Over this past week, there has been an explosion of media coverage about Indigenous rights and title as a result of the RCMP raid of both the Gitdumden and Unist’ot’en camps. On Tuesday January 8, tens of thousands of people showed up to solidarity events held in cities and towns across Canada to denounce the use of police force against Wet’suwet’en people asserting their rights on their own unceded territory. Sierra Club BC stands in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people as they assert their jurisdiction over their unceded lands and waters (read our statement here).
In a statement released yesterday, hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs stated that in order to avoid violence they have reached an agreement temporarily allowing Coastal GasLink employees to work behind the checkpoint, but that the pipeline will never be built on their territory. These chiefs are asking people around the world to support them in their ongoing struggle to assert their rights and title and protect their lands and waters.
A number of our membership, wanting to better understand the situation, have reached out to us to ask questions. We’ve begun to answer these to the best of our ability below (and we’ve created a tool where you can write a letter of support). We also encourage people to keep doing their own research. The Office of the Wet’suwet’en provides detailed information on the nation’s hereditary chiefs and governance system. For analysis of Indigenous legal orders and hereditary governance systems more broadly, we recommend you check out the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria which hosts a wealth of resources on their website.
Who are the Unist’ot’en?
The Unist’ot’en (C’ihlts’ehkhyu / Big Frog Clan) are one of five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Wet’suwet’en territory spans 22,000 square km in northwest BC west of Smithers. It has never been ceded or surrendered by the Wet’suwet’en people, who have occupied their territory for millennia.
The Unist’ot’en checkpoint was established on April 1, 2009. Since then a cabin, healing lodge and pit house have been constructed, as well as a bunkhouse for visitors. The camp is used year-round for healing retreats, culture camps and living. The gated entrance to the camp is on a forest service road about 120 km southwest of Smithers at the Morice River Bridge. Coastal GasLink proposes to build a natural gas pipeline to cross the bridge. The 670 kilometre pipeline project would link the fracking fields of Northeastern BC with a huge liquid gas export terminal in Kitimat. Called LNG Canada, this project is made up of oil and gas companies from China, Japan, Korea and Malaysia, along with Royal Dutch Shell.
Under the Wet’suwet’en hereditary governance system, the Unist’ot’en House Chiefs from the clan have full decision making power (in consultation with their House members) over the lands and waters on their territory. The Unist’ot’en chiefs have not given their consent for the pipelines to go through their territory and say that they never will.
Coastal GasLink applied for an injunction in November 2018 in order to gain access for its workers to cross the checkpoint to start clearing the pipeline route. The BC Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction in December, prohibiting anyone from blocking the bridge, as well as ordering the checkpoint to be dismantled within 72 hours. The Unist’tot’en have refused to dismantle their checkpoint. However, following the destruction of property and arrests at Gitdumden by RCMP earlier this week, the Unist’ot’en are temporarily allowing Coastal Gas behind the checkpoint to work.
Who are Gitdumden?
The Gitdumden are another of the five Wet’suwet’en clans, and they neighbor Unist’ot’en. When the Unist’ot’en camp declined to take down their checkpoint, a decision was made in the feast hall by all Wet’suwet’en leadership that the second Gitdumden checkpoint would be established. The BC Supreme Court injunction was expanded on January 4 to include the Gitdumden checkpoint as well. On the afternoon of Monday January 7, police broke down a wooden gate and arrested 14 people at the Gitdumden Checkpoint. All of these individuals have now been released, and a number of them have been charged with court dates pending.
How does the hereditary governance system of the Wet’suwet’en people function?
The Wet’suwet’en peoples have occupied their territory for thousands of years and have a complex and sophisticated governance system. Just as Canadian law takes years of study and learn, so too does Wet’suwet’en law.
Indigenous legal scholar John Borrows has provided the following overview, “For millennia, their histories have recorded their organization into Houses and Clans, in which hereditary chiefs have been responsible for the allocation, administration and control of their traditional lands. Within these Houses, chiefs pass on important histories, songs, crests, lands, ranks and properties from one generation to the next. The passage of these legal, political, social and economic entitlements is witnessed through Feasts. These Feasts substantiate the territories’ relationships. A hosting House serves food, distributes gifts, announces the House’s successors to the names of deceased chiefs, describes the territory, raises totem poles and tells the oral history of the House. Chiefs from other Houses witness the actions of the Feast and at the end of the proceedings they validate the decisions and declarations of the Host House.” 
All of the hereditary leaders from all of the five clans have withheld consent for new pipeline construction across Wet’suwet’en territories.
What is the formal relationship of the hereditary governance system of the Wet’suwet’en people to the elected band council system?
In a press conference yesterday, Premier John Horgan referred to the challenge of bringing together the “historic band councils” with the “emerging” hereditary systems of governance. In fact, the relationship is reversed. While the hereditary system has existed for millennia and precedes European arrival on the continent, the Band council system was introduced by the federal government in 1876 and imposed on Indigenous Nations through the Indian Act, as part of a post-Confederation assimilation policy.
As it is currently structured, each reserve community within a territory has an election for Chief and Council every few years. The elected Chief and Council under the Indian Act are primarily responsible for things that happen on reserves like water, housing, schools, infrastructure and other issues that affect membership. There are five elected band councils on Wet’suwet’en territory, four of whom have signed agreements with Coastal Gaslink. However, hereditary leaders say those agreements don’t apply to the territories off reserve.
The imposition of the Indian Act band council system over top of hereditary systems has created ongoing tensions in many communities.
The CBC’s Angela Sterritt has written an excellent piece on the differences between elected and hereditary leadership.
What is the relevance of the Delgamuukw decision in relation to the Wet’suwet’en?
Many Canadians have heard of the important 1997 Delgamuukw decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, which recognized that Aboriginal title continues to exist over land and water where Indigenous nations have never signed a treaty with the Crown. The territory referred to in the court decision is Wet’suwet’en territory as well as neighboring Gitxsan territory.
The Delgamuukw case was framed around traditional hereditary leadership. Delgamuukw is a chief’s name in the Gitxsan Nation, passed down through generations, and Delgamuukw was one of dozens of plaintiffs in the case, composed of hereditary chiefs from both the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations. Together those leaders forced the Canadian courts to affirm the legitimacy of their oral histories, traditional laws and continuing governance of their lands.
Peter Grant, the lawyer for the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs has stated that hereditary chiefs need to give their free, prior and informed consent in order for the pipeline to be built: “We agree the rule of law has to apply, but doesn’t that mean that when there’s recognition of the proper title holder you deal with the proper title holder?”
On January 9, Unist’ot’en Camp released a statement on the emerging situation, saying “We paved the way with the Delgamuukw court case and the time has come for Delgamuukw II. We have never had the financial resources to challenge the colonial court system, due to the enormous price tag of an Aboriginal title case. Who will stand with us to make sure this pipeline does not go through?”
What is the relevance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to this conflict?
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) represents the basic principles and minimum standards that should guide states in their dealings with Indigenous peoples.[i] Canada became a full signatory (removing previous objections) to UNDRIP in 2016, and both the federal and BC provincial governments have committed to full implementation of UNDRIP. The Canadian government defines UNDRIP as a document that describes both individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples around the world.[ii]
A number of articles of UNDRIP are relevant to this conflict, in particular Article 10 which states: “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”[iii]
So what does all of this mean?
At the heart of this conflict is conflicting perspectives over who holds the ultimate jurisdiction for decisions made about resources. While much of the media is framing this as a “pipeline protest” the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership view this as exercising their legal right to assert their authority to control what occurs on their territory.
The Wet’suwet’en leadership are getting ready to launch another title case to protect their territory and assert their jurisdiction. They have launched a fundraising page to support this future legal challenge.
We hope this clarifies the complex nature of what at first might appear to simply be opposition to a pipeline, but is in fact, a much more complex case of who holds authority and how natural resources are managed on unceded territories.
What can I do to support?
Donate to the Unist’ot’en Camp Legal Fund to support the Wet’suwet’en rights and title case.
Donate to the Office of the Wet’suwet’en by mailing a cheque to: 205 Beaver Road, Suite #1 Smithers B.C. V0J 2N1 (We will provide updates if/when other ways of donating become available).
Host a solidarity event: See the International Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en event page.
Send a letter to Premier Horgan and Prime Minister Trudeau using our online letter tool.
Call provincial and federal ministers:
BC Premier John Horgan (250) 387-1715
Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser (250) 953-4844
Attorney General David Eby (250) 387-1866
MLA for Stikine (Wet’suwet’en territory) and Forests Minister Doug Donaldson (250) 387-6240
Energy Minister Michelle Mungall (250) 953-0900
Your local MLA and MP
Prime Minister Trudeau (613) 992-4211
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett (613) 995-9666
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (613) 992-1416
Follow news updates on the ongoing situation in Wet’suwet’en territory:
Unist’ot’en Camp @UnistotenCamp unistoten.camp
Gidimt’en Checkpoint @gidimt
Chantelle Bellrichard @pieglue (Indigenous journalist onsite)
Michael Toledano @M_tol (Photographer/journalist onsite)
Amber Bracken @photobracken (Photographer/journalist onsite)
Jesse Winter @jwints (Journalist onsite)
Harsha Walia @HarshaWalia (Ally)
#WetsuwetenStrong #Wetsuweten #Unistoten #UnistotenCamp
Indigenous sources of news, commentary and information on Indigenous issues, rights and title:
Union of BC Indian Chiefs @UBCIC ubcic.bc.ca
Yellowhead Institute @yellowhead_institute (Indigenous think tank) yellowheadinstitute.org
Indigenous Law Research Unit @ilruuvic website
Aboriginal Peoples Television Network @APTN aptn.ca
Walking Eagle @TheEagleist (Indigenous satire) walkingeaglenews.com
Tracey Lindberg @traceylindberg (Cree writer, scholar)
Kris Statnyk @gwitchin_kris (Gwitchin lawyer, Mandell Pinder LLP)
Jess Housty @heiltsukvoice (Heiltsuk band councillor)
Angela Sterritt @AngelaSterritt (CBC Indigenous)
Duncan McCue @duncanmccue (CBC Indigenous)
Tanya Talaga @tanyatalaga (Anishinaabe writer, journalist)
Hayden King @hayden_king (Anishinaabe writer, educator)
Christina Gray @stina_gray (Ts’msyen/Dene legal scholar)
Jesse Wente @jessewente (Ojibwe broadcaster, writer)
CBC Indigenous @CBCIndigenous cbc.ca/news/indigenous
Robert Jago @rjjago (Nooksack Tribe/Kwantlen writer, blogger) rjjago.com
âpihtawikosisân (Chelsea Vowel) @apihtawikosisan (Métis writer, educator, podcaster) apihtawikosisan.com
Eriel Deranger @ErielTD (Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Indigenous Climate Action Executive Director) indigenousclimateaction.ca
Cindy Blackstock @cblackst (Gitksan child, youth and family researcher and educator) Indigenous Knowledge Portal
Ryan McMahon @RMComedy (Anishinaabe comedian, writer, podcaster) rmcomedy.com
Makoons Media Group @MakoonsMedia (digital Indigenous storytelling) makoonsmedia.org
Indian & Cowboy @indianandcowboy (Indigenous podcasts, opinion, arts and culture) indianandcowboy.com
Red Man Laughing @RMLPodcast (Indigenous podcast) redmanlaughing.com
StoriesFromTheLand @SFTLpodcast (Indigenous podcast) storiesfromtheland.com
 John Borrows, “Sovereignty’s Alchemy: An Analysis of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia” Osgoode Hall Law Journal (1999) 37 Osgoode Hall L.J. 537-596
[i] J. Anaya, UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation
of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, A/HRC/12/34, July 15 (New York: United Nations General Assembly, 2009), https://documents-dds-ny. un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G09/145/82/PDF/G0914582.pdf?OpenElement.
Feature image by Jen Castro