Another raid, more arrests and yet another Wet’suwet’en distress call spreading across social media jarred me out of my daily routine last Wednesday. Within hours I’d be on the road, driving through the night to bear witness to the RCMP’s latest armed incursion onto unceded Wet’suwet’en territory.
Gidimt’en Checkpoint in so-called northern B.C. is a former ancestral Wet’suwet’en village site, now turned into a reclamation camp by land defenders opposing the multi-billion dollar Coastal GasLink liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline project. On that quiet spring morning, its unsuspecting occupants were once again stormed by an army of RCMP officers — members of the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) unit created to police Indigenous resistance to resource extraction projects.
I live over 1,000 kilometers away, but the remote location means not many journalists can get up there to cover these raids, and police have been known to use violence and even lie in these situations. Something with which I, sadly, have first hand experience. The presence of media matters, we act as a public witness to document what happens and hold everyone accountable.
So, I dropped everything and scrambled to get there. All I knew was that 14 RCMP C-IRG vehicles had pulled up carrying over a dozen officers with a warrant to search the premises.
The warrant stemmed from an alleged “swarming” incident reported to the RCMP by the pipeline company, Coastal Gas Link (CGL) on March 26. According to police, a CGL security worker was “swarmed by a large group of individuals wearing masks and camouflage at the 43 kilometer mark of the Morice River Forest Service Road.” The officers say they were searching for a chainsaw bearing a specific serial number, “olive drab-coloured masks” and “coyote brown fatigues” — in other words, they were looking for evidence the land defenders were involved in the incident.
“They (RCMP) didn’t find anything they were looking for,” says Jennifer Wickham, Gidimt’en Clan member and media coordinator. She’s also the older sister of Gidimt’en spokesperson Molly Wickham, who is out of town on a trip with her mother. Molly is often at the forefront of the Wet’suwet’en resistance, leading the crew at Gidimt’en Checkpoint and asserting their rights and opposition to the pipeline.
“We were totally taken by surprise,” Jennifer sighs. She says she’s exhausted but not deterred in her fight to uphold Wet’suwet’en rights.
“We know that CGL lies. We know that the RCMP lie. And folks were wanting to confirm that this was a legitimate search warrant. People were thrown to the ground for asking to read the warrant. We are now in recovery from the shock and the trauma.”
‘We've declared reconciliation dead’
I’ve been covering this real life epic story for several years. It is an archetypal tale of right and wrong, good versus evil, and holding the powerful to account. In this story, those in power are armed with money, guns, and state power.
It’s a saga where human lives, their rights, the land, water and Mother Earth are under imminent threat. It involves a tyrannized nation of Indigenous Wet’suwet’en clans rising up against resource companies seeking to punch an industrial corridor through the tranquil woods and rivers they have called home since time immemorial.
They are protecting a deep connection to their culture, their bloodlines, and the spirit and traditions that compel them to rise, survive and thrive after genocide on their ancestral homelands — homelands that have never been surrendered to be squandered by colonial greed and extraction.
These territories are intact and are some of the most pristine on the planet: soaring mountains and forest-covered valleys, clear air, unpolluted rivers, and wildlife cared for by the Indigenous Peoples who have lived here forever.
This is unceded territory — meaning it was never given up, never sold or ceded by Treaty by the Natives here. Despite efforts to divide these communities with the offer of jobs and money, Wet’suwet’en traditional leaders have never given consent for the pipeline project to cross their lands.
Molly Wickham, along with two Wet’suwet’en elders, Janet Williams and Lawrence Basil, filed a lawsuit against CGL and the RCMP last year. The civil claim states that RCMP and CGL’s private security are overstepping the boundaries of the injunction leaving the Wet’suwet’en members subject to a “relentless campaign of harassment and intimidation,” on their unceded territory.
“We’ve declared reconciliation dead,” says Jennifer.
The landmark 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision, Delgamuukw v British Columbia, recognized that this territory was unceded and that the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en, acting on behalf of all their peoples, are the rightful title holders.
Yet over the past several years CGL, along with the Province of B.C., the Government of Canada, and the RCMP have invaded Wet’suwet’en territory over and over again to quash resistance to a pipeline that will exploit Wet’suwet’en lands and extract profit for distant shareholders.
CGL obtained an injunction from the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 2019 to “restrain” anyone “occupying, obstructing, blocking, physically impeding or delaying access” anywhere near Morice River Bridge and the area accessed by the Morice West Forest Service Road.
CGL has since weaponized the colonial court system and its enforcers, the RCMP, to bulldoze over the human rights of the Wet’suwet’en people.
The RCMP now have a permanent station with multiple outbuildings tucked into a cleared opening in the bush along the service road. They’re on standby to arrest and jail anyone who stands in the way of the pipeline.
These actions have been condemned by human rights organizations like Amnesty International and even the United Nations. Yet the pipeline project continues to beat a path of injustice through these marginalized peoples.
A massive pipeline running through pristine wilderness
Wet’suwet’en territory had been quiet for a few months, even as CGL began drilling underneath the sacred Wedzin Kwa’ River in the fall. I saw the hearts of the land defenders breaking as their worst nightmare unfolded. Their sacred and beloved river and all the life it helps sustain was at risk as a massive drill began tunneling beneath the river to make way for the 48-inch diameter LNG pipeline.
Once completed, the pipeline will span 670 kilometers and will transport fracked gas from Dawson Creek, B.C. to a liquefaction plant in Kitimat on the North Pacific coast. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders assert authority over 22,000 square kilometers of the pipeline route, and have never backed down on their intention to refuse it passage through their territories.
There’s a lot at stake for the company and the governments that endorse it. It’s the largest private sector investment in Canadian history, costing $14.5 billion and counting. Off-shore sales to Asia where the LNG will be shipped are also on the line,and once completed international trade agreements mean shutting it down would likely generate multi-billion dollar lawsuits. Governments often proclaim projects like these are in the national interest of Canada, as if that alone erases the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, CGL insists the pipeline is good for the environment because it will help the world transition off oil — a claim experts describe as just more industry greenwashing.
When the drill did show up last fall it seemed the Wet’suwet’en land defenders’ hands were already tied, with no real hope to stop the monstrous ravaging of their Yintah (land). Yet they’ve remained there, engaging in their cultural practices, ceremonies, and working to recover from past and ongoing trauma.
On Thursday, I pulled up to the 15-foot-high fenced gateway at the entrance to Gidimt’en Checkpoint. A masked land defender slowly opened the gate, and I immediately felt a deafening heaviness in the air.
Two of Gidimt’en Hereditary Chief Woos’ daughters live there and their demeanor seemed uneasy. There was little to no conversation as a group of Gidimt’en community members and their supporters gathered to share a soup lunch in the canvas-tented kitchen.
Jocey Alec, Woos’ daughter, had been slammed down to the ground by two RCMP officers, arrested, jailed and then released the day before. She told me she was arrested for not moving out of the way fast enough to a designated police “safe zone” during the raid.
The deep red scars from the cuffs on her tiny wrists were swelling along with her frustration. Alec has been relentlessly tormented by nightmares of RCMP squadrons stemming from a previous traumatic arrest in 2021.
‘The intergenerational trauma hits when we see the police’
I learned about a 18-year-old Wet’suwet’en girl whose mother recently sent her up to the Gidimt’en camp because she was struggling on the reserve. Her mother wanted her to be exposed to the land and culture in hopes she could heal through this challenging time in her life.
She thought it was safe to send her daughter to the comforting territory of her foremothers. But when the raid happened, the girl was in a cabin alone and frightened by the commotion she heard outside. She locked the doors and refused to come out. The RCMP ordered her to open the door and once inside a male officer barked, “You better stand aside, or things are going to get rough.”
The girl, whose name we are withholding, was left shaken and alone after the police left the area with the land defenders they’d arrested. Her mother messaged me to share her outrage over what happened.
“The intergenerational trauma hits us to our very core when we see the police,” she wrote, referring to the long history of violence and racist treatment of Indigenous Peoples by police.
“I’m so upset this happened to her. It’s wrong.”
A young man with long, black braided hair, oversized sunglasses and a wool toque introduces himself to me as Forest, a member of the Gidimt’en Clan, in the House of Where it Lies Blocking the Trail. He’s friendly, soft spoken, and agrees to share his account of the raid.
Forest tells me he’s been living at Gidimt’en for a couple of weeks. There’s nothing like being out in the fresh air, he says, and he relishes the peace that comes with being in the rugged wilderness. He used to guide rafting tours on the Wedzin Kwa but had to stop last summer because of harassment from RCMP officers camped out along the riverbank near the pipeline construction site.
He wasn’t arrested during last week’s raid, but he says he saw police punch a land defender in the head. He was in Houston at the time, a town about 45 minutes down the mountain, and had driven up to Gidimt’en that morning. Along the way he noticed an ambulance parked near the 27-kilometer mark on the road and found it “weird.” He wondered, was the ambulance waiting to whisk land defenders to hospital in case the RCMP hurt them during the raid?
He feels annoyed that this keeps happening on his own territory, he added. Then he said something jarring.
“We’ve been dealing with this for over 200 years. They take. They took my grandmother out of her home to residential schools. They’ve even taken my aunties and uncles.”
His words make my guts churn with pain and disgust. I know what they did. My family was affected by the horrors of residential schools, too.
“They were ripped out of their homes by RCMP (officers) hired by the government to try to take the culture away from them. And it’s just been an ongoing process.”
Forest vows to stay on to protect his way of life, the land, and the water.
CGL act like owners
Another one of Woos’ daughters who lives at the Gidimt’en checkpoint, and asked not to be named, nods towards me and says, “We just, we’re all still processing what happened yesterday. It’s been really, really difficult. I don’t think anyone else is ready to do an interview.”
I get it — who wants to relive the terror of masked, tough-talking cops carrying weapons capable of extreme violence, rummaging through all your belongings, and hauling your friends off to jail?
The adrenaline was still coursing through everyone’s veins — land defenders are showing signs of PTSD, startled by a car door slamming, paranoia, outbursts of tears or anger, or both.
I stayed a while to observe the atmosphere and wondered if the C-IRG unit would return before the warrant expired Friday at 9 p.m.
Jennifer Wickham says in the days leading up to the raid, CGL security personnel attempted to record video footage of the inside of the camp from the gate.
CGL appears to have taken full possession of territories it has no claim to. I noticed a significant increase in the number of CGL security trucks parked on the Morice River Forest Service Road, along with large wooden signs with text of the injunction posted at various spots. This and the constant flow of industry and police vehicles have turned this remote single-lane road through the woods into a sort of industrialized passageway.
“The RCMP were following and harassing our territory monitors (last week), our Wet’suwet’en people that were out doing cultural activities. I think the RCMP, CGL and the governments are acting with impunity and there’s nobody holding them accountable,” says Jennifer.
The next morning, I met with Gidimt’en Hereditary Chief Gisday’wa in Smithers. He drove to the Gidimt’en checkpoint after learning about the police raid and read the warrant. He pointed out that the warrant states Gidimt’en territory is Crown land — something he was quick to refute.
“I said to the people out there, ‘This is bullshit,’” says the unassuming 80-year-old former logger, dressed in a red plaid jacket and baseball cap. He’s a straight talker when it comes to the lands he has authority over.
“There’s no such thing as Crown land. This is all Native land. And I really think this is something (RCMP) dreamt up to harass the people out there. And I think that’s crap.”
He wants the world to know the truth of how his people are being treated and how the land is being disrespected.
“They (Canada and CGL) don’t care about the land. All they care about is the money… we don’t want the money. We want our land. Once we pollute this river that’ll be it. Everything down the line… our fish will be gone, once our fish are gone our wildlife will be gone. And once they’re gone, we’ll be right behind them.”
He tells me his hope is in the youth — the next generation will be key to saving their way of life.
“We’re doing this for our grandkids and great grandkids. When they grow up and when we’re gone, we don’t want them fighting the industry and the government for what’s theirs. Every time I hold a newborn baby up, I tell them, ‘baby, you’re going to change the world, you’re going to get everything back for us.’ That’s what I pray.”
I reached out to the RCMP with questions regarding the raid and other recent actions on the Wet’suwet’en territory. So far, I’ve been met with silence. They responded to a series of questions from one of my editors with an email containing only a link to their press release.
Meanwhile, the land defenders tell me they are recuperating while preparing for the arrival of spring at the camp.
“We’re going to continue to be here,” says Jennifer Wickham, “and we’re going to continue to show them that we will not be intimidated and will not be harassed out of our inherent rights as Wet’suwet’en People, and our responsibility to protect our Yintah and Wedzin Kwa.”