The last of the untamed: Wedzin Kwa and the Wet’suwet’en fight to save her

A pure and sacred river lies at the heart of opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline
Amber Bracken

Cree, Iroquois and French journalist Brandi Morin spent several weeks in Wet'suwet'en territory earlier this month, accompanied by photojournalist Amber Bracken, to learn about the river at the heart of opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

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Winding through mountainous wilderness in the heart of Wet’suwet’en territories is a glistening, sacred river. The Wet’suwet’en call it Wedzin Kwa — “the blue and green river” — and cherish it for its purity and healing powers.

This river system has been revered by the Wet’suwet’en since time immemorial. Ancient village sites around and along the Wedzin Kwa attest to the rich history and long connections the Wet’suwet’en have to this waterway. For millennia the clans of the Wet’suwet’en have depended on the river and the sustenance it provides — in particular, the different species of salmon that traverse this inland channel and its tributaries to spawn through most of the year.

“There’s one area you’ll walk through and you can feel the spirit from the water. You can feel it for probably just a second and then it’s gone. It’s just letting you know that it’s sacred.”

Elder Betty Joseph, 67, from the Lik’silyu Clan, is known as one of the greatest living fisherwomen among the Wet’suwet’en. She grew up helping her grandparents harvest salmon in the summer months along the Moricetown Canyon, but it wasn’t until she turned 21 that she discovered she had a gift.

“My boyfriend went down with my kids to go fishing at five o’clock in the morning,” she recounts from her two-storey home on the Witset First Nation on a frigid January afternoon.

“They never came back so I went down to bring them some lunch. I was laughing at my boyfriend because he hadn’t caught anything. So I put a hook into the water and started pulling and I caught something pulling on the line. He was mad because he never caught one.” She chuckles, her wrinkled eyes gleaming with delight.

Elder Betty Joseph
Amber Bracken

By the time Joseph was 24, she was working for the Wet’suwet’en fisheries department as its only female employee. It wasn’t uncommon for her to fill her fishing baskets to the brim before anyone else did. People from all around the world heard about her fishing abilities and some came to visit from as far away as Australia, she says.

“You have to be strong and brave to be a good fisherwoman. And not be scared of the river, the fish,” she says, as “the river knows the difference.” Her ancestral connection to the river helps her to instinctively understand how to fish, she adds. But she has other tricks up her sleeve too.

“I usually stand on a rock. Then I lure them in with a song I made up and I sing to them. Then, you have to pull like hell against the current because they’re fast and strong.”

The work continues after the catch. Joseph carefully debones, cuts, jars and hangs the fish in her smokehouse.

“First, when it’s slimy, you hang it for a day. Then when the skin is all dry, that’s when you put it on the table and start deboning. I take it right to the backbone! Mine takes longer because I debone the whole fish. I use nose pliers and pull all those bones out.”

In one corner of her cluttered kitchen are stacked rows of cardboard boxes filled with jarred, orange-coloured salmon. This will last her and her family until the next season. To her, salmon represents life, and life for the next generation, including her 10 children, 27 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Suddenly her cheerful demeanour fades.

“This river system is.…” She squints her eyes in contemplation and sighs deeply. “Is at risk from these developments.”

She is referring, of course, to the notorious $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Elder Betty Joseph's stores of salmon
Amber Bracken

‘Civilize and assimilate’

The liquified natural gas pipeline is being constructed through approximately 190 kilometres of unceded Wet’suwet’en territories. CGL plans to run pipe underneath the Wedzin Kwa, potentially interrupting the salmon migration routes relied upon by the Wet’suwet’en and threatening the purity of the river’s drinking water.

“(CGL) just want to make their money their way and put that pipeline in,” says Joseph. “I don’t need pipeline gas because we’ve been living the way we are and we’re doing good. I don’t know why they need to put that through our land. They’re destroying all the places where we pick berries, fish and hunt.”

In late 2018 CGL obtained an injunction against land defenders blocking the right of way for the construction of the pipeline in Wet’suwet’en territories. Since then the RCMP have conducted three heavily armed raids, spending nearly $20 million to police the area near the Morice River Forest Service Road, which runs alongside the Wedzin Kwa for part of its route. The most recent raid took place in November 2021, at the Coyote resistance camp, which blocked the roadway leading to CGL’s drill pad site — where the company is preparing to drill under the river.

Coastal GasLink security stand guard at a checkpoint leading to the drill site next to the Wedzin Kwa River
Amber Bracken

The RCMP used attack dogs, sniper rifles, helicopters and a chainsaw to gain access to a tiny house containing unarmed Wet’suwet’en and supporters. Over two days police arrested, charged and jailed over a dozen land defenders, as well as two journalists. The RCMP have arrested more than 75 land defenders since enforcement of the injunction began.

CGL often defends its actions by referring to the consent it has obtained from 20 First Nations situated near the pipeline route. It sounds good, especially to a public that has little understanding of Indigenous governance — but what the company doesn’t acknowledge is that this consent comes through the elected chief and band council system, a colonial construct created via the Indian Act.

“The goal of Canadian Indian policy at that time was to ‘civilize and assimilate’ Aboriginal peoples into the dominant society,” notes a report from the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. “The elective system was a key feature of this program. Traditional political systems were generally regarded as a hindrance to acculturating Aboriginal people in the political mores of the dominant society. Consequently, the election provisions of the Act were ‘developed without any reference to previous tribal systems of government, and they were implemented with little sensitivity to traditional values.’ ”

“People that are lost in that system, the ones that are very colonized, don’t see our traditional values. That’s what colonization’s goal was. To separate people from the land and connection to the waters. To separate us from what matters.”

Band council officials only have authority within reserve boundaries, not over the traditional territories of their peoples, which are the responsibility of the hereditary chiefs. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders hold collective authority over what happens in their territories through Inuk Nuat’en (Our Own Law), which is the Wet’suwet’en legal system. This division of authority has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada.

“See, there’s no humanity in this,” says Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Namoks of the Tsayu Clan from his home in the Hagwilget village. He shakes his head and traces the outline of the wood-carved crest of his mother clan, the beaver, on his kitchen table.

“We are not considered human,” he says, adding that the more CGL and the police criminalize them for protecting their land, the more the public “believes that we’re less than human, so we shouldn’t be treated as humans.”

Chief Namoks
Amber Bracken

The Yintah — the Wet’suwet’en word for the land — is home to bald eagles, black and grizzly bears, deer, moose, beaver, weasels, martens, porcupines, coyotes, wolves and other critters that scurry across the ground and move through the trees in an inherent orchestra of harmony. The Wet’suwet’en continue to hunt, trap and harvest freshwater fish and gather berries, wild turnip and wild rice within this mountain paradise as their ancestors did before them.

The Wedzin Kwa is lined by jagged rocks and colourful forests made up of diverse tree species, including white spruce, black spruce, subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, birch, trembling aspen and black cottonwood. Within these woods and wet meadows is an abundant garden pharmacy of medicines derived from barks, roots and other vegetation.

Generations have passed down herbal remedies such as the use of balsam gum for wounds and burns or concoctions of wild-rose roots or juniper tips for coughs and colds. To stop bleeding, the Wet’suwet’en’s ancestors applied a paste made from the green roots of the cottonwood. These enchanting wildlands offer boundless prescriptions, even the neck of a bird that was used as a syringe to administer earth medicine to the veins of ailing ancestors. Huckleberries and niwus, or soap berries, are coveted. Niwus are harvested in late July and August and used to help treat the flu, indigestion, acne, gallstones and digestive problems.

The grandfather stones along the Wedzin Kwa’s riverbanks are heated and used in sweat baths, a spiritual cleansing ceremony usually undertaken inside a small structure covered with moss and hides. Sweats are an integral part of Wet’suwet’en cultural and spiritual life.

But the Yintah embodies more than just the physical environment, the animals, plants, water and geography. It is also intertwined with the humans who walk across it. All parts of the territories are interconnected and related to a greater whole. If the physical territories are harmed, the Wet’suwet’en’s bodies are harmed as well.

The path of the Coastal GasLink pipeline meets the Wedzin Kwa River
Amber Bracken

There’s a spot just walking distance from Namoks’ home that looks out over the Wedzin Kwa, the Hagwilget Canyon and a small stretch of riverbank where an ancient Wet’suwet’en village once stood. Namoks spent time there for family gatherings as a child.

It’s these traditions the Wet’suwet’en hold dear, explains Namoks, who is fiercely proud that his community of Hagwilget did not sign onto the CGL pipeline project. Police enforcement of an illegal injunction on sovereign Wet’suwet’en territories will not deter him from asserting Wet’suwet’en human and Indigenous rights.

“Do you think we’re going to quit?” he asks sternly, before smiling.

“We belong here,” he says. “They don’t care about clean water. They don’t care about the environment,” he says in reference to colonial governments, CGL, and the police. “And for them to think that we have no voice, it’s … very racist. But we know who we are. And Wedzin Kwa is a main river of ours. Our salmon — I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the salmon. I heard the Elders say before, ‘This house was built by salmon.’

“So they’re going to keep arresting us and putting us in jail, which is illegal. Our people are following our laws and they’re making them up as they go. There’s no law in Canada that’s supporting them.”

Mist over the Wedzin Kwa River
Amber Bracken

Salmon is life

The Wedzin Kwa flows from the headwaters of the Wedzin Bin (Morice Lake), which is fed by the glaciers of the surrounding coastal mountains, and runs more than 80 kilometres to join the Bulkley River near Houston, B.C. The Wet’suwet’en consider the Wedzin Kwa and the smaller Bulkley, named by a government cartographer rumoured to have never visited the region, to be one and the same.

From there the river runs 148 kilometres west through several Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities before joining the mighty Skeena River system that eventually meets the Pacific Ocean south of Prince Rupert.

For countless generations, Wet’suwet’en families have gathered at designated fishing grounds according to their clans at the start of the first run of salmon — the chinook — in mid-June. The five Wet’suwet’en clans are the Gilseyhu (Big Frog), Laksilyu (Small Frog), Gitdumden (Wolf/Bear), Laksamshu (Fireweed) and Tsayu (Beaver).

“The salmon feasts are a great celebration,” said Namoks, noting it’s a time for ceremony, giving thanks, and strengthening the bonds of community.

The clan groups line the edges of the rushing white waters to set their nets and fish by hand. The main fishing areas are in the Moricetown Canyon area — on the Witset reserve, approximately 34 kilometres west of the town of Smithers — and historically in the Hagwilget Canyon, another Wet’suwet’en community 35 kilometres west of Witset.

The return of the salmon is met with elaborate celebration, ceremony and feasting. Following the spring salmon comes the sockeye run, a community favourite due to its high fat content, which makes it ideal for smoke drying. However, over the last century, sockeye diversity has steadily diminished.

The crystal clear waters of the Wedzin Kwa
Amber Bracken

The last breeds of salmon, the coho and steelhead, arrive in late August and early fall, but are now less fished due to falling population numbers.

Nearly every home in the picturesque Wet’suwet’en villages of Witset and Hagwilget has a wooden smokehouse in the backyard — a landmark of old, exuding pride and symbolizing sustenance.

Fish are at the centre of Wet’suwet’en culture, according to the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, a non-profit organization governed by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs that focuses on management of their traditional territories, human and social services and governance. Their Wedzin Kwa is “pristine”; however, the surrounding territories have endured over a century of abuses in the form of mines, forestry, railways, highways and other roads, agriculture and the privatization of land.

The Office of the Wet’suwet’en say their territories, which could all be impacted directly and indirectly by the pipeline, are integral to Wet’suwet’en identity, governance, traditional practices of hunting and gathering, and the passing on of traditional knowledge to future generations. The pipeline, then, is an infringement on Wet’suwet’en title rights, which were recognized in the landmark 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia. The court held that Aboriginal title was not extinguished by European conquest and that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders collectively hold rights and title to their traditional territories.

That recognition, however, has done little to stop lower courts from issuing injunctions that criminalize hereditary leaders seeking to assert their right to say no to resource projects.

A tattered Canadian flag flies near Hagwilget
Amber Bracken

The Wet’suwet’en Yintah stretches across 22,000 square kilometres, and there are approximately 5,000 Wet’suwet’en members spread over 38 house territories. As a matrilineal society, the Wet’suwet’en are organized into several clans. Within each clan are kin-based groups known as Yiks, or house groups. Each house is an autonomous collective that has jurisdiction over one or more defined geographical areas known as the house territory.

The most significant demonstration of the spiritual connection between the houses and their territory is the feast hall, the bedrock governance system of the Wet’suwet’en, where they tell their stories and history and identify their territories. The feast has a ceremonial purpose, but is also the main venue for making important decisions. Thriving lands and healthy waterways are integral to feasting, which in turn is integral to Wet’suwet’en identity and culture. Spiritual songs and dances called kungax are a form of oral history about their ties to their land. Both feasting and kungax were used as evidence in the Delgamuukw case.

Wet'suwet'en families walking near the healing centre
Amber Bracken

A dream of victory

At the 66-kilometre mark of the Morice River Forest Service Road sits the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, set up over 10 years ago by matriarchs of the Wet’suwet’en Unist’ot’en Clan.

In 2020, following raids on two outlying camps protecting the healing centre that were occupied by young Wet’suwet’en land defenders, heavily-armed tactical police units swept through the site’s buildings, arresting Elders and hereditary leaders at gunpoint. Officers were photographed tearing down red dresses hung along the bridge, and throwing them to the ground. Red dresses are a symbol used to commemorate missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Now, in the centre’s dining room, four Unist’ot’en Elders visit with each other between sips of steaming homemade soup. They are siblings in their 60s and 70s who are also hereditary leaders. Warner William, chief name Knedebeas, is the head chief of the Unist’ot’en Clan. His sisters are wing-chiefs — Maskabu (Helen Mitchell); Lhtat’en (Doris Rosso); and Weli’ (Catherine Michell).

Weli’ leans across the table, her curious brown eyes peeking out above the rim of her glasses.

“What’s going on, huh? What I see is the river is nice and clear. It stays like that.” She gestures in wonderment. “It doesn’t get dirty in spring. And that’s what I love about it. It’s beautiful out here and it’s our drinking water too. We can drink straight from the river! And they (CGL) want to put a pipeline underneath it.”

The Unist'ot'en Healing Centre
Amber Bracken

But Weli’ is inspired by a recent dream she had of standing on the bridge connecting Gidimt’en territory to Unist’ot’en over the Wedzin Kwa. She stood in the middle of the bridge as a semi-truck hauling pipeline materials approached.

“I wasn’t going to move. I was going to let them run over me. Then the truck ran off the road! It didn’t get through, just like this pipeline is not going to get through,” she shouts while shaking her fists in the air, followed by laughter.

Her sister Lhtat’en joins the conversation, sharing how their father trapped on the surrounding Yintah. One of his campsites was beside a bridge put up by industry in recent years in front of the healing centre.

Sometimes they can hear their ancestors whispering to them from the forest, Lhtat’en says.

She speaks about the sacredness of the Wedzin Kwa and shares stories of relatives cured of sickness through drinking the water.

“I know that the water itself has lots of healing in it. My grandmother always told us of how powerful the water is. But it depends what you believe when you individually take it in. What you’re looking for. If you’re looking for healing, you get healing. So it’s up to you.” She winks with a nod.

Unist'ot'en leadership on the bridge outside the healing centre, Jan. 7, 2022. Left to right: Geltiy (Brenda Mitchell) , Howihkat (Freda Huson), Weli' (Catherine Michell), Oyate Tait, Knedebeas (Warner William), Lhtat'en (Doris Rosso), Maskabu (Helen Mitchell) and Karla Tait
Amber Bracken

There’s a special spot along the Wedzin Kwa that Weli’ says is especially spiritual. She nudges Freda Huson, seated next to her.

“Remember that spot?” she asks Huson. Then turning back, she leans in and shares, “There’s one area you’ll walk through and you can feel the spirit from the water. You can feel it for probably just a second and then it’s gone. It’s just letting you know that it’s sacred.”

Huson, who carries the name Chief Howihkat, left her home in Witset over 10 years ago to move out to the Yintah at the direction of her hereditary chiefs. They knew that industry was encroaching. Alongside allied Indigenous Nations, they helped stop the $7.9-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway crude oil pipeline. But soon other pipeline projects were on their doorstep.

Huson, 58, reclaimed the ways of her ancestors and asserted her rights to the territory. Her strength and ancestral knowledge grew. She says she experienced the healing powers of Wedzin Kwa; after having worn glasses for years, she drank from the river, and her eyesight was restored to 20/20 vision.

The healing centre draws its water directly from the river. In winter Huson treads a path from her nearby two-bedroom cabin, through the snow and trees, to pray at it.

Howihkat (Freda Huson) next to the Wedzin Kwa
Amber Bracken

“I think a lot of people nowadays don’t have connections to the land,” says Huson, who recently travelled to Sweden to accept the Right Livelihood Award, an international environmental prize.

“They’re very colonized — pretty much spiritually dead. The ones that signed the agreements with CGL are looking at the money, the jobs. It’s short term, not long term.”

In the 2020 raid, Huson, fierce in spirit if small in stature at 4’11, was arrested along with her sister Brenda Mitchell and niece Karla Tait for blocking CGL from entering Unist’ot’en territories.

“People that are lost in that system, the ones that are very colonized, don’t see our traditional values. That’s what colonization’s goal was. To separate people from the land and connection to the waters. To separate us from what matters.”

Knedebeas remembers travelling by canoe with his father on Wedzin Kwa when he was young. The two once camped beside the river, trapping and hunting for a month and braving the unpredictable wilds of Mother Nature.

His shoulders slump as he considers the threats to Wedzin Kwa and CGL’s plans to drill under her.

“It’s a tough battle,” he says, dressed in a plaid flannel winter jacket, blue jeans and a Calgary Flames ball cap.

“They (CGL) already have a playbook from the federal and provincial governments and all that. And then now we met with them and they claimed they were going to work hard at listening to us. And then they’d tell us what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it.

“And then after it's done, you find out they do it the way (they wanted to)” and all those discussions have “gone by the wayside.”

Despite multiple meetings with Coastal GasLink, the Wet’suwet’en say their concerns have never been taken into consideration.

The Wet’suwet’en are concerned about the effects of disrupted habitats caused by the pipeline. One of the biggest fears is that disturbances to critical salmon and freshwater fish grounds — which are already threatened — will increase fish stress, disease, mortality and impede growth, reproduction and survival.

Karla Tait, Brenda's daughter and Freda's niece, is a psychologist who lives at the healing centre with her daughter, Oyate
Amber Bracken

The pipeline will cross through approximately 190 kilometres of the Yintah in unstable, mountainous terrain. It is also susceptible to earthquakes.

“The proposed pipeline would be vulnerable to terrain stability issues, surface water issues, and catastrophic events such as forest fires that could damage pipeline integrity or cause explosions due to pipe leakage,” reads a 2014 report filed by the Office of the Wet’suwet’en to the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office and CGL. “Slope stability, surface water issues, and catastrophic events pose significant threats to the proposed pipeline project throughout large portions of the 190 km corridor, which would overlie Wet’suwet’en territory.”

Walter Joseph, from the Laksamisyu Clan, is the fisheries manager at the Office of the Wet’suwet’en. He said the salmon in the Wedzin Kwa and adjoining Skeena, which make up the largest salmon run in Northern B.C., are already threatened.

“It’s a struggle,” he tells Ricochet by telephone. “Right now, the stock that’s really in trouble is the chinook. There were lots of big chinook when I started 25 years ago, people had no trouble catching them. But now there’s an issue throughout B.C. and chinook stocks are really declining.”

The reasons are not fully understood, he notes, but the salmon are sensitive to changes in stream, estuary and ocean conditions.

However, all species of salmon the Wet’suwet’en depend on are threatened by any development, he adds.

Images of salmon decorate a building in Hazelton, B.C.
Amber Bracken

“The community is concerned that all the salmon stocks must go by that (CGL) site. And yet, you have to depend on a company that people just don’t trust… If they don’t do it properly then wiping out fish stocks (we) depend on is a risk the community really has trouble with.”

He points out that CGL has already had problems meeting the conditions set by the Environmental Assessment Office.

The pipeline route cuts through hundreds of lakes, rivers, and streams. One major concern is that sediment from the project could damage water habitats and suffocate fish eggs.

In November, the Environmental Assessment Office issued two enforcement orders to CGL, saying the company had failed to address issues related to erosion and sediment after being told to do so in 2020. However, the Environmental Assessment Office has been slow to impose penalties.

CGL says construction of the pipeline is more than 60 per cent complete, with over 200 kilometres of pipe installed. A company representative told Ricochet by email that “the project route being built is fully permitted,” which includes authorization for microtunneling under the Wedzin Kwa. The company says it has undertaken extensive technical and environmental assessments, and cites microtunnelling as the “safest” way to drill under the river. This method involves use of a hydraulic jack and a tunnel boring machine to push pieces of concrete through the soil underneath the river. The pipeline will then go through the resulting tunnel.

It “does not disturb the stream or the bed and banks of the river and will protect the fish and their habitat,” says CGL. “Micro-tunneling is one of the most expensive and precise drilling methods, with machines operated using state-of-the-art technology which makes it possible to use in all kinds of ground conditions, ranging from silt to clay to gravel and rock.”

CGL’s track record isn’t good. The company has already bulldozed through Wet’suwet’en archeological sites and ancient burial grounds, including the Kweese War Trail, where Wet’suwet’en warriors who had fought trespassers died centuries ago, according to Wet’suwet’en oral history.

“I wonder, how would they feel standing on their grandfather’s grave?” remarks an irritated Namoks. “Not too long ago Wet’suwet’en killed trespassers on our territory. It was serious business.”

The moon over the Wet'suwet'en Yintah
Amber Bracken

‘It’s precious to us’

Janet Williams, 67, a Gidimt’en Clan member and water protector is moving out to live on her Yintah full-time with her husband, Lawrence. The two lived at the resistance camp dubbed “44” for over six months in 2020.

The mother hen, affectionately called Auntie Janet by all who know her, is boldly protective of the Yintah, as well as the jailed land defenders whom she says have been treated badly by police. She says she’s willing to put her body on the line for the Wedzin Kwa because she is one with the river.

Auntie Janet
Amber Bracken

“It’s the only pristine water we have left. It’s really precious to us. There’s nothing like it, nowhere. But the CGL, they don’t understand. It’s all money, it’s all they want. They’ve already destroyed all kinds of our animals and berries, we can’t pick berries anymore.”

Last fall Auntie Janet and other land defenders found dozens of dead salmon in migrating currents of Lamprey Creek not far from the 44 resistance camp. She says they died from the impacts of the pipeline construction on the creek. For two days she stayed in the bush on the CGL right-of-way to block workers from getting in.

Gidimt'en camp, also known as 44
Amber Bracken

“I stood there all day long,” she proudly proclaims, arms crossed, sitting back on her beige rocking chair in her home in Telkwa. “And the second day it was just pouring rain. They (CGL) called the police and they tried to read me the injunction to try to arrest me. I knocked down all their pink work zone flags with the RCMP officer following me. I said, ‘This is my territory! I’m not leaving!’ ”

The Wetsuwet’en, like all Indigenous Nations, have already survived the horrors of colonization: disease and epidemics, prohibitions on the use of their own language, removal from their homelands, corralment on government-sanctioned reserves, racist laws, criminalization of cultural practices, children stolen and taken to residential schools where thousands died, the ongoing state removal of Indigenous children from their homes, a genocide of Indigenous women and girls, and the intergenerational trauma of it all.

But the traditional people of the Wet’suwet’en are determined to see this battle through, to save the lifeblood of their territory, Wedzin Kwa.

Auntie Janet and the other Wet’suwet’en land defenders believe their ancestors are with them.

“They’re telling me not to give up. They’re telling me to save our last pristine water. Once that’s destroyed there’s going to be nothing left — we are all connected. The CGL pipeline is not going to happen, as long as I live! But we need help, we need everyone to please help us.”

The Wedzin Kwa River
Amber Bracken
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