Chief Woos drove four hours on Friday, from Prince George in central B.C., to his territory south of Houston.
He wanted to check on his daughter after hearing of the “military-style” police raids the previous day on members of the Gidimt’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and supporters who were blocking construction of a multibillion-dollar natural gas pipeline.
He knew she was out there when the RCMP moved in, arresting 15 people, including elders and a journalist. Images, videos and reports emerged throughout the day showing officers in tactical gear with assault weapons and police dogs, as helicopters and drones circled overhead.
But the RCMP wouldn’t let him onto his territory.
“As any other father would be, [I’m] concerned about my daughter and how it looks out there,” said Woos, standing beside a fire at the 28-kilometre mark of the Morice Forest Service Road where a police car blocked a small bridge and officers, many wearing face covers and sunglasses despite the sun sinking low behind snow-covered mountains, milled about.
“They’re letting in the workers but not us,” said Chief Woos. “This is Gidimt’en territory.”
A years-long standoff on Wet’suwet’en territory south of the small town of Houston intensified this week after TC Energy, which is building Coastal GasLink didn’t comply when Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs announced Sunday that they would begin enforcing an eviction notice served to the company in 2020.
According to a Nov. 18 press release, pipeline workers were given eight hours to leave the area, a time frame that Chief Woos extended later in the day by two hours.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose the construction of the company’s pipeline that would transport natural gas across their territories, from northeast B.C. to Kitimat on the Pacific coast. The company successfully sought an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court in January 2020 to construct the pipeline unimpeded, which resulted in police removing dozens of pipeline opponents from the area and dismantling barricades and checkpoints.
“They’re letting in the workers but not us,” said Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Woos. “This is Gidimt’en territory.” #CoastalGasLink #RCMP
On Sunday, the company didn’t leave the territory and Gidimt’en members and supporters closed the road leading to the construction sites and worker camps, announcing over Twitter that “[On Tuesday], we took our land back. With our Haudenosaunee allies, we enforced our ancient trespass laws and have permanently closed access to our territory. The Morice Forest Service Road has been destroyed and access to Coastal GasLink is no longer possible.”
A video posted by the Gidimt’en Checkpoint showed heavy machinery seized from the company being used to dig a trench in the road and to build a barricade with logs and a crushed van.
The road closure left some 500 pipeline workers in camps with rapidly dwindling supplies and no route in or out.
On Thursday, the RCMP moved in on the Gidimt’en Checkpoint in an operation it characterized as a “rescue” to clear a route for camp workers to leave the area and for supplies to be brought in.
The enforcement was dictated by the actions taken by protesters who blocked the Morice River Forest Service Road, jeopardizing the safety and wellness of hundreds of people whose provisions were at critical levels, said RCMP assistant commissioner Eric Stubbs in a statement released Thursday evening. "We have made significant efforts to facilitate meaningful dialogue between all stakeholders, and specifically with the group opposing this pipeline project, to no avail. It was no longer possible to delay our efforts to rescue the workers. As such, our enforcement operation had to proceed immediately."
Independent journalist Melissa Cox, who was arrested Thursday, described police throwing people to the ground, punching and, in one instance, using a baton while making arrests.
Later Thursday, the human rights organization Amnesty International released an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, B.C. Premier John Horgan and RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki expressing “grave concern” about the increase in police officers in the area. “The increased police presence has raised alarm and fear within the communities and escalated existing tensions … We are concerned that additional arrests are likely and the risks of escalation this situation brings.”
The police raids sparked solidarity actions and marches in communities and cities across Canada. Neighbouring Gitxsan people blocked CN's rail line through Hazelton, while Fort Street in B.C.'s capital of Victoria was temporarily blocked by a modest group carrying a banner that read, "Wedzin Kwa is Life" and "End Colonial Violence."
In Vancouver, climate and Indigenous activists gathered at city hall, while Winnipeg's iconic crossroads Portage and Main were also blocked for a time by protesters gathered in front of RCMP headquarters. Additional rallies are planned for the weekend, including one in Burnaby at the Deer Lake RCMP headquarters.
On Gidimt'en territory on Friday, police moved onto Coyote Camp, where Gidimt’en members and supporters have been blocking company plans to drill beneath a river since September. The Gidimt’en Checkpoint Twitter page reported that heavily armed police gained entry into one structure using an axe.
A police officer at the roadblock said media and the public couldn’t pass due to safety concerns involving the damaged road and the “operations” underway.
Late Friday afternoon, several shuttle buses passed the police roadblock carrying what appeared to be camp workers, followed shortly afterward by police vehicles transporting pipeline opponents. While supporters at the roadblock drummed and cheered, whooping could be heard from inside one of the RCMP vehicles. It was not clear by Friday evening how many had been arrested.
Chief Woos watched from beside Wedzin Kwa, the river that flows from the glaciers on the nearby snow-capped mountains. He motioned to the waters.
“That’s what we’re protecting,” he said, “Not just for Wet’suwet’en, it’s for all those on the shores of the river … and for future generations.”
The arrests and conflict of the week, he said, would not spell the end of the efforts to stop the pipeline from crossing Wet’suwet’en territory. “We’re going to keep moving,” he said. “We’re going to continue, we’re going to get stronger.”