Winnipeg’s Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse filled up quickly on the evening of Monday, Jan. 21 for a community dinner and discussion in support of Unist’ot’en Camp, a resistance community in northern B.C. on the traditional land of the Wet’suwet’en people. The remote community is attempting to blockade the construction of several major pipelines through Wet’suwet’en land.
The Winnipeg talk was organized in conjunction with the Winnipeg Indigenous People’s Solidarity Movement, and included a video presentation featuring commentary and images from Unist’ot’en camp.
Additionally, Brett Rhyno, a resident and ally of the blockade community, spoke to the crowd and answered questions on a variety of issues pertaining to the camp’s organization, supply needs, legal matters, and reasons for opposing pipeline construction.
Members of Wet’suwet’en nation are opposed to pipelines being built on their traditional land—a plot spanning about 58,000 sq. km—because they view such projects as environmentally destructive to a limited remaining quantity of pristine land.
“We are opposing these projects because we have very few areas that are pure and still in a natural state [ . . . ] industry has destroyed most of our areas and we have very little left. If we don’t protect it, we’ll be saying, ‘We used to have moose. We used to have fish,’” said Freda Huson, a Unist’ot’en spokesperson featured in the video presentation.
Pipeline routes through Wet’suet’en land have been proposed by Kinder Morgan, Pembina Pipelines, and Enbridge. There is also a joint project, Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP), which is owned by the Apache Corporation, EOG Resources, and Encana.
Rhyno recalled a circumstance in which Unist’ot’en Camp members confronted PTP contracted employees conducting surveys on Wet’suwet’en land close to the central camp.
“In November, 2011, the surveyors tried to come out [ . . . ] we were able to get on them right away and they were issued an eagle feather, which is a traditional warning of trespass according to Unist’ot’en law,” said Rhyno.
A document sent to the involved pipeline companies following this incident explained that the Wet’suwet’en people see themselves as sovereign from the Canadian state and maintain that their land is unceded.
“Wet’suwet’en territory, which extends from just east of Burns Lake to the coastal mountain range, is sovereign and unceded territory, which has never been ceded to the colonial Canadian state; the Wet’suwet’en are not under treaty with the Canadian government. Their territory, therefore, is and always will be free, and belongs to the Wet’suwet’en people alone,” reads the letter.
Rhyno echoed this sentiment when he explained to the Mondragon audience that Unist’ot’en residents are “backing away from treaty processes.”
“The government has a standard treaty process and they will only compensate you for a small percentage of your land. And that’s their base and they won’t move from that base. I think the value is around five per cent. So when you make a treaty, you are surrendering your land,” Rhyno elaborated to the Manitoban.
Rhyno also referred to a landmark Supreme Court case, known as the Delgamuukw decision, which in 1997 ruled that the original aboriginal title to land in British Columbia had not been overridden and thereby recognized the authority and legal significance of oral traditions and hereditary chiefs.
“When it went to the Supreme Court, they overruled previous courts and said the aboriginal title had not been extinguished. It did not grant them the aboriginal title because of a technicality in terms of the way the case had been presented, but it set out criterion for a future court case for what would constitute aboriginal title [ . . . ] it also recognized oral tradition as having legal validity,” explained Rhyno.
Rhyno concluded his talk with a brief note on the recent successes at Unist’ot’en Camp and its plans for the future.
“Amazingly, two major companies backed out after our  day of action,” said Rhyno. “Our resistance actually got a fair amount of media, and Encana and EOG resources sold their shares. All indications are they didn’t get a great price.”
Those shares were purchased by Chevron, an American energy corporation.
Since the exchange between Encana, EOG, and Chevron, Rhyno says the Wet’suwet’en have been focused on growing the number of camps on Unist’ot’en land.
“Right now we are fortifying. We are building up our resources over the winter, and in spring we are going to build more cabins,” Rhyno told the crowd.
“The plan is not to have this be a blockade, but the starting of a new community.”