With COVID-19, the protests’ momentum diminished, but the communities in the territory are still fighting
The Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests made national and international news in the beginning of 2020, as people across Canada occupied land and erected blockades to show support for Wet’suwet’en, who were protesting a pipeline being built on their land — yet, because of COVID-19, that momentum has since dissipated.
In February, the federal government and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs agreed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU); a draft agreement that will have the provincial and federal government acknowledge the Rights and Title of the Wet’suwet’en under their system of governance.
Yet the MOU does not address the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline — a main reason for the social movement — that cuts across the Wet’suwet’en territory.
“It was quite clear in those conversations that the coastal gas pipeline wasn’t open for discussion,” said Karla Tait, a Unist’ot’en House member and volunteer director of clinic services at the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre. “We have the issue of no consent from our nation for this project, which is threatening to damage a cornerstone of our culture.”
According to the Unist’ot’en website, Wet’suwet’en is a territory made out of 13 hereditary house groups. The Unist’ot’en are part of the Dark House. The website states that “The Unist’ot’en homestead is not a protest or demonstration. Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries.”
In regards to the MOU, Tait said that “In terms of actual resolution, it hasn’t resolved anything.”
Tait explained that the pipeline is proposed to pass under rivers that hold cultural importance and supply the communities with salmon, which is a keystone species to the region.
She also stated that the CGL construction workers’ camps were destroying trails that were culturally important; thus, there was a push for legal action against the CGL to ensure no further historical and cultural sites were damaged.
But because of COVID-19, the court date was postponed, and by the time it was rescheduled, CGL had already expanded into the territory without any archaeological dispute. Tait explained that CGL used the cover of COVID-19 to proceed with the construction of the pipeline.
In an open letter, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs called for the shutdown of the pipeline, as it increased the risk of COVID-19 transmission by increasing the amount people travelling in and out of the community. But like in most provinces, construction was deemed an essential service.
“We didn’t pack everything up, we are still here,” said Tait, who explained that while the Unist’ot’en are not currently blocking the pipeline, the community is still there, facilitating activities to revitalize cultural practices and reconnect to the land.
She said that those activities are collaborations in the Indigenous communities, focusing on seasonal activities like hunting and traditional medicine. But because of COVID-19, the scope of the activities has been limited, turning into either resource-videos or small in-person groups in accordance with COVID-19 distancing rules.
Tait wanted it to be made clear that revitalizing those cultural activities was in itself an act of resistance against the colonial government.
“It is very difficult to witness the coming and going of invaders,” said Tait, “[and] sit across from them as they describe some measures to minimize the damages to places that are sacred.
“I would employ the readers to do what’s in their power [to help], because we have done more than enough. This is everyone’s future and ability to survive in a world that is approaching climate catastrophe, so do your part,” she said.
Tait explained that people see the Wet’suwet’en movement as abstract and removed from their power. Yet she said that before COVID-19 there was huge social momentum and public pressure through demonstrations and marches. Those actions by people promoted the federal government to begin the process of the MOU.
“It is a tricky context thing to do with COVID-19, but I think people underestimate their power,” Tait said. “I felt like we were at a point [before COVID-19] where things were going to shift in big ways. I hope that people will not forget that momentum.”
Archive graphic by Wednesday Laplante