VANCOUVER — Opponents of a natural gas pipeline in northwestern British Columbia say they believe protests across the country are sparking a growing awareness of Indigenous rights that will lead to long-term change.
Nearly 50 people were arrested in Vancouver and nearby Delta on Monday after police executed a court injunction against demonstrators blocking busy ports in both cities, while protests also took place in Victoria and Montreal.
Jen Wickham, a spokeswoman for one of the five clans that make up the Wet’suwet’en Nation, said its members led by hereditary chiefs are defending their territory from construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
“We are the rightful title owners of our territory and we will continue to assert our sovereignty,” she said. “It’s not a question of protesting. It’s a question of their homes. They’re defending their homes.”
The RCMP began enforcing a court injunction last week against people camped near a pipeline work site in Houston.
The conflict has prompted demonstrations spanning from the steps of the British Columbia legislature to a Via Rail line running between Montreal and Toronto. Wickham said she believes there is a growing understanding of the rights of First Nations among non-Indigenous Canadians.
“I think that people are starting to wake up to the fact that we have the right to our territory,” she said.
“They’re upset and they’re taking to the streets. They’re occupying offices, they’re stopping traffic and they’re stopping trains. They’re saying, loud and clear, ‘This is not OK.’ “
All 20 elected band councils along the pipeline route, including the Wet’suwet’en council, have signed benefits agreements with Coastal GasLink. However, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say the council established by the Indian Act only has authority over reserve lands.
The hereditary chiefs assert title to a vast 22,000-square-kilometre area because they have never signed a treaty ceding their traditional territories.
The RCMP said Sunday 14 arrested people were either transported or set to be transported to appear in B.C. Supreme Court on Monday. Six other people were released without charges and one was released on conditions with a future court date.
“The senior commander continues to update the hereditary chiefs through the Office of the Wet’suwet’en and to offer facilitation of their access to the area and engagement with persons who remain there,” the Mounties said.
Premier John Horgan has said the pipeline, which is part of a $40 billion liquefied natural gas export terminal being built by LNG Canada, is of vital economic and social importance to northern B.C. He said the courts have decided the pipeline can proceed and the rule of law must prevail.
B.C.’s Indigenous relations minister did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Dozens of protesters gathered outside Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., where Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan was set to speak.
“Natural resource development in this country, at a time when we’ve committed to net zero, when a majority of Canadians have voted with clear concern about climate change, there are going to be protests and people feel very strongly about it,” O’Regan said.
“I was more than happy to hear their concerns and I’m sure I’ll be hearing a number of others as I go across the country.”
Protesters began disruptions at ports in Vancouver and nearby Delta on Friday. Police in Delta police said emergency health services were called for one protester out of an abundance of caution when arrests were made on Monday.
“Everyone involved was treated respectfully and with dignity,” said Cris Leykauf, a Delta police spokeswoman.
A spokeswoman for the protesters said they planned to discuss further actions.
“The purpose of this is to express solidarity and to make an economic impact so that the government of Canada knows that business as usual is not going to continue while Indigenous people and the Wet’suwet’en Nation is under attack,” said Natalie Knight.
Knight also said she has seen a shift in public opinion. Protesters explained the issue to those affected by the port blockade and some responded with support for the Wet’suwet’en, she said.
She said the situation reminds her of pivotal moments in history, such as the 1990 Oka crisis, a 78-day standoff involving a group of Mohawk people that led to the federal government taking a closer look at its relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
In the years that followed, residential schools were closed and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched, Knight said.
“The ripple effects of these kinds of actions for Indigenous sovereignty are much bigger than we can predict or see in this current moment.”