As we begin yet another year, the Wet’suwet’en land defenders are still under continued surveillance and criminalization by the British Columbia (B.C.) provincial government and the Canadian federal government. At the source of the struggle is, the Coastal GasLink’s (CGL) pipeline construction that is cutting the Wet’suwet’en territory into two. The construction of the pipeline has been opposed by all five Wet’suwet’en clans. The Wet’suwet’en hold title and rights to their 22,000 km2 territory and their Chiefs say they have not consented to the pipeline according to their laws and customs.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) clearly stipulates that states should consult and cooperate with Indigenous Peoples in good faith to get their free, prior and informed consent. But in this instance, it hasn’t been the case because The Hereditary Chiefs were reasonable and open to cooperation and even proposed an alternative route that wouldn’t cut the Wet’suwet’en Peoples’ land into two, but CGL rejected it on the grounds that it was too expensive.
The B.C. provincial government and CGL bypassed the Hereditary Chiefs by making an agreement with the band councils – an elected Indigenous peoples governing body created by the Indian Act. Indigenous Peoples under the leadership of their Hereditary Chiefs resisted this divisive technique. Determined to build the pipeline without the delay that further negotiation would have entailed, CGL, and the B.C. provincial government and Canada’s federal government opted for violent responses that are reminiscent of past colonial repression and trauma.
How have land defenders been criminalized?
In December 2018, the British Columbia Supreme Court (BCSC) granted CGL an interim injunction which prevented the land defenders from blockading pipeline construction in Wet’suwet’en territory. Again in December 2019, the BCSC granted an interlocutory injunction order, which includes enforcement provisions.
Since then, these injunctions have been used by the government of Canada and the Province of B.C. to undertake constant surveillance, harassment, and the forceful removal and jailing of Wet’suwet’en land defenders. Hereditary Chiefs, and matriarchs were arrested and jailed using a highly militarized police force on their territories. In three large-scale police raids (January 2019, February 2020 and November 2021), a total of 74 people were arrested and detained, included among others, legal observers and members of the media. These raids were highly militarized with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) using helicopters, dog units and assault weapons not to mention involvement by CGL’s private security company. In such raids they bulldozed and burned down buildings and desecrated ceremonial spaces.
Nineteen land defenders were charged with criminal contempt in July 2022 by the B.C. Prosecution Service for allegedly disobeying the 2019 interlocutory injunction order to stay away from pipeline construction sites, even though these sites are situated on the community’s unceded, ancestral territory. Five of the land defenders pleaded guilty to violating the injunction’s terms in December 2022 as a result of the constraints placed on them when they were prosecuted, including being prohibited from being on their ancestral territory. The remaining land defenders will go on trial in July, September, and December 2023. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to prison.
At home and abroad the criminalization of land defenders is escalating
The criminalization of the Wet’suwet’en Nation is just one example of the continued struggle of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. For example, Will George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation has received a 28-day jail sentence at BCSC in 2022 for defending his sacred obligation of defending and protecting Tsleil-Waututh’s land and waters. The decision was appealed to the B.C. Court of Appeal on 24 January 2023 and a decision remains pending.
Criminalization of Indigenous land defenders is not unique to Canada. It is part of a global pattern of attacks on Indigenous peoples whose defence of their rights and territory puts them on a collision course with powerful companies and the governments who support their projects. In Guatemala, Amnesty campaigned with Maya Q’eqchi’ communities to seek the release of their leader Bernardo Caal Xol, unjustly jailed for more than four years without evidence of having committed any crime. This criminalization was in retaliation for Caal Xol’s leadership of peaceful efforts to stop a hydroelectric project built on a sacred river without meaningful consultation or the consent of affected Indigenous people, in violation of human rights standards and with devastating consequences for food security, access to water and health.
From North America to South America, Amnesty International continues to document and denounce flagrant attacks on Indigenous peoples and their rights amid the ongoing legacies of violent colonization, racism and enslavement. Far too often, Canadian companies are involved. Our campaigning is led by and seeks to amplify the powerful voices of Indigenous resistance and leadership.
Although there has been a growing body of national and international laws and standards that guarantee the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their traditional lands, that hasn’t helped ward off violent government crackdown. The ongoing criminalization of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders and other land defenders in Canada and elsewhere is in violation of their rights and serves as a reminder of colonial expropriation and systemic racism and the need for more concerted action to change this deep-seated structural problem.
What is AI Canada planning to do about it?
In AI’s strategic plan 2022 -2030 one of its human rights priorities is “equality and justice” with five focus areas: Indigenous rights and environmental justice; racial justice; gender justice; people on the move; and crisis response.
The Wet’suwet’en case touches three of our five focus areas. That is why in addition to its past and ongoing campaigning work, currently AI Canada (French-speaking and English- speaking sections) in partnership with the Wet’suwet’en Nation are working on a qualitative research project documenting the continued criminalization of Indigenous land defenders to inform further campaigning on this issue, particularly in light of the upcoming criminal contempt trials against the land defenders later this year. We are also making a joint submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who will be visiting Canada from March 1-10, 2023. We are strongly encouraging the Special Rapporteur to visit Wet’suwet’en Territory to meet with the Hereditary Chiefs, matriarchs and land defenders.
The gender aspect of Indigenous land defenders’ criminalization
It is also worth noting that, the Wet’suwet’en are matriarchal. This means that the Wet’suwet’en Peoples’ struggle brings the intersection of indigeneity, race and gender to the fore, because women land defenders have also been criminalized. AI will incorporate gender sensitive intersectional analysis as a key part of research and campaigning in order to understand the differential and gender specific impacts of criminalization on women land defenders.
TAKE ACTION We must show Wet’suwet’en land defenders they are not alone in their struggle.
Despite being affected disproportionately by climate change, the continued struggle of Indigenous Nations for their right to free, prior and informed consent over land and resources magnifies the injustice Indigenous Nations are facing in Canada. Their fight is closely tied to climate justice. Therefore, we must show our solidarity and allyship with the Wet’suwet’en Peoples’ struggle against CGL whose pipeline is causing damage to the environment, destroying fishing grounds, aggravating climate change through mining and transportation of fossil fuel and violating Indigenous Nations’ sacred places and rights.
In a time of growing climate crisis, Indigenous Peoples are doing their part to fight climate change through their care for the land, the animals, the water, and everything that sustains us. The reward for their care shouldn’t be criminalization and violent crackdowns.
We must show our solidarity and call for an end to the criminalization and violent crackdown on Indigenous land defenders.