Crossing the RCMP checkpoint on Wet'suwet'en territory

First in a series of dispatches from the standoff in northern B.C.
Jerome Turner

Ricochet Media has sent Gitxsan journalist Jerome Turner to northern B.C. to cover the ongoing Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs' stand against an unwelcome Coastal GasLink pipeline project. The pipeline, which has the backing of the provincial government and band offices along its route, would carry natural gas from Dawson Creek to Kitimat, where a new processing facility called LNG Canada is being constructed on the coast.

This latest chapter follows on the heels of last year’s standoff, where 14 people, including members of the Wet'suwet'en Nation and allies, were arrested after the RCMP decided to forcibly break through barricades and enforce an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court. Despite NDP Premier John Horgan announcing that B.C. will now abide by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a renewed injunction has been granted by the court, allowing for unimpeded construction of the pipeline. The Wet’suwet’en have returned to stand against the 670-kilometre project.

For the next few days, Jerome Turner will be reporting from the front lines. And getting him there hasn’t been cheap. We want to thank an anonymous individual donor and Greenpeace Canada for earmarked donations that helped to pay for his travel. We’re still raising the last couple thousand we need to cover his expenses; all donations and new memberships on our site this week will go to support his reporting.

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Day One - Jan. 16, 2020

My day started with an early morning flight from Vancouver to Smithers, where I was picked up by a colleague who was also headed up to the Wet’suwet’en Yintah (territory). After a quick stop in Houston to collect a rented satellite phone, we made our way up the Morice Forest Service Road that runs along the Widzin’kwa (Morice) River to the 27-kilometre mark, where the RCMP set up a checkpoint last Monday.

We both represent media outlets and arrived at the checkpoint with everything the RCMP had told our editors we would need to get in: letters of accreditation from the outlets, pieces of government-issued ID and, strangely, a copy of the RCMP press release setting out the conditions for journalists to gain access to the area. Other journalists had been turned away from this checkpoint earlier in the week, and we had taken every precaution to make sure we wouldn’t share their fate.

A copy of the court injunction, left on a tree that blocks the road to the Unist'ot'en camp
Jerome Turner

The first thing we noticed was that the RCMP officers, who had been sitting in an idling vehicle, were wearing balaclavas that covered their faces. Everyone who passes this checkpoint must show their face and provide identification — except, evidently, the officers stationed here.

They inspected our letters and ID, noted that we were carrying copies of the press release, and refused us entry. We pushed back, gently, providing them with the names of the RCMP media relations officers who had told our editors we wouldn’t have any problems.

They went off to make some phone calls, and for the next 30 minutes we sat and waited. Finally the officers returned and told us we could proceed into what what most media coverage has described as an RCMP-enforced “exclusion zone.”

Checkpoint camp at the 39-kilometre mark
Jerome Turner

Before we departed, the RCMP told us that they are there to ensure the safety of all who venture in, and warned us that there were reports of trees being rigged to fall across the road and incendiary materials. One officer added that the area is “not an exclusion zone.”

The drive in requires experience in winter conditions, a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and patience. Soon we arrived at the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint at the 39-kilometre mark, and found a firepit monitored by a group of people willing to stand in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ resolve to defend their territory from unwelcome guests. That resolve to protect their land is a protocol that has been upheld for thousands of years, and has now been reinstituted by the Wet’suwet’en at Unist’ot’en for more than a decade.

There are trees across the road past the 39-kilometre mark, but we saw no obvious signs of rigged trees or incendiary materials on our drive or near the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint.

Fire pit at the 39-kilometre checkpoint camp
Jerome Turner

This lookout is the first of three camps maintained by the Wet’suwet’en and their allies. Beyond this point, past which conventional vehicles cannot go, lies the Gidimt’en checkpoint, where last year’s raid took place, at the 44-kilometre mark. The Unist’ot’en camp itself is at the 66-kilometre mark.

Despite how it’s often covered in the media, this is not all Unist’ot’en territory. The Unist’ot’en and Gidimt’en are different clans of the Wet’suwet’en. The first two camps are on the territory of different clans from the same nation.

Having previously covered the Wet’suwet’en, I was greeted warmly despite the frigid conditions. Being from the Gitxsan Nation helps considerably in this regard due to my understanding of northwest Indigenous protocol, and the shared history the Gitxsan have with the Wet’suwet’en Nation.

Checkpoint camp at the 39-kilometre mark
Jerome Turner

That shared history is part of the reason some allies have decided to be on the front lines of this stand. The Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa Canadian Supreme Court decision in 1997 determined that Indigenous oral history was permissible in Canadian courts, and found that the rights and title of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en are vested in our hereditary chiefs. These chiefs have led the resistance to pipelines that would be built through their land, and they have many allies among First Nations and settlers alike.

Neither the Wet’suwet’en nor Gitxsan have ever ceded control of their traditional territory to Canada, and the law of these lands is the ancient feast system.

Two canvas wall tents, donated by Gitxsan supporters, have been erected by the allies who guard the checkpoint at the 39-kilometre mark. Without them, the group would not be able to stay there in temperatures that can dip below −40 C. Work to upgrade the camp for safety and comfort has been ongoing since the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs issued an eviction notice to CGL on Jan. 4, 2020 — one day after the company was granted the expanded injunction.

Checkpoint camp at the 39-kilometre mark
Jerome Turner

Resolve at the 39-kilometre camp is strong, despite the potential for another RCMP raid, and its occupants are in good spirits.

Earlier this week B.C. Premier John Horgan said that the CGL project “will proceed.” He is currently conducting a fundraising tour of Northern B.C., but has decided not to visit the Wet’suwet’en. He will, however, visit the LNG terminal in Kitimat.

Green Party MLA and interim party leader Adam Olsen has said he will visit the camp and is expected to arrive Saturday morning.

I left with a promise to come back, and if all goes well Ricochet will be granted a visit to the Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en camps in the near future.

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