It’s mid-afternoon, and 67-year-old Wet’suwet’en Elder Janet Williams is startled awake from a nap by unwanted visitors to her remote cabin home. This isn’t the first time the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has marched onto the traditional territories of her Gidimt’en Clan— it’s been happening multiple times a day for over two months. “There’s no need for you guys to be here at all,” she addresses them sharply. “I’m a matriarch here. This is my land. None of you are welcome to be here.” She’s leaning on a long, wooden walking stick carved from a tree that fell in the surrounding forest, which is enclosed by snowcapped mountains approximately one hour outside of Houston, British Columbia.
Over half a dozen RCMP officers are combing through the site, which consists of tents, wooden structures, a kitchen, and a cabin. They say they’re looking for criminal activity. One officer unfolds a piece of worn paper and reads aloud a statement: “Since 2019 this location has been used as a base of operations for individuals committing criminal code offenses and actions breaching a Supreme Court Injunction. Many of those individuals have been arrested and released by the court on conditions. We are conducting patrols to ensure criminal code offenses are not being committed and that individuals with court order conditions are not breaching these conditions.” ”This is Crown land,” another officer tells her. “It’s not Crown land,” Williams declares. “This is Cas Yikh territory. You guys should know this by now. You keep coming around and reading the same damn script!”
Wet’suwet’en Elder Janet Williams.
Expecting a raid at any moment
The RCMP has had a continuous presence on the Wet’suwet’en Yintah (territory) since late 2018 after Coastal Gaslink obtained an injunction against land defenders blocking the right of way for a liquified natural gas pipeline the company is constructing through approximately 190 kilometers of Wet’suwet’en territory. The RCMP have conducted three heavily armed raids, spending nearly $20 million to police the area near the Morice Forest Service Road, which runs part way alongside the Wedzin Kwa River. The most recent raid took place in November 2021 at the Coyote resistance camp, about 20 kilometers away from the Gidimt’en camp. The Coyote camp blocked the roadway leading to Coastal GasLink’s drill pad site where the company is preparing to drill under the river.
The RCMP used attack dogs, sniper rifles, helicopters, and a chainsaw to gain access to a tiny house containing unarmed Wet’suwet’en and supporters. Over two days, police arrested, charged, and jailed more than a dozen land defenders as well as two journalists. The RCMP have arrested more than 75 land defenders since enforcement of the injunction began. Then, on February 17, Coastal GasLink security reported acts of violence at a worksite along the Morice Forest Service Road. They claimed individuals engaged in a violent confrontation with Coastal GasLink employees and police officers. According to police, around 20 people disguised in masks, some armed with axes, attacked security guards and smashed vehicle windows. When police arrived at the 41 Kilometer mark, the roadway had been blocked with downed trees, tar-covered stumps, boards with spikes, and fires that had been lit amid the debris. The RCMP said several people threw smoke bombs and fire-lit sticks at police. One officer was reportedly injured. On February 18 the RCMP deployed 40 officers to the area to investigate, canvassing camps and rural homes along the road. The RCMP do not think the attack was from the land defenders and they still do not know who did it.
The RCMP has had a continuous presence on the Wet’suwet’en Yintah (territory) since late 2018.
RCMP spokesperson Christopher Manseau stated that the RCMP “has been concerned for the safety of those in the area.” But for Williams, the repeated police intrusions into her home are harassment. “You come here all the time and say you’re looking after our safety. We are safe. What about the safety of our missing and murdered women that you’re supposed to protect?” Williams asks. The officers walk away without answering her.
Since the 1960s, dozens of mostly Indigenous women have disappeared or been found murdered around the nearby Highway of Tears (Hwy 16). Williams’ niece, Gaylene Morris of the Likhsamasyu Clan, says she was threatened with rape over a CB radio on April 18. Morris, who visits her ancestral territory regularly, is used to being followed closely by marked Coastal GasLink vehicles and RCMP, sometimes while her young children are with her. The rape threat confirmed the dangers she faces in her homelands. “I’m an Indigenous woman. I’ve traveled these roads since I was a baby. I was scared…these are fear tactics. These are tactics to make me not want to come back and not want to be on the very land that my grandfather raised me on. I wasn’t going to allow anyone to scare me to not come back.”
Gidimt’en camp kitchen.
The opposite of reconciliation
Williams says the RCMP is terrorizing her and the land defenders who live at the camp. It was worse a month ago, she says, when police arrived at various hours in the middle of the night. “They come here and terrorize us whether it’s day or night, sometimes between 1 and 3 a.m.” Gidimt’en Hereditary Chief Woos says the hereditary leadership has long been frustrated with police actions on their territory. He calls the relentless patrols “childish,” and counterproductive to RCMP’s efforts with reconciliation.
“It’s self-defeating for whatever their government is trying to do to try to create a good relationship with the majority of Indigenous people,” he says. “The heads of government need to come in and talk to us. [RCMP Commissioner] Brenda Lucki needs to come in and talk. Because reconciliation or repairing historical grief doesn’t seem to be filtering out with her field workers out here. They’re saying and doing the opposite. They’re still pointing guns at us. They’re still fear-mongering. And that won’t work.”
Sleydo’ (Molly Wickman) at a campfire at Gidimt’en camp.
Gidimt’en Clan member Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham) has been arrested at gunpoint twice while standing to protect her homelands and Wedzin Kwa from the Coastal GasLink pipeline project. She is a wife and mother of three young children who lives in a cabin about 20 kilometers away, and has experienced severe stress and anxiety over the last few years. Spending time with family and friends on the Yintah and living a traditional lifestyle provides her with moments of solace. “We’ve experienced so much violence by the police,” she says.
Gidimt’en camp and security checkpoint.
“The RCMP does not have consent to enter onto our territory. But every single day they’re coming with six to 10 officers and interrupting our ability to be on our territory practicing our way of life,” says Sleydo’. “We absolutely won’t stand down; we have every right to be here. This is an occupation of our land. Our ancestors have been here for thousands of years, and they think they can come in here and harass us, intimidate us, fine us, jail us to the point that we’re going to get off our own land? We are the taxpayers that are paying their wages to be here and do this to us,” she says, shaking her head in disdain.
About a 20-minute drive away, Coastal GasLink is preparing to drill under the Wedzin Kwa. And it’s something Sledyo’ and others are dreading. Their life source, used for ceremonial and drinking water and also a critical habitat for salmon, is as yet uncontaminated, but in danger. Sleydo’ says the violations of their Indigenous rights for trying to protect Wedzin Kwa are a warning to the rest of the world, and that the RCMP and Coastal Gaslink are “setting a precedent for how Indigenous people are to be treated and for how we are going to deal with this climate crisis. This is going to affect everybody who lives downstream. Everybody’s sustainability depends on the ocean, the salmon, the animals, our clean air and clean water. Those are things that every human being and every non-human being needs to survive. So, this is not just our fight. This is a fight for survival.”
--Brandi Morin (Cree/Iroquois/French) is an award-winning journalist reporting on human rights issues from an Indigenous perspective.
All photos by Brandi Morin
Top photo: Janet Williams and husband Lawrence going to confront the RCMP.