The Unist'ot'en Camp

By Simon Nattrass, January 2013

A First Nations group denies access to its sovereign territory.

After hours of searching through a labyrinth of logging roads, local activist Julie Anne Gilchrist and several others arrived at the Wedzin Kwa (or Morice River) crossing at 4 am under the light of a full moon. The bridge was watched over by a sign declaring “No Access Without Consent. Stop and Honk,” placed there by activists from the Unist’ot’en Action Camp to ward off surveyors for the Pacific Trail pipeline. That’s the pipeline planned to deliver natural gas from northern BC and Alberta to a proposed liquid natural gas terminal at Kitimat for shipment overseas—key infrastructure in BC’s drive to become one of the biggest exporters of LNG in the world.

Ten minutes after Gilchrist’s arrival at the bridge, a truck arrived from the camp to admit the group. “One by one,” she remembers, “we were asked what our names were, what our business was on their territory, if we worked for the [pipeline] industry or the government, and what skills we were bringing to help the camp.” Her answer was brief and formal: “Hello, I am Julie Anne. I travel from the occupied Lekwungen Territories known as Victoria, and I am here in solidarity with your people in your resistance to the pipelines.” 

Now in its third year, the Unist’ot’en Camp was created to defend the traditional territories (extending from Burns Lake to the Coastal Mountains) of the Wet’suwet’en people against encroachment by several pipeline projects (Pacific Trail proposed by Apache Corporation, Kinder Morgan, Pembina Pipelines, and Enbridge Inc) scheduled to carve up Northern BC in the coming years. The camp has drawn support for its current blockade of Apache Corporation surveyors from places as distant as Trinidad to right here in Victoria, where solidarity actions recently took place at the Defend Our Coast rally and at the offices of various Pacific Trail Pipelines investors. 

Hereditary Chief Toghestiy says that in 2008, the Unist’ot’en and Grassroots Wet’suwet’en began to distance themselves from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, which is responsible for negotiating with the federal government. They reasoned, he says, that it was better for them to assert their rights than negotiate for them. “The negotiation process is not really set up for aboriginal people to assert their sovereignty over their lands. [It is] set up to allow industry and government to just walk into an area and begin their activities, and send a notice off to the band or tribal council, or, in our case, the hereditary people, explaining what their actions are, rather than asking for permission to do so in the first place.”

While they have chosen to allow logging trucks through their traditional territory, Toghestiy and representatives of the camp have presented eagle feathers to both pipeline surveyors and company executives at every opportunity. Toghestiy emphasizes that this is not a light gesture—to the Unist’ot’en, “the eagle feather is a pretty powerful symbol of our law. If somebody receives an eagle feather for trespassing onto somebody else’s territory, it’s very serious.”

The Unist’ot’en are concerned about Pacific Trail Pipelines’ proposed route through two main salmon spawning channels which provide them with a staple food supply, as well as the fracking used to extract the shale gas it will transport, but it is sovereignty itself that has become an even more fundamental issue.

The concept of sovereignty—that an independent nation has jurisdiction and control within its territory, independent from outside influence—has become a central feature of conflict between indigenous peoples in BC and the government. Like nearly all indigenous peoples within BC, the Wet’suwet’en have never signed a treaty that turns the governance of their territory or rights to their lands and resources over to a foreign polity. The Unist’ot’en Camp’s refusal to accept the industrial devastation imposed on them by Pacific Trail and the Canadian government highlights this long-standing feud between indigenous peoples in much of what is now known as Canada. 

While some First Nations might turn to treaty negotiations as a way to resolve this conflict, Toghestiy has participated in treaty negotiations with the federal government and emphasizes the ineffectiveness of that process. “What they wanted to do was take the existing rights that we already have in the constitution as well as in the Supreme Court of Canada…and attempt to begin whittling away those rights.”

For decades, federal institutions like the Supreme Court have avoided any concrete issue of indigenous sovereignty in BC. Recently, a ten-year case brought forward by the Tsilhqot’in and Xeni Gwet’in peoples affirmed Tsilhqot’in right and title to some 200,000 hectares of land, and explicitly stated that BC has unconstitutionally violated aboriginal title since it joined Canada in 1871. But the BC Supreme Court ruling stopped just short of giving any control over the use of land to its traditional inhabitants.

Despite Tsilhqot’in and other cases which imply the validity of indigenous sovereignty and prior occupancy, British Columbia continues to assume its own legal sovereignty. Emeritus Professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada Michael Asch traces this inconsistency to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, where, he says, “it is absolutely clear that…we are not supposed to go on indigenous land until we have negotiated a treaty.” It is this document, coupled with the implicit reasoning in the rulings of the Supreme Court, that lends considerable legal legitimacy in favour of the Unist’ot’en Camp activists’ position. BC’s refusal to confront this conflict further undermines its position and that of Pacific Trail Pipelines.  

Anthropologist Marc Pinkoski has spent most of his career studying the relationship between indigenous peoples in BC and Canadian law. According to him, Canadian aboriginal law minimizes the importance of traditional sovereignty in BC, assuming that “it might exist somewhere, it might be interesting and even now it might have something to contribute to a ‘Greater Canada,’ but that those traditions are going to have to reconcile themselves against the power of the state.”

Were BC and Canada to integrate the sovereignty of the Unist’ot’en and other indigenous peoples, developments like the Pacific Trail pipeline would become a matter of international relations. According to Toghestiy, “People would no longer simply go to a government office and ask for a permit to go and do something on what they deem as Crown land. They would have to begin exercising due diligence and working with the indigenous people who own these lands here.”

It has become the habit of certain governments to ignore public outcry, even when it springs from the lips of thousands of protesters on the Legislature lawn. In contrast, the Unist’ot’en Camp is not an attempt to sway political opinion, it is a demand made by a people for whom our own laws provide a better legal position than that of Pacific Trail, BC, or Canada itself.

Asked what the future of the Unist’ot’en Camp and the Pacific Trail pipeline would be, Toghestiy replied: “The pipeline is not going to happen. The camp is going to be here forever.” By asserting their right to defend their home, the Unist’ot’en people threaten to unravel BC. They demand recognition of a sovereignty which cannot be denied, but—for the BC government—must be ignored lest it expose the foundations of our province as nothing more than lies couched in the language of bureaucracy. 

The Unist’ot’en Camp relies solely on the support of individuals, both through promotion and donations of funds or supplies to maintain the Camp’s full-time residents. To learn more, visit unistotencamp.wordpress.com or connect through Facebook and Twitter. The Camp’s mailing address is 620 CN Smithers BC V0G 2N1.

Simon Nattrass is a political columnist and writer specializing in radical politics and working from Victoria.