Coastal GasLink is likely trying to weaken Indigenous claims to the land, experts say.
Coastal GasLink (CGL), a subsidiary of TC Energy, is asking Sleydo’, or Molly Wickham, to “provide documentation to ‘prove’ she is Wet’suwet’en, and is seeking conditions that would bar her from returning to her home,” says a statement released by Wet’suwet’en Gidimt’en camp.
The statement says the company is also challenging the status of Hereditary Chief Woos’ daughter, Jocelyn Alec, as a Wet’suwet’en person.
TC Energy told VICE World News in an email that “under no circumstances” would CGL ask people to prove they’re Indigenous. But the company then confirmed its lawyers asked “relevant contemnors,” a person found guilty of contempt, to confirm to the courts that they are Wet’suwet’en.
“This was to ensure access to allow the relevant contemnors to practice their Indigenous rights while under the court’s conditions,” the company said. (VICE World News asked TC Energy what this means and will update the story if we hear back.)
Sleydo’ and Alec are two of about 30 people arrested last week after a two-day RCMP raid on Wet’suwet’en territory. Earlier this month, pipeline resistance leaders with the Wet’suwet’en Gidimt’en Clan evoked an eviction order against CGL workers, giving them eight hours to “peacefully” leave the territory. After the deadline passed, they seized a Coastal GasLink excavator and dug up a road—the only route that gave access to several work sites and camps.
Four days later, police moved in and enforced a B.C. Supreme Court injunction order, which protects the pipeline’s development, and made the arrests. Multiple people, including Sleydo’ and Alec, are appearing in court Tuesday, where they’ll face conditions of their release.
“Coastal GasLink’s proposed conditions of release are punitive, unreasonable, and, in targeting Sleydo’ and Jocelyn, completely racist and sexist,” said Jennifer Wickham, a Wet’suwet’en spokesperson and Molly Wickham’s sister.
“Allowing a private corporation to determine two Indigenous women’s identities and allowing this corporation to deny our inherent rights to be Wet’suwet’en on our territory is a very dangerous precedent,” she said.
Staff lawyer Eugene Kung with West Coast Environmental Law told VICE World News that he doesn’t know CGL’s exact motivations, but he said, “it would be my guess they are trying to weaken a claim to being on the land, and any restrictions resulting from the (legal) proceedings, including conditions, could be challenged on that basis.”
“My guess is that they are nervous and trying to throw anything at the wall and hope it sticks, which to me shows a little bit of desperation,” Kung said.
University of Alberta professor Kim TallBear told VICE World News it’s not Coastal GasLink’s place to ask whether a person is Indigenous, unless it's for hiring purposes.
“Who is CGL to ask? If they were offering a job to somebody who was Indigenous and there was a preference for that, but this is not their place to ask,” TallBear said. “I don't even know why anyone is entertaining this demand or request… Settlers will stick their noses into this stuff wherever they can, but it’s not their business.”
According to Jennifer Wickham, Sleydo’ and Alec are facing charges of civil contempt for breaking the injunction, while CGL is seeking conditions of release, including a vast exclusion zone that would deny arrestees access to a large portion of their Wet’suwet’en territory.
TC Energy said it respects individual rights to “lawfully, safely, and peacefully express their point of view.” The company said it relies on authorities to safeguard individual rights in the area when others “act outside the law.”
“When the safety of our workforce is compromised and our ability to build our fully authorized and permitted project is stopped by individuals acting outside the law, we must rely on the authorities to ensure that the rights of all individuals in the area are respected and protected,” the statement says.
But Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs never ceded or surrendered their territory to settlers, and Wet’suwet’en people maintain that colonial courts have no jurisdiction over their territory.
Many, including Gidimt’en Clan, also say Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have a constitutional right to reject energy projects on their territory anyway. The Supreme Court of Canada’s 1997 Delgamuukw decision affirmed Wet’suwet’en land title rights, but also said they are “not absolute.”
For years, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, land defenders, and allies have been on the front lines, blocking the $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline. Wet'suwet'en elected officials have approved the pipeline project, but hereditary chiefs, viewed by many as the rightful leaders, haven’t.
Last week’s RCMP raids mark the third year in a row of militarized police enforcement—by canine units and assault rifles—targeting resistance camps on site.
In addition to dozens of land defenders, two journalists were arrested.