Legal observer training in Wet’suwet’en territory
By Noah Ross, March 2020
In this guest post, Noah Ross discusses his experience offering legal observer training in Wet’suwet’en territory with financial support from Sierra Club BC. Noah is a lawyer and third generation settler who lives in Black Creek on Pentlatch territories and works for the Jack Woodward Law Firm, practicing Aboriginal law. He was part of the legal team representing the Unist’ot’en camp in a legal challenge against Coastal GasLink’s injunction in 2019 and is a member of the Wet’suwet’en Solidarity Legal Crew which organizes legal observers on Wet’suwet’en territories.
In January 2020, Wet’suwet’en activists made a request for legal observers to assist them as it became clear that the RCMP would begin the process of enforcing the injunction granted to Coastal GasLink by Madam Justice Church of the British Columbia Supreme Court on December 31, 2019.
On the basis of Sierra Club BC funding, myself and Irina Ceric of the Wet’suwet’en Solidarity Legal Collective were able to join Carl Williams of the Water Protector Legal Collective in providing legal observer trainings between January 20 – 25. Six legal observer trainings were conducted at land defender camps, in Smithers and online for approximately 65 people.
Legal observers are typically people who are trained to observe the activities of law enforcement with the purpose of supporting people at an action by building evidence that can be used in court to protect them against charges by state authority or potentially to report misconduct by state actors. We adapted standard legal observer training to the context of land based camps and villages. Wet’suwet’en land defenders called for legal observers to protect land defenders from state violence in the case of RCMP raids and to build the legitimacy of narratives coming out of the camps. Due to the trainings supported by Sierra Club BC, legal observers were present at most of the raids that took place and legal observers provided key material for BC Civil Liberties Association complaints regarding the RCMP checkpoints, available here
The first training we held was for four people inside Woos’ cabin at the 44 kilometre Gitdumden camp using pieces of wood and benches as seats while the camp radio crackled in the background. The next night we spoke to over 20 people at the Unist’ot’en camp in a brightly lit dining hall while media recorded our talk.
At all the workshops, it was clear that the movement supporting the Wet’suwet’en land defenders was made up of intelligent and knowledgeable Indigenous folks and supporters that were all committed to following the direction of Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership. The feeling of a common purpose and commitments was palpable and laughter came quick.
This was as true at the supply camp at kilometre 39 just as it was at Unist’ot’en camp, where many supporters and Unist’ot’en house members have lived together for years. Everywhere we went, people seemed satisfied to be contributing to enacting Wet’suwet’en sovereignty on their traditional lands and resisting the Coastal GasLink pipeline while doing it. CGL had been off work on Unist’ot’en territory for 3 weeks and it was gratifying to think of the animals, which had been seen in increased numbers, having the land to themselves, renewing their trails in the fresh snow while CGL’s machines and the CGL man camp on Unist’ot’en territory lay quiet.