'Follow colonial laws or go to jail'

Wet’suwet’en people criminalized for standing firm on their own territory
Brandi Morin
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The sun is breaking through the rolling clouds that have brought heaps of rain to northern B.C. over several days in mid-July. Molly Wickham, also known by her Wet’suwet’en name of Sleydo’, stops in the rural town of Houston on the way to visit her mother in Smithers with her husband, Cody, and three children. She unloads her two-year-old daughter, Winïh, from her car seat in the truck. Winïh totters to catch up with her older sister Lily, 6, and brother, Liam, 11, as they race to frolic at a playground.

With her husband attending to the children, Wickham, dressed in a “Wet’suwet’en Strong” black hoodie and jeans, sits down at a picnic table nearby. She is part of the Gidimt’en Clan and her family live on its territory.

“You know, I never, ever want to take it for granted,” she says, referring to raising her children out on the yintah (Wet’suwet’en territory), about a two-hour drive up a mountainous road west of Houston, where the family has lived since Liam was a baby.

“I’m so in awe of them and so grateful for the way that they get to live. And so bewildered by how much they know.” She pauses and tucks a strand of her brown hair behind her ear.

“Just by living out there, by living on the land they know, and they understand more than I feel like I ever could because I didn’t grow up like that. It wasn’t instilled in me from childhood — I didn’t know the land, I didn’t learn that until I was in my thirties.”

Molly Wickham, AKA Sleydo’, holds her two year old daughter Winïh in Houston, B.C.
Brandi Morin

Wickham’s mother, June, was taken from her birth parents as a baby and adopted into a non-Indigenous family as part of what is known as the Sixties Scoop. Her mother, despite being displaced from her Indigenous culture and traditions, taught Wickham and her older sister Jennifer to be proud of their Indigenous identity. But it wasn’t until Wickham was in university that she began the journey of reconnecting to her roots. She was far away from home, in Victoria, and planning to become a lawyer when she decided to take an Indigenous governance degree program. That course, and the revelations that came with learning about her Indigenous culture, led her to move to her home territory on the yintah.

Since then, Wickham and her Haida husband have devoted their lives to the reclamation of Indigenous knowledge, governance, law, and living on the land.

But this way of life has come at a cost.

Facing criminal contempt charges

Taking a deep breath, Wickham opens up about the criminal charges she is facing for protecting her homelands.

“I feel like I’ve already sacrificed so much. That’s part of the work. I’ve sacrificed time with them (my children). But they understand what I’m doing to uphold our laws and do what I feel is my responsibility. Not only as a mother but also as a Wet’suwet’en woman.”

Last November, Wickham was arrested at gunpoint at a Wet’suwet’en resistance camp called Coyote, perched in the path of the Coastal GasLink pipeline being constructed near the sacred Wedzin Kwa River. She’s been leading opposition to the pipeline, taking direction from hereditary chiefs, and is often portrayed in media reports as a tenacious, unlawful warrior.

Wickham and a dozen other land and water defenders were strategically spread out across the territory, protecting the river from Coastal GasLink, which is poised to drill underneath it. Dozens of RCMP officers dressed in army fatigues, wielding AK-47 rifles and supported by snipers and attack dogs, ultimately used an axe to smash their way into a tiny house where Wickham was barricaded.

After spending nearly a week in jail, hundreds of kilometres from home, Wickham was released and barred from entering the area where the Coyote camp had been. On July 7, Crown prosecutors decided to pursue a criminal contempt charge against Wickham and 18 other land defenders for blockading the construction of the pipeline.

“And that’s what the whole purpose of criminalizing us is — to show other Indigenous people that you can’t do this. To try to break me down so that I don’t teach my kids to be who they are and to uphold their laws, but to only follow colonial laws or else you’re gonna go to jail.”

Wickham has been arrested before. She was pregnant with Winïh when she was arrested in 2019 after Wet’suwet’en land defenders and supporters blocked roadways to stop Coastal GasLink from accessing their territory.

But this is the first time she has faced criminal charges.

“I feel really angry that they (the Crown) could be taking more time away from me and my children.… It’s hard for me to think about.” She pauses again, tears rimming her blue eyes. “I spent 56 days away from my baby (Winïh) at Coyote camp … and that nearly killed me. She was 18 months old, and I was nursing her and that’s how I weaned her.… That’s how I had to wean her! Oh, my God… And I couldn't think about it at the time because otherwise, I wouldn't be able to do it. Like, I just had to be in that mode. It was like going to war.”

Pensively wiping her tears, she gazes at Winïh, admiring her children’s laughter while they play. Then a wave of outrage engulfs her, her demeanour shifting sharply.

“You know, these charges are gonna show them (my children) that they can’t be Wet’suwet’en, that they can’t uphold their laws.

“And that’s what the whole purpose of criminalizing us is — to show other Indigenous people that you can’t do this. To try to break me down so that I don’t do it and that I don’t try to tell other people to do it. That I don’t teach my kids to be who they are and to uphold their laws, but to only follow colonial laws or else you’re gonna go to jail.”

“In our history books, the land defenders will go down as heroes”

Gidimt’en Hereditary Chief Woos says he highly honours Wickham and the other land defenders for protecting Wet’suewet’en Yintah from the CGL pipeline.
Brandi Morin

Chief Woos, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief of the Gidimt’en Clan, on whose territory the arrests were made, hails Molly and the other land defenders as heroes.

Taking a break from a busy schedule travelling the vast territory he presides over to speak to Ricochet from Houston, Woos says the land defenders are doing what is honourable and right in his eyes.

“In our history books, Molly and the rest of the land defenders will go down as heroes,” he declares. He also wears a Wet’suwet’en hoodie, though of a different design.

“They defended the land and stood in front of the invaders. They stood in front of the guns. They stood in front of Canada, the RCMP, CGL. Their intention was to strike terror in our hearts, but they (land defenders) stood up. They will be accommodated with high honours. And it’s no different from any veteran that went to the world wars when they come back. It's the same thing for us.”

TC Energy, the company that owns Coastal GasLink, referred Ricochet to a statement on its website regarding the criminal charges. It states, in part,

“We are committed to delivering this critical energy infrastructure project and any risk to the safety of our workforce or others in the vicinity of the project route is of the greatest importance. Our work is fully authorized and permitted and has the unprecedented support of local and Indigenous communities across the project route.…

At Coastal GasLink the safety of our workforce, their families and the Indigenous and local communities is our number one priority, therefore we agree with the decision from the Crown to pursue criminal charges and hold the contemnors accountable for their actions. Since December 2018, Coastal GasLink has dealt with numerous violations of B.C. Supreme Court injunctions, which should allow us the continued safe access and construction of the project.”

Woos says he doesn’t believe the pipeline is viable in a world facing a climate crisis when most societies are shifting towards greener energy alternatives.

“They (Coastal GasLink) won’t win — that pipeline is just going to be sitting there. It’ll fall back on them. And anybody who got paid out, anybody who got involved with putting this pipeline together, they’re guilty by association. Destroying the environment, guilty of destroying water sources, destroying what the future generations wanted to enjoy.”

Lamprey Creek, where several species of salmon transverse. Not far from the creek is where a Wet’suewet’en feast hall is being constructed.
Brandi Morin

The consequences will be far-reaching if the pipeline gets up and running because it will endanger the river systems and all life that’s sustained there, he adds.

“Some say (the pipeline) is for freedom. Because freedom (means) the five or 10 years of being rich from it. And for the locals here, two or three years of having a good paycheque, and then after a while, they’re (CGL) going to forget about them and they’ll start saying, ‘Hey, where’s our money?’

“And we’re going to turn around and say, ‘You know, we tried to tell you’ … and we will help them even then. We always, always help people.”

Once banned by the federal government

Meanwhile, in Gidimt’en territory, the clan is building a feast hall near Lamprey Creek, which adjoins the Wedzin Kwa and was once a Wet’suwet’en village site (Tsel Kiy Kwa). It’s also close to where the pipeline is being built.

The feast hall system is integral to the Wet’suwet’en governance system and has been utilized for millennia. They were once banned by the federal government.

Before colonizing governments forced the Wet’suwet’en from their 22,000-square-kilometre traditional lands to designated reserve areas, they gathered near Lamprey Creek and other areas with numerous clans and tribes.

A feast hall being constructed on a former Wet’suewet’en village site next to Lamphrey Creek and the Wedzin Kwa River. The feast hall is integral to Wet’suewet’en culture and governance system.
Brandi Morin

“There was salmon harvested together, right along the Wedzin Kwa. And other visitors that were going through down to the southern areas of our territory. So the feast hall has high significance to us. It will revitalize the gathering places of all of our visitors and supporters or what have you nowadays,” says Woos.

The worries of the present seem to melt away and a look of elation with a full-faced smile forms as Woos expresses his pride over the reclamation of Wet’suwet’en ways. “It feels great. It brings strength to my spirit and I feel proud driving through our territory, knowing that this landmark is up now. By the fall time when everything is all completed, we’ll have a little ceremony. And everybody’s welcome.”

Wickham says Wet’suwet’en members are already lining up to request community events and some are eager to book weddings at the feast hall.

“There was a time with colonization and being burnt off the territories and being chased off the territories and the pass system and the Indian Act that the people moved away from the territory. It just seems natural that the next step is to start bringing our governance back to the territory and to have that space for not only our feast system to actually happen on the land and (affirm) our rich connection to the land. And it’s about our governance and our laws in this new beautiful feast hall built from the logs of the yintah by the hands of the Wet’suwe’ten.”

“Coastal GasLink won’t win — that pipeline is just going to be sitting there. It’ll fall back on them. And anybody who got paid out, anybody who got involved with putting this pipeline together, they’re guilty by association. Destroying the environment, guilty of destroying water sources, destroying what the future generations wanted to enjoy.”

The RCMP continue to patrol the roadways on the territory to scout for impeding land defenders. But for now they have stopped the daily harassment of those living at the Gidimt’en camp along the 44-kilometre mark of the industry road that Ricochet reported on in May.

Wickham believes the RCMP have scaled back their tactics due to a civil suit that members of the Wet’suwet’en filed in June against the RCMP and Coastal GasLink. The lawsuit states Sleydo’ and Wet’suwet’en Elders Janet Willams and her husband, Lawrence Basil, have been subject to a “relentless campaign of harassment and intimidation” on their unceded territory.

But Coastal GasLink employs a private security company that sits in parked trucks on both sides of the road outside of the Gidimt’en camp, continuously monitoring activity.

“They’re there 24/7. And they’re filming our children,” says Wickham.

Entrance to the Gidimt’en resistance camp at the 44km point of the Morice River Forest Service Road.
Brandi Morin

“They park where they can see in camp. And all the kids are running around and we have multiple times asked them not to do that, to move away. And (Coastal GasLink security) has actually gotten more aggressive since we filed our lawsuit. They’re coming closer, filming more. And they’re following anybody. If people have left camp and go up towards my house, they’ve been followed.”

Despite being surrounded by the occupying forces of the RCMP and Coastal GasLink, Wickham insists it will not deter the Wet’suwet’en from continuing to stake out a life on the lands of their ancestors.

“We are here and we will always be here.

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