Surveillance helicopters circling overhead. Police officers, some carrying tactical gear, pouring into the surrounding towns. An elder arrested, then released, for trying to go past a police checkpoint.

On the ground along a remote forest road in northern B.C., members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation say police presence has been ramping up, despite assurances from the RCMP that officers would stand down as Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and officials from the British Columbia government met to try to de-escalate the ongoing dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

On Tuesday night, the hereditary chiefs announced that the talks had broken down, leaving the looming possibility that the RCMP will "imminently" move into the nation's territory. Tensions in the region have been high since January 2019, when the RCMP violently arrested 14 people while enforcing a court order to remove the Wet’suwet’en from the path of the pipeline’s construction.

"Efforts to de-escalate the situation on the territories were severed when the province refused to pull the permits they issued to (Coastal GasLink)," said Smogelgem, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief of the Fireweed Clan, on Twitter.

Coastal GasLink, a natural gas pipeline, would run through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory over the objections of the nation’s hereditary chiefs. Members of the nation have set up several camps along the Morice West Forest Service Road, about 1,200 kilometres north of Vancouver, to reoccupy their traditional lands and block resource projects.

Before the chiefs announced discussions with the province, the RCMP had been preparing to enforce a second injunction the B.C. Supreme Court granted to Coastal GasLink on Dec. 31. After seven days of talks known as Wiggus — the Wet'suwet'en word for respect — were announced, RCMP confirmed more officers were still being deployed in the area.

In a press release late Tuesday, the hereditary chiefs said a mediator had been in touch with the pipeline company after two days of talks.

"Coastal GasLink declined to see this discussion resulting in progress," the statement said. "Therefore, the enforcement of the injunction zone is imminent.

The chiefs also urged peace, saying they remain committed to the Wiggus process and "will continue discussions with the Province of British Columbia." A representative didn't immediately return a call from National Observer.

Talks between the Wet'suwet'en the B.C. government ended without resolution late on the evening of Feb. 4. The community fears violence may be imminent as RCMP stage in nearby towns. #bcpoli

In a press release, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser, emphasized the need for safety.

"It was very clear from our discussions that all of us came together in good faith to try to find a way forward together," the statement said. "While we were not successful in finding a resolution to the current situation, we continue to remain open to dialogue with the Wet’suwet’en leadership on this issue."

TC Energy, which owns Coastal GasLink, said in a statement that its senior leadership had been in nearby Smithers, B.C. to meet with the hereditary chiefs "if required," but "unfortunately, we were unable to meet with the chiefs." The company said it must quikcly resume construction to meet its various business commitments.

"In the coming days, Coastal GasLink will resume construction activities," the statement read. "It is our hope that the resumption of construction activities occurs in a lawful and peaceful manner that maintains the safety of all in the Morice River area."

The community now fears more violence may be imminent ⁠— especially as at least three of the same commanding officers who spearheaded last year’s RCMP efforts appear to be again leading the charge.

“They're exactly the same oppressive violent force of oppression that they were on Jan. 7 last year,” said Molly Wickham, also known as Sleydo, a spokesperson for the Gidimt'en Clan of the Wet'suwet'en Nation.

“They haven't learned a thing.”

Wickham was one of those arrested last year. In an interview Tuesday, she said three of the same commanding officers from 2019 ⁠— John Brewer, Robert Pikola and Dave Attfield ⁠— are still around now.

"People recognize them," she said, adding that the hereditary chiefs have unsuccessfully asked for those commanders to be reassigned. "They know who they are, because (the officers) were responsible for what happened last year."

The RCMP confirmed that Brewer is still deployed in the area, but "we respectfully decline in identifying any other officers from incidents that took place last year," RCMP spokesperson Staff. Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said in an email Tuesday.

According to a report in the Guardian, the officers leading the 2019 effort were prepared at the time to use deadly force against the Wet’suwet’en.

RCMP Silver Command John Brewer and Gold Command Dave Attfield, who oversaw the 2019 actions against the We'suwet'en checkpoint, attempt to visit a Wet'suwet'en camp on Feb. 11, 2019. Photo by Michael Toledano

‘Lethal overwatch’

Citing detailed notes from an RCMP strategy session held before the RCMP swept the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint, the British newspaper reported that snipers were present, and officers had been prepared to use “lethal overwatch” ⁠— a police term that is understood to mean an officer is prepared to use lethal force. They were also instructed to use “as much violence… as you want” in “sterilizing (the) site,” the Guardian said.

The notes were stamped with Pikola’s name, the Guardian said.

The RCMP has strongly denied the Guardian’s reporting, saying lethal overwatch “does not indicate action other than observation.” That statement contrasts with a 2010 memo produced by the B.C. RCMP., and a review of military and law enforcement literature in both Canada and the US conducted by the Guardian.

The RCMP has also said snipers were sent as part of larger emergency response teams that are generally deployed all at once, according to a statement released after the article was published. Initially, the RCMP had said it wasn’t able to locate or verify the documents referenced by the Guardian; the organization has since found them, said Shoihet.

“We would also add that information was taken out of context and (there was) significant work done with respect to discussions, meetings, protocols, cultural training, etc.,” said Shoihet in an email.

“We have no intention in contributing to the tensions, but will ensure that allegations or misinformation is corrected when it comes to our actions. As we have stated repeatedly, we have not and will not take action to enforce the B.C. Supreme Court-ordered injunction by removing the obstructions on the Morice West Forest Service Road during this time.”

Brewer in particular is a “veteran, decorated police officer who himself is Indigenous,” though not Wet’suwet’en, Shoihet added. “We have well-trained and experienced personnel, including our operational commanders, overseeing our efforts prior to last year's enforcement and since.”

Wickham said learning about Wet’suwet’en culture and employing Indigenous officers still doesn’t give the RCMP the right to remove community members from their home.

“Seeing a brown face or another Indigenous person harassing us and oppressing us in those same ways for the benefit of profit and ongoing colonization is quite frustrating, and by no means does it de-escalate the situation,” Wickham said.

“It’s a sad, sad thing… it’s so offensive that they’d even bring it up.”

Lady Chainsaw, a supporter of Unist'ot'en, on the bridge that marks the boundary to the territory of the house within the Wet'suwet'en Nation, on Jan. 26, 2020. Photo by Michael Toledano.

‘We are under duress’

The case of the Wet’suwet’en and Coastal GasLink exposes a stark divide between the traditional Wet’suwet’en legal system and Canada’s colonial legal system. Under Wet’suwet’en law, authority over the nation’s 22,000 square kilometres of unceded territory lies with hereditary chiefs from five clans, who oppose the pipeline. But TC Energy, which owns the pipeline project, received approval to build the pipeline from some elected band councils, ⁠a governing body created by Canada’s colonial Indian Act, which have jurisdiction over reserve lands but not the disputed territory.

A 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision affirmed that the provincial government can’t extinguish the hereditary chiefs’ right to their land. However, the court also sent the case back for a second trial that hasn’t yet happened, leaving key questions unresolved.

Stating concerns about safety after the raid last January, the hereditary chiefs struck a temporary deal to allow Coastal GasLink to access the territory for pre-construction work.

But tensions smoldered in the months that followed, and were re-ignited with the Dec. 20 publication of the Guardian article, and the court injunction granted on Dec. 31

Also citing public safety concerns, the RCMP set up a blockade along the forest road on Jan. 13 and have restricted access to the area, prompting complaints from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. In the weeks since, the Wet’suwet’en community says it has felt under siege.

The RCMP initially denied that it was surveilling Wet’suwet’en camps by air ⁠— until photo evidence surfaced, as reported by Vice. Over the course of several days, community members posted reports on social media of large numbers of police staging in towns near the service road.

“People thought that last year was unacceptable,” Wickham said. “I think we need to be prepared for more or worse.”

Then, on Friday night, a Gidimt’en Clan elder was arrested and released without being charged after she tried to pass the police blockade without giving RCMP her ID. Carmen Nikal, 73, has been an adopted member of the Gidim’ten Clan’s Cas Yex house for four decades, Gidimt’en Clan said.

“Good faith discussions between the Wet’suwet’en and the Province cannot occur while we are under duress, and while our families and guests face the threat of police violence,” the clan said in a press release.

In a tweet Tuesday, Smogelgem ⁠said “it feels like reconciliation is being brutally killed here in Wet’suwet’en territory.”

Wickham said people in the community are worried for the safety of people in the camps as they wait for the possible enforcement of the injunction.

“But out on the territory, people are strong and gaining strength every single day from being on the land,” she said.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of fear. There's a lot of strength.”

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 12:11 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2020 to include a statement from TC Energy.

Keep reading

I don't think that any of us have had any (official) encounter with any police officer in our lives where they weren't prepared with lethal force if the encounter went badly: they all have that gun on their hip at all times. In that sense, nothing even odd about this: the encounter happens way the heck far from RCMP home bases, and they're bringing everything they might need in a worst-case scenario; the area inhabitants are all hunters, I'm sure they all have guns, too.

As many Americans, and a few Canadians, have discovered the hard way, they can indeed end up dead if an officer panics and imagines them some threat. So everything here depends on the professionalism of the RCMP.

A previous story had me off to the Nation's web site, attempting to puzzle out the structure of the 13 houses across five clans (and some of the houses refer to themselves as clans, or at least journalists have), and the governance here. Everybody speaks as "a hereditary chief" of the Nation, but not for the (whole) Nation. The web site section under "governance" ( ) is only in its second section (right after how one becomes a 'hereditary chief') about "Trespassing"...not on the Nation's land, but inter-clan-territory "trespassing" on clan hunting grounds, originally punishable by death.

It's not made clear on the web site whether the protective territoriality goes down to the house level, but the journalism discussing "Unist'ot'en territory" borders - where Unist'ot'en, (or "Dark House") is one house of the Gilseyhu Clan, suggests that the territory being protected is at the house level, with other chiefs acting in support of a claim that they wouldn't/couldn't make for themselves, it being not their territory. But, as I complained on that story, the journalists here really aren't making any of this clear. I'm not sure they know.

Other commentators have agreed with my wish for a map - are the clan (or is it house) territories mapped to any degree? 22,000 sq. km is a square 100 miles on a side, larger than the whole lower mainland. Highway #16 runs through it. When I put "Wetsuwetin" into google maps, it showed me the office of the Hereditary Chiefs, in Smithers, BC, just off the highway but 100km away from the pipeline route on the maps...between the Shopper's Drug Mart and the Yoga Loft, all of them serviced by gas pipelines so they don't freeze.

The cities most of us live in are densely networked with gas pipelines; large ones like Vancouver and Calgary would have trunk gas pipelines with net flows larger than this one running into their towns to supply the little ones that go into each house - huge gas trunks running under their roads, past their kid's schools...

My point with all that is that nearly everybody uses gas, unless they have to take the larger danger of propane tanks beside their rural dwellings; we make our peace with the pipelines that heat our homes. It seems very likely that reason can prevail here, as it has in Smithers, with the chiefs accepting gas pipelines into their own office. (You can see it on Google maps: that's not a chimney for a fireplace coming out: it's the kind that gas furnaces use.) This is not about the inherent, intolerable evil of gas pipelines; it's about sufficient compensation for the trespass caused by the construction work. Which is why I'm puzzling over that governance structure: are all 13 hereditary chiefs really opposed to this, or are they quite willing to accept it as long as they get a fair deal for their trouble...and quietly not saying anything to avoid pulling the rug out from under the ones that are protesting? Everybody in the Nation benefits if the protest makes for a better offer. Or is the lack of one united voice for the whole Nation just that this is entirely across Unistoten territory only? (That "trespass punishable by death" paragraph is sticking with me; they may have a very strong cultural tradition of Mind Your Own Damn Business...)

That's where territorial map of the Nation, and a better understanding of their governance structure, would be very enlightening.

The more all this continues, the more I believe there is a desperate need to re-examine all laws - not only indigenous laws but especially colonial laws! Mr. Brander seems to be requesting explanations, maps and descriptions in COLONIAL terms, which is the whole problem!
Yes, we invaders have so much to learn from first peoples, it's overwhelming! A good place to start just might be to transport one's mind back in history - indigenous history - and fully understand the phenomenon of life INTIMATELY CONNECTED to and PART of the land. Only then will we ever realize the threat that radically disturbing the land presents!
Citing the use of gas and the existence of pipelines already built only serves to cloud these issues. What is now being proposed by extraction corporations now is many multiples of what exists, which is the problem!
Have you not heard and understood the difference between ELECTED indigenous leaders and HEREDITARY leaders? For the first group, think COLONIALLY ELECTED chiefs, and the desperation that colonial rule has put their people in! Also, have you not paid any attention to the concept of PROTECTION OF THE LAND - and everything in it - for FUTURE GENERATIONS? Absolutely NOTHING about fossil fuel extraction and use includes such a concept!

Hi Rob. Thanks for reading. For starters, a map of clan territories is available on the Wet'suwet'en website, where you can also find an explanation of how each Clan has several houses that fall within it, and the Clans have jurisdiction over their territory within the greater Wet'suwet'en territory:
It's worth nothing that many First Nations have offices in nearby towns to have the road/technological access they need to advocate for themselves, so that situation is not uncommon. I would also question the idea that snipers are a standard part of police response to people who are peacefully occupying an area.

Based on talking to folks who oppose Coastal GasLink, the issue here is really one of consent to long-term risks, not of the trespass of construction work, as you say. The potential harms to the environment are one crucial piece -- a pristine river could be irreparably polluted if there were a spill -- but Wet'suwet'en title to and authority over the land, which has been affirmed in court, is vital as well. If you're interested in understanding that last aspect, I highly recommend reading up on Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, a 1997 Supreme Court case. I wrote a bit about it here but I also recommend the Canadian Encyclopedia:

A lot of us, myself included, were not taught this history and context and are now learning it ourselves. I'm glad to see readers engaging with this discussion!

Thanks, Emma. My intent was for constructive criticism, and in that regard, the "map" is such a small JPG file that you can just barely figure out what the very-blurred clan names are - and absolutely cannot read the scale at the bottom, figure out town names, and, obviously, it doesn't show the proposed pipeline route, meaning I'm still not sure which clan (or is it house) territorie(s) that the construction would violate.

My raising the point that the hereditary chiefs themselves use natural gas to heat their own office was not intended to be the tiresome right-wing "they're hypocrites" trope, but rather to point out that the long-term risk is the same one borne by anybody in any gas-using settlement, and that large cities have pipelines of this huge size running right down their major roads. So the risk, while not zero, is one that just about everybody else must bear. One is asking a lot of other's sympathies to complain about a gas pipeline when there is one going straight into my house - and if it leaks, I could be blown up, as a few houses in the whole continent (of ~150 million homes) are every year.

(There is no possibility of a "spill" with natural gas, by the way; it is a GAS, lighter than air, and would simply go up and away. Even liquid natural gas, which this isn't, would turn INTO gas the moment the high-pressure vessel was opened.)

The risk you CAN raise in future reporting is vividly shown here:

And the very local, very recent case is the one I'm amazed you didn't reference:

There's no question (in my mind) that the Nation is within its rights as to land-violation claims; certainly the best outcome here would involve, to put it bluntly, a sufficient compensation offered to remove the objections. This would have two good things: a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and the alleviation of what I bet, without knowing another thing about this Nation, are truly appalling problems of poverty and inadequate housing and infrastructure. (I'm guessing based on all the other ones in northern BC I do know about.)

My fussing about my confusion with the actual governance structure actually comes from good intentions as to the Nation reaching that good outcome: they'll get more results if the entire Nation, all five clans, speaks with one united voice on the matter, which I am NOT seeing from the journalism I've read so far. There are just around 2500 of them even at that. [I can assure you that far more than 2500 farmers in Alberta have complained about fracking on their property, damage to their water tables, orphaned wells - to absolutely no effect.]

Am I thinking in settler-colonialist terms to wish the Nation would pick a spokesperson for all 2500(ish) and work together, when they clearly have very distributed governance internally? Heck, yes. It's not imperialist thinking to point out that 2500 people speak ten times as loudly as 250; it's arithmetic.

Oh, and that matter of the snipers: when I meet a cop in town getting a ticket, he has a Glock on his hip, a shotgun in the car with his partner, and SWAT is never more than 10 minutes away if I have a gun, too. These RCMP will be many hours from reinforcement if an encounter turns ugly. I really think they plan to bring along sufficient force for a worst-case scenario because there will be no time to bring in SWAT as a second thought. It's great that their plans have been found out and publicized, of course: it'll help keep them polite.

I read your Jan 24 article already (and heard the CanadaLand exceptions to it, too); and will be reading more as you produce it. (Unless, of course, the GasLink accounting and legal departments decide to just cave, which would be nice.)

Thank you for these detailed thoughts! I really do appreciate the feedback.

What amount of "compensation" is sufficient to cover the amount of GHGs the pipeline will enable?
How much do you think should be paid for making the world uninhabitable?
BTW, if the encounter turns ugly, it'll most likely be the RCMP being ugly. That's just the way it is. They're not angels, and when there are no other observers they do hurt people. They sent away lawyers, legal observers, and the press, so who do you think the courts, governments, etc. will believe? The RCMP's word, or the First Nations' word?

It just may be hard for a white man to make white legal sense of another culture....we're so used to othering....and assuming our system is the most rational and therefore the one those others should comply with. But I've been reading a fascinating book about the salmon, and the people of the salmon (Being Salmon Being Human...Martin Lee Mueller) that has clarified for me why 'western values' can often be so arrogant as to assume our way is the only right way....its given me a new respect for the people who lived close to the earth, and who identify their continuation with the continued health of the earth. We dominants have lost our way on that file. From another current reading, Evening Thoughts by the late Thomas Berry:

In his essay "The Petrochemical Age" he makes this claim..."the designation of the Petrochemical Age seems to identify the most pervasive influence on the entire Earth community. The main reason for this is the widespread use of petroleum, the expanded development of chemicals, and the subversion of life processes as a consequence. In this period, much of the planet, including the land, water, and air, has become toxic due to petrochemicals" p87

Yes, we all heat our homes with gas.....and now, at the tailend of the petrochemical age, we are fracking deep earth to get it.......doing it on debt, refusing to close or clean up after ourselves, and high on dreams of liquifying and marketing the fracked crap as a solution to burning coal. WE'RE FREAKING MAD ROY....AND TOO ARROGANT TO EVEN DO THE RESEARCH THAT WOULD TELL US CURRENT FOSSIL FUEL PROJECTS ARE EXTINCTION GAMES. But I suspect the Wet'suwet'an know it.

They live on the lands we're willing to turn into sacrifice zones so our dreams of white European exceptionality can continue a decade or more into the future. What we heat our homes with does not justify continuing with the fracked gas end game..........if we really want to kick the greenhouse bomb down the highway a few more the pipe along route 16...then all British Columbians can have a piece of the action.

Leave the pristine back country to the stewardship of the original people. We'll thank them for their protective work one day quite soon.

The white man who made the most sense of pre-industrial cultures for me (my history reading is very limited, I got a lot from Larry Gonick's "Cartoon History of the Universe" and willingly admit it - but read it before you make fun of it) is Gwynne Dyer in "Growing Pains". He points out that the hunter/gatherer period was one of profound democracy, because there just barely were leaders at all: all the adults in a band knew each other and most decisions were made by general consensus after hours of talk. Tyranny was an artifact of the agricultural revolution gathering humans into groups of thousands and millions, and consensus was no longer possible - until the printing press made nation-wide "discussions" of a sort possible again, and the democratic revolutions followed swiftly. We now have more-limited tyranny with democratic restraints, but it still gives the average person much less say than their ancestors had in small clan groups.

Far from disparaging the Wet'su'wetin governance, I think it's very appropriate for their Nation size - about 2500 distributed among 13 houses. Their web site makes plain that the "hereditary" chiefs are more often made than born, and probably enjoy broad consensus support to speak for their house.

As to sacrifice zones, have a look at Virginia sometime, if you can bear to - about 5X the area of the tar sands, converted from verdant "cricks and hollers" into toxic hellscapes. All inflicted upon the most conservative white people you're likely to find, and supported by them to the bitter end, for a declining number of jobs. People all over the world have, alas, actually signed off on the destruction of their own home environments, if it was needed to feed their kids. (The morality of those who set them up with that choice is obvious, but it cuts no ice when arguing with them.) The oilpatch has scarred up tens of thousands of Albertan farms with dead oil rigs, but the farmers reliably vote Conservative to this day.

If one respects the self-determination of First Nations, it's also necessary to respect the decisions of those who accepted the offers from corporations and governments for construction on their lands; and I think there are also quite a number of those - even on this very project. Media tend to report conflict but not agreement - here we have dramatic conflict, and its getting a ton of press, but I haven't heard much about those who are not opposing it, or why.

I do not know any details surrounding this dispute save for the reported presence of the Police using the word "Lethal" in their orders. This is really frightening to me.
My second comment is in regard to this excerpt...
"Brewer in particular is a “veteran, decorated police officer who himself is Indigenous,” though not Wet’suwet’en, ....
It reminds me of the historical reports concerning the Little Bighorn (Custer) where the cavalry scouts were Crow. I understood that the Crow were historical enemies of the peoples camped at the site.
In some strange, crazy way is history repeating itself?

Well if we're dumb enough to think that hiring a native policeman to do the dirty work makes the act fair and non racist..........I'd suggest we're still struggling to escape from a history of dirty deeds done dirt cheap by colonial powers determined to have their way and more than comfortable with removing violently anyone who stood in their way. Divide and Conquer I think they called it