Canada And Indigenous Sovereignty: The Case Of The C.G.L. Pipeline

Last Sunday, members of the Gidimt’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation reissued an eviction notice enforcing Coastal GasLink (C.G.L.) pipeline workers’ evacuation from the nation’s traditional lands. The clan gave eight hours of leeway for workers at two work camps along the Morice River Forest Service Road outside Houston, British Columbia to leave the area or be caught behind blockades.

The notice was reissued after two years of the Canadian government ignoring Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ requests to remove C.G.L. workers and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P) from unceded territories. Now, tensions are escalating along the blockade route.

Following the approval of the Coastal GasLink project, a pipeline that is meant to move natural gas from northeastern British Columbia to the coast, in October of 2018, members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation have been moving to prevent its construction. The Canadian energy company facilitating the project, TC Energy, has been vocal in its supposed support of Indigenous people, touting that “the company has signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline’s path,” according to C.B.C. However, the band councils don’t hold authority over land rights. The councils “only have jurisdiction within the boundaries of the reserve that they’re elected to serve,” Chief Na’Moks told C.B.C. It is the hereditary chiefs who have authority over the entirety of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s land rights and titles, and the hereditary chiefs adamantly opposed the construction of the C.G.L. pipeline.

This oversight resulted in a slew of protests and blockades in early 2019 by members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, as the R.C.M.P. began enforcing an interim injunction issued in December of 2018, and were “prepared to shoot Indigenous land defenders,” according to the Guardian. This eventually led to the arrest of 14 members of the Gidimt’en Clan and the creation of a tentative agreement between the Wet’suwet’en Nation and federal representatives, which would allow for minimal pre-construction work in the area while other negotiations took place. However, peaceful negotiations were stymied on December 31st, 2019, when British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church issued another injunction ordering people to allow Coastal GasLink access to the pipeline construction site. This prompted the first issuance of an eviction notice, wherein hereditary chiefs cited Wet’suwet’en trespass laws, affirming the legitimacy of their position as an independent nation separate from the Canadian government.

When peaceful negotiations failed in early 2020, the R.C.M.P. moved to enforce the injunction order. This sparked nationwide demonstrations in early 2020 in support of the Gidimt’en Clan and its land rights and in opposition to the rampant police violence and discrimination which occurred along the blockades.

These issues re-emerged in September 2021, when drilling for the pipeline officially began, despite an agreement on the pipeline’s progress never being reached. In response, members of the Gidimt’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation established a camp on one of the C.G.L. work sites south of Houston, aiming to continue blocking the construction of the pipeline.

When R.C.M.P. would not leave the area, the eviction notice was re-issued last Sunday. Workers at the sites refused to leave, so when the deadline lapsed, land defenders seized a C.G.L. excavator and permanently closed the Morice River Forest Service Road – the only road access to two work camps housing more than 500 people. As of Friday, the issue has yet to be resolved, but the workers’ lack of access to supplies and food puts considerable pressure on the Canadian government and TC Energy to work out a solution soon.

According to Gidimt’en camp spokesperson Sleydo’ Molly Wickham in an interview for The Narwhal, the members were “sending a clear message to the province, to Canada, and they weren’t acting on it – they weren’t hearing what we were saying – so we had to get a little bit louder.”

Canada’s inconsistent approach to Indigenous sovereignty has been long documented, despite the country’s public face of support for Indigenous nations. In June, the country signed into law the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (U.N.D.R.I.P.)’s recommendations, which call for governments to “‘consult and cooperate in good faith’ [with Indigenous nations] … in order to obtain their ‘free and informed consent’ prior to the approval of ‘any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources,’” according to The Narwhal. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke on the new law and the country’s history of oppression of Native peoples, saying that the country has “gone from a place where Indigenous people were not listened to, were not consulted, were not included and we are doing a better job of it.”

Despite this, the Canadian government still shows a fundamental lack of respect for the relationship between their country and Indigenous nations. In the case of the C.G.L. pipeline, Canadian officials did not respect the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s sovereignty, but expected it to respect Canadian laws regardless. This can be seen in the interlocutory injunction’s language, with Marguerite Church saying that “the defendants may genuinely believe in their rights under Indigenous law … but the law does not recognize any right to blockade and obstruct [C.G.L. workers] from pursuing lawfully authorized activities.” This wording shows an unequal assumption of sovereignty. As Thomas Biolsi, Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California Berkeley, put it, “tribal homelands are relegated, under federal law, to … voluntary associations, not governments …  in which different citizens are subject to different sovereignties in [the same] physical space.” The Canadian government, by its actions, does not respect the nationhood of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, even as they say they want to do better.

The U.N. recognizes this, and its approach seems most likely to de-escalate these conflicts. Following the release of its recommendations with U.N.D.R.I.P., the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called for Canada to immediately suspend work on various controversial infrastructure projects, including the C.G.L. pipeline, until “free, prior and informed consent” is obtained from Indigenous peoples, according to The Narwhal.

U.N.D.R.I.P. addresses Indigenous concerns, stressing consent and mutual agreement between Indigenous Nations and the Canadian government, but many still worry that the Canadian government’s stance will remain the same. “[C]onsent is the future and most simply put, it’s about coming together as governments,” Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, told The Narwhal in an interview about the new legislation following U.N.D.R.I.P. “[A]lthough this law has empowered many First Nations in B.C., it has done little to create legal certainty.”

In response, and following the recommendations of the U.N., British Columbia has stated that it will be creating a long-term “action plan” and will release annual plans on progress being made.

U.N.D.R.I.P. is a promising step forward between Indigenous nations and the Canadian government, but more immediate steps need to be taken in order to address the current conflict. Following the U.N.’s recommendations, the Canadian government must shift its perspective on Indigneous sovereignty in its country, and, more importantly, it must take more deliberate steps to suspend work on the C.G.L. pipeline. Respecting the nationhood and land rights of Indigenous nations is a critical foundation for more direct action in the future.

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