A new report by Amnesty International traces the years-long campaign of violence, harassment, discrimination, and dispossession against Indigenous Wet’suwet’en land defenders resisting the construction of Coastal GasLink (CGL) liquified natural gas pipeline through their unceded ancestral territory without their free, prior and informed consent. The report’s launch coincides with the 26th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Delgamuukw v British Columbia, a ruling which reaffirmed Wet’suwet’en customary law.
‘Removed from our land for defending it’: Criminalization, Intimidation and Harassment of Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders examines the human rights violations inflicted upon members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their supporters by the authorities of Canada and British Columbia; CGL Pipeline Ltd. and TC Energy, the corporations building the pipeline; and Forsythe Security, a private security firm contracted by CGL Pipeline Ltd. Based in part on witness testimony of four violent, large-scale Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raids on Wet’suwet’en territory, the report finds that Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters were arbitrarily arrested for defending their land and exercising their Indigenous rights and their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
Canada is supposed to be where people come to live because it’s a nice country where people are free, but it doesn’t feel like that for First Nations communities and land defenders.K’eltiy, Brenda Michell, Unist’ot’en Tsakiy ze’ (Chief) and Yin’tah (Land) Steward
“The actions taken against Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters form part of a disturbing and concerted effort by the governments of Canada and British Columbia to remove any obstacle to the construction of the CGL pipeline on ancestral, unceded territory,” said Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International. “The state must immediately put an end to the harassment, intimidation, unlawful surveillance and criminalization of Wet’suwet’en land defenders and withdraw the RCMP and associated security services from the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s territory.”
“Since colonization, Indigenous Peoples in Canada have been subjected to an array of government policies aimed at dispossessing them from their territories and assimilating them into settler society,” said Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English-speaking section. “Forcing the construction of the pipeline without the Nation’s free, prior and informed consent – and criminalizing land defenders who exercise their rights – is not an isolated injustice but part of Canada’s ongoing colonial violence towards Indigenous Peoples.”
A court injunction requested by CGL Pipeline Ltd. and granted by the B.C. Supreme Court has served as the legal justification for the RCMP raids and other forms of criminalization suffered by Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters. In December 2019, a judge granted an interlocutory injunction banning land defenders and their supporters from blockading the Morice Forest Service Road (FSR) in Wet’suwet’en territory. The injunction includes an enforcement clause that “authorizes the RCMP to arrest any person that they have reasonable and probable grounds to believe is contravening the injunction.” Amnesty International considers that the injunction unduly restricts the human rights of the Wet’suwet’en Nation to self-governance and to control their territories.
“Because of this overly broad injunction, more than 75 Wet’suwet’en and other land defenders were arrested, solely for exercising their Indigenous rights and their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly,” said France-Isabelle Langlois, the executive director of Amnistie internationale Canada francophone. “Amnesty International calls on the authorities of Canada and British Columbia to ensure that injunctions are not used to restrict the human rights of Indigenous Peoples and that the criminal contempt charges against Wet’suwet’en and other land defenders are dropped without delay.”
“The environmental destruction of our territory has a huge impact on our people. We rely on the salmon, our streams and our river. All of our rivers that are being destroyed. The ability to drink the water out of the rivers is a huge thing for us. That leads back to that sense of spiritual wellness, cultural wellness, because when we’re able to drink the water that comes from our territories, I believe that it carries our ancestral history, it carries the memory and the spirit of the ancestors that came before us that spent time in those rivers, the salmon that spawn there every year.”
– Molly Wickham, a Wet’suwet’en land defender, also known as Sleydo’.
RCMP raids were disproportionate
Amnesty International determined that the tactics used by the RCMP during the four militarized raids on Wet’suwet’en land defenders were disproportionate to the situation they were responding to, as there are no reports of defenders using violence or representing a threat.
During the first high-profile raid in January 2019, the RCMP arbitrarily arrested 14 land defenders who were, in exercise of their Indigenous rights and right to peaceful assembly, blocking the Morice FSR at the Gidimt’en Checkpoint in an operation involving about 50 heavily armed officers, helicopters, and surveillance drones.
In the subsequent raids in February 2020 and November 2021, the RCMP deployed dozens of officers armed with semi-automatic sniper rifles, dogs, bulldozers, and helicopters. Land defenders reported being assaulted during arrests, with officers wearing masks, refusing to identify themselves, destroying land defenders’ property, and cutting off communication channels among the defenders. “[Police] were pulling the Indigenous men’s hair,” Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham), Wing Chief of the Cas Yikh House, Gidimt’en Clan, told Amnesty International. “They piled on two of the Indigenous men really hard… kicking them and punching them in the head.”
Land defenders were held in custody for four to five days prior to their bail hearings. Several interviewees told Amnesty International that Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous land defenders were treated more severely than non-Indigenous detainees. According to Chief Na’Moks, a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, “Only the Indigenous were in shackles, not the media [referring to media workers who were also detained] or anybody else. They just had handcuffs. But they had all the Indigenous … in shackles in their underwear appearing in front of the judge like that.”
Besides the large-scale, heavy-handed raids, Amnesty International documented a pattern of ongoing intrusive and aggressive surveillance, harassment and intimidation experienced by Wet’suwet’en land defenders, including discriminatory, degrading and highly culturally insensitive conduct. For example, RCMP officers have repeatedly interrupted cultural activities at the Gidimt’en Checkpoint and even interrupted a ceremony mourning a community member’s death – despite repeated explanations of what was happening and requests not to enter.
Discrimination based on race and gender
Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous land defenders have experienced racial discrimination, including violations of their cultural and collective rights as Indigenous Peoples. Women defenders have also experienced both threats and acts of gender-based violence and discrimination.
These human rights violations negatively impact both individuals and the Wet’suwet’en Nation as a whole. The construction of the CGL pipeline and the associated harassment, intimidation, unlawful surveillance, and criminalization of land defenders has created an atmosphere of fear and violence. Consequently, some members of the Wet’suwet’en no longer feel safe on the Yin’tah (their unceded ancestral land), resulting in loss of connection to their ancestral territories and, consequently, their ancestors, and negatively impacting cultural transmission to future generations.
The reason we’re here, why we’re fighting so hard for our rights, our land, our water, our animals, our salmon, the air, everything. It’s the necessity of our life. The way we live our life is off the land, and they’re destroying it all. They’re ripping it all apart and it’s not going to stopLawrence Bazil, Wet'suwet'en land defender, Laksilyu clan
“I feel less safe now that [my daughter] plays outside knowing there’s a strange man across the river watching; that there are drones up in the sky,” Dr. Karla Tait, a Wet’suwet’en matriarch and a director of programming with the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, told Amnesty International.
CGL/TC Energy disagree with the allegations and state that CGL/TC Energy’s “work is lawful authorized, and fully permitted under the laws of British Columbia and Canada. The project went through a robust provincial regulatory process where Indigenous groups were consulted, and the potential impact to Indigenous rights, as well as economic, social, heritage, health effects and other issues and concerns were thoroughly assessed.” Forsythe Security did not respond to a request to comment.
Among other recommendations, Amnesty International calls on the governments of Canada and British Columbia, and Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd. and TC Energy to immediately halt the construction and use of the CGL pipeline in the unceded territories of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
The organization calls on both governments to immediately drop the criminal contempt charges against Wet’suwet’en and other land defenders. Amnesty International also calls on the RCMP, its Critical Response Unit, and Forsythe Security to immediately halt the harassment, intimidation, and unlawful surveillance of Wet’suwet’en land defenders and withdraw from the Nation’s territory.