Visiting Unist’ot’en Camp
by Karl Frost
On Monday July 11th, Jen Gobby and I arrived together at the bridge across Wet’sen Bin (known on white settler maps as the Morice River). On the other side is the traditional territory of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suet’en, and we were required by protocol to wait on this side of the bridge to ask for permission to enter the territory. For the last 7 years, the Unist’ot’en have been maintaining a permanent presence at the bridge to protect their land against unconsensual encroachment from surveyors for proposed oil and gas pipelines, including the Enbridge Northern Gateway, TransCanada, and Pacific Trails Pipeline projects. Their territory is a bottleneck in the mountains, and the resistance of their traditional government, supported by non-indigenous allies, has been key to holding back these environmentally destructive projects.
This was my 6th time crossing the bridge onto the territory in the last few years. I’ve participated as a solidarity supporter, helping with building projects on the land, which include a bunk house for activists, a healing and counselling center, and a traditional pithouse all placed purposefully on proposed pipeline routes.
The protocol ritual is a traditional practice which acts as an embodied reinforcement of understood lines of territories and sovereignty, as well as the responsibilities of stewardship and respect for each other and the land that come with those. As part of the cultural revival movement of the last 40 years in First Nations communities, protocol has been a key element of reestablishing a physical sense of empowerment of self and community and duties to the land. It also acts strategically as a format for communicating indigenous law to those who would violate it in the hire of oil and gas companies.
Logging is a big component of employment and livelihood in the Wet’suet’en community. The current Knedebeas, the hereditary chief of the Unist’ot’en, is a logger who negotiates with logging companies to work on Unist’ot’en territories in a way that benefits the Unist’ot’en. As such, they are not strictly against industry or jobs, but instead want employment in a way that is sustainable for the environment. The destruction that comes with oil and gas is too much and to allow it would not for them be living in a good way. As such, they have for the last 7 years been turning away oil and gas workers who try to enter the territory, sometimes resulting in tense conflicts, but always holding the line, based on their rights as a First Nation and supported by the determination and unwillingness to compromise core values amongst the Unist’ot’en and their supporters.
July 13-18 was the 7th annual Action Camp, a gathering of activists to offer physical help to the Unist’ot’en in building projects and to network and information share with each other on issues of First Nations sovereignty, environmental protection, de-colonization and anti-racism work, and struggles with the fossil fuel industries. This year’s gathering was smaller and more relaxed than in years past, reflective of the relative victories achieved in the last year. There is much to be happy about with camp. The last time I was there, we were involved with tense confrontations with industry workers attempting to coax us into making statements that could legally be used against the Unist’ot’en. The RCMP (Canadian police) were regularly harassing people coming into camp, setting up road blocks and taking down names as people travelled to the camp. These encounters eventually escalated into the RCMP coming to the check points themselves to be turned away by the Unist’ot’en leadership.
Since then, Canada has had a shift in government from the heavily oil and gas driven Conservative Harper government to the more centrist Liberal government under Trudeau, unwilling to so far to revoke pipeline permits, but also less willing to directly risk large environmental confrontations that would ensue with trying to clear resistance camps. Also, as the oil and gas economy has fallen, investors have been pulling out of some of the pipeline and export facility projects and slowing down on others. Finally, the ridiculously poorly planned Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project just lost in the courts, which upheld a ruling that they had not sufficiently consulted with First Nations, which means that they now need to go back to negotiate with indigenous leaders who have stated that any attempt to build the pipeline would be seen as an act of war. The dedicated work of the Unist’ot’en has been key to these victories.
The Camp has achieved a lot in its 7 years. It has successfully blocked pipeline development until society was able to catch up. It has inspired other blockades including the pipeline blockade on Luutkudziiwus territory at Madii Lii and the ongoing (and currently more tense) blocking of the Petronas LNG export facility on Lelu Island by Lax Kwa’laams. It has also developed the physical infrastructure for a much needed community gathering space and healing center. The work of the camp was also crucial to the changes in the local Moricetown Wet’suet’en Band Council with the resent election, which saw Freda Huson elected to the band council and the council adopting a firm and clear ‘no pipeline’ stance. This was reflected in the band council’s recent rejection of both the Coastal Gaslinks and Pacific Trails Pipeline Projects. (as a side note, where hereditary governance structures still exist, as is the case with the Unist’ot’en, band councils do not traditionally or by Canadian law have the right to make decisions on terittories, but they are often encouraged by large financial contributions from industry to overstep their authority and sign on to contracts they do not have the right to sign. This is a complicated issue and should not necessarily be taken as a cue to demonize such band councils who are often dealing with poverty in their communities and a history of colonialism that they are wrestling with. More in a future blog post, but go here for a brief background.)
The opportunity for a bit of relaxation is much appreciated.
While, the atmosphere is relaxed in comparison to years previously, it’s almost inevitable when doing cross-cultural work for there to be some tensions and misunderstandings. A primary purpose of the Action Camp is work on de-colonization and solidarity between First Nations and non-indigenous/settler communities. Early on, an incident where one First Nations supporter felt uncomfortable being in a gathering that was mostly of non-indigenous supporters led to reminders of creating space for different ways of communicating and for people with more active and forceful communication styles to take less space and allow space for other voices to be heard. Relatedly, decolonization workshops focused on indigenous activist burn-out and issues in working with settler communities while others focused on sensitivity and issues of colonization for those from ‘settler’ community… the white-European dominated community descended from colonial settlers. We also had workshops on how to address communication and getting the word out about indigenous and environmental issues in a marketing environment heavily occupied by money-backed industrial messaging working against us. We had an update from the front line of resistance at Site C, a massive environmentally destructive hydro-electric project being forced through against the opposition of the First Nations whose lands it would submerge… a depressing story of illegal activity not blocked by the courts since it runs on native lands. We also heard about nefarious laws that subvert the intentions of ‘carbon-offsets’. As an example, part of the intentions of the pipeline companies in continuing to push for pipeline permits despite the market being so low is that once they have permission to do the project, they can sell ‘not doing the project’ as a ‘carbon offset’ to companies around the world who want to continue spewing carbon. Yes, it’s as messed up as it sounds. (thanks Mel for that update)
One of the themes of the ‘marketing’ workshop was countering the exaggerated messaging that industry has been promoting of the camp as a site for “armed and dangerous militant radicals”. Of course, some of the early messaging of the camp, attempting to promote an image of a strong and willful resistance that was not going to compromise their values nor submit to a simple token protest of letting themselves be arrested in passive civil disobedience, played into this industry propaganda. As the camp is now transforming into its intended second phase as a place for community healing and cultural education, it became a significant focus of the workshops to brainstorm ways of countering this image. This is a very practical and material issue, as Freda reported how industry representatives have pressured school boards to not allow children to come to the camp, despite a number of resoundingly positive and community supported visits to the land by youth groups.
Outside of the workshops, we mostly spent our time in building projects, doing some necessary upgrading of the bunkhouse and completion work on phase 2 of the healing center. The progress that they were able to achieve on the healing center in May is really impressive, adding a whole new 3 story wing to the building, which will be used for community gatherings and retreats for people to develop themselves and work on healing from the many issues that afflict rural First Nations communities. Toghesity did some amazing finishing work on the cob oven, turning it into a sculpture of the Nighthawk a mythical crest animal of the Unist’ot’en that constantly flies over the territories and alerts the Unist’ot’en of trouble in the territories in their dreams.
I spent most of my time at camp working with Dave and Richard hammering in nails, putting up rafters, and assembling Ikea furnishings for the healing center office. ‘much more relaxing than my last visit where I was filming encounters with pipeline workers to document their attempts at illegal entry of Unist’ot’en land and their being turned away.
In our down time, we also had lots of great conversations as grass roots activists from around Turtle Island got to chat and network about other projects. A number of these conversations focused on Lelu Island, where the ongoing blockade is more ‘hot’ with regular conflicts with people attempting to do exploratory work on Lelu Island and in the delicate and vital salmon ecosystem of Flores Ban (By the way, if you have time and want to come up to help at the camp, Lelu is currently very much in need of volunteer supporters to come up and help with the occupation, primarily with building and maintenance tasks. Contact email@example.com for details on visiting).
We also ate spectacularly well, including at times salmon fished in the Wet’sen Kwa and moose and (very fresh) deer hunted on the territory and nearby Gitemdan territory. I saw some beautiful sunsets, swam in the Wet’sen Kwa, Talbit Kwa, and Owen Lake, drank water straight out of the Wet’sen Kwa. It is an indescribable pleasure to be able to drink straight out of a river, and it is always a sad moment for me, when later in my travels I run out of water from the river there. This is one of the very physical experiences of being on the land that makes people feel so strongly about defending it.
Right now, there is a youth art camp happening on the land, where they are working on mural making using contemporary and First Nations artistic principles as well as work on comic book and graphic novel making and documentary film. Upcoming will be an elders camp as the camp continues its transition from continuous high alert front lines resistance camp into being a real center for community revival and healing. The work in opposition to oil and gas is certainly not over, but the camp is starting to shift in what that resistance means and is using it as a way to build community. This continues a theme that I heard repeatedly in my interviews with First Nations as well as non-indigenous activists in the region, which is that a ‘gift’ of the conflict with Enbridge and the other pipeline companies has been a sense of communities coming together and healing old conflicts in their united struggle to protect the land they belong to.
PS the camp is still needing help with fundraising for the rest of phase two of the healing center as they need to finish the heating system before winter. If you have a bit you can pitch in, it would be much appreciated and go both to helping the local First Nations community and at the same time contribute to real resistance to the pipeline projects in the region. The fight is at an ebb, but hardly over. check the link here.