HOUSTON, B.C. — About a dozen supporters of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary clan chiefs arrived to help set up a new camp on the side of a snowy logging road that’s at the centre of a disputed pipeline route in northern British Columbia on Thursday.
They brought with them new supplies, including two-by-fours and wood pallets, and began work erecting a second canvas tent on the site just outside the first of dozens of trees that have been felled across the road leading to a natural gas work site.
Coastal GasLink has provincial approval to build a 670-kilometre pipeline from northeastern British Columbia to LNG Canada’s $40-billion export terminal in Kitimat, but the chiefs say they won’t allow anyone on the First Nation’s traditional territory without their consent.
Cody Merriman, who is ‘Namgis and also goes by the name Mona’gila, said the supporters are there to ensure an eviction notice issued by the chiefs to Coastal GasLink over the pipeline it is building is respected.
“They made a decision and we’re here to support them in that, to make sure Wet’suwet’en law is enacted and respected,” he said.
They’re also eyes on the ground in case the RCMP begin to enforce an injunction granted to Coastal GasLink against the pipeline opponents, he said.
Coastal GasLink says it’s committed to resolving the dispute through negotiation as long as that is an option, although the hereditary chiefs say they will only meet with provincial and federal government leaders.
The company posted an injunction order online Tuesday, and a copy is pinned to a tree that was felled across the logging road by the Wet’suwet’en, blocking the RCMP and the company from access to the work site.
The RCMP said trees along the Morice West Forest Service Road are a safety hazard because some were partly cut and the wind could cause them to fall without warning.
Officers also found stacked tires covered in tarps and trees with jugs of gasoline, diesel, oil and kindling underneath. The Mounties have started an investigation under the Criminal Code for traps likely to cause bodily harm, they said.
“We want to emphasize that we are impartial in this dispute and our priority is to facilitate a dialogue between the various stakeholders involved,” the Mounties said Wednesday. “We remain hopeful that these efforts will result in a resolution.”
Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer called the findings extremely disappointing in a statement Thursday.
“Our primary concern is the safety of all users of this public forestry road, including those who wish to protest our activities. Unlawful actions that put people at risk for serious harm are dangerous, reckless and unacceptable, and do not reflect peaceful protest,” he said.
Company spokeswoman Suzanne Wilton said Wednesday that posting the order, which gives the defendant 72-hours to clear the way before the company is authorized to remove any barriers along the road, was a procedural court requirement.
“This does not indicate a request for enforcement whatsoever. As we have stated, we believe that dialogue is preferable to confrontation while engagement and a negotiated resolution remain possible,” she said in an email.
There was already an enforcement order in place prior to the new posting, she said.
Merriman said Thursday he had no knowledge of the partially cut trees, tires, accelerant or fuel-soaked rags.
Some of the supporters who joined him Thursday drove from neighbouring communities, while others hiked in from camps beyond the felled logs.
Luke Pitzman, who lives about an hour away in Telkwa, said he came to help out at the camp after running into an old friend who is involved.
“I happily volunteered because I care for the environment and I think we’re messing it up,” he said.
Elisa Tomassini, who comes from the Adriatic coast of Italy near Bologna, said she has learned about the conflict since coming to northern British Columbia last year to work as a tree planter.
“I understand it’s important to be here and try to save the environment and the community has a right to stay here,” she said.
An RCMP vehicle patrolled past the site but did not stop.
Officers are stationed at what the RCMP calls a community-industry safety office. An officer declined an interview.
Merriman was part of a group last year that set up an encampment at the 44-kilometre mark on the road where the RCMP enforced a previous injunction granted to Coastal GasLink.
He was there until he saw RCMP officers coming down the road and then he left. His partner Molly Wickham was there too and the couple, who have two children, couldn’t risk two arrests, he said.
Wickham, who is a spokeswoman for the Gidimt’en, which is one of five Wet’suwet’en clans, was among 14 people arrested Jan. 7, 2019.
The fight over territory and land has been going on for hundreds of years, said Merriman, and the process for resolving disputes has to change.
“Unfortunately it’s that time again and I don’t see this fight going away any time soon,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2020.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press