the rep attempted to leave an offering of Nestle bottled water…while standing on a bridge over the pristine Wedzin Kwah (Morice River) abundant with fresh, clean drinking water.

Colonization and resistance

In an effort to undermine First Nations’ opposition to the PTP and sow divisions, Chevron and the BC Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation (MARR) set up the First Nations Limited Partnership (FNLP)—spearheaded by former Ontario NDP premier, Bob Rae. Chevron also fronted SHAS PTP, a logging company employing all First Nations people to do the initial clear-cutting of rights of way, ensuring any blockades would pit Indigenous workers against other Indigenous people. While the FNLP claims to have the support of all 16 First Nations along the pipeline route and is supposedly 100 per cent run by First Nations, the reality is much different. 

The FNLP’s strategy has been to strong-arm local band councils into signing benefit deals while simultaneously shutting out traditional governance bodies and hereditary chiefs. Tied to the Indian Act which subordinates them to the Federal government, fragmented and isolated on tiny reserves, and starved for resources, band councils are given little or no time to adequately consult with their members and rarely have the time or capacity to adequately review environmental assessments or conduct their own investigations into the potential impacts of development projects. 

Last October, the Office of the Hereditary Chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en (OW), returned a $25,000 government cheque and backed away from talks with the FNLP after a letter of offer from the Ministry tied the deal to “continued funding” for child welfare programs. Debbie Pearce, executive director of the OW described this blackmail as “absolute proof of the sharp dealings across this province to get this LNG initiative.” Minister of ARR, John Rustad, attempted to deflect blame onto the Wet’suwet’en for divisions his own ministry was deliberately trying to sow saying, “Internally, the Wet’suwet’en people need to work through those divisions of authority and power.”

Then, in May, the BC Oil and Gas Commission issued permits for sections of the PTP crossing Wet’suwet’en territory even though the OW chiefs had not yet issued a decision on the project.  After refusing to respect OW’s efforts to fully consult with and inform the members of their clans and houses and treating them as just another group making a submission, the OGC attempted to blame the OW’s own “unreasonable” concern for their environment for the lack of consultation: “In fact, the OW has refused to engage in a review of the pipeline application itself based on OW’s wish to first resolve all of its concerns with the project’s environmental assessment certificate. The Commission believes that those concerns should not have reasonably prevented or significantly delayed a review of the pipeline application under the circumstances.”

In addition, the OW was denied access to the PTP Administrative Inspection report, one of the two complex approval documents, for five months while the project’s proponents reviewed it.  The OW received the document on April 31, just five working days prior to OGC’s approval of the permits.

The continued strength of the Wet’suwet’en people in the face of this kind of colonial racism is inspiring, and it also amplifies the importance of solidarity from the settler working class in taking on our common climate enemy.

*Camp leaders have put out a call for Physical Support and Solidarity. You can make a donation or find out how to register to join the camp at:

*To learn about the issue and find out more about how you can support the camp by fundraising, organizing a visit or building local demonstrations, visit

*A “Frontlines Beat Pipelines” fundraiser will be held in Vancouver on Thursday, September 10 at the Wise Hall, 1882 Adanac Street from 7:00 to 11:00pm. Visit their FB page to get tickets. 

Geo Tags: 

Featured Event



Visit our YouTube Channel for more videos: Our Youtube Channel
Visit our UStream Channel for live videos: Our Ustream Channel