PHOTO ESSAY | Struggle for Indigenous sovereignty sparks direct action

Campus Local National News Uncategorized

The last two weeks have seen an outpouring of direct action demonstrations across the country against the B.C. provincial and Canadian federal governments, in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people and their struggle to assert sovereignty over their territories.

The Wet’suwet’en people’s territory rights and title were affirmed by the Canadian Supreme Court in the historic 1997 Delgamuukw v. British Columbia case, but despite this, they have faced persistent encroachments by Coastal GasLink (CGL) in its attempts to push through a pipeline for the transportation of liquefied natural gas. As represented by their hereditary chiefs, the Wet’suwet’en people remain unanimously opposed to the construction of this pipeline, and in addition to this strongly voiced opposition, have maintained the Unist’ot’en Camp directly in its path and set up the Gidimt’en checkpoint to control access to their territory. 

On Jan. 4, the Wet’suwet’en formally evicted all CGL employees from the territory, and under threat of invasion from the RCMP, put out an international call to action to put pressure on the Canadian and B.C. governments. In addition to their continued requests for a meeting with B.C. Premier John Horgan, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs issued a list of demands. The demands included cessation of construction on the CGL pipeline, the withdrawal of the RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territory, and that UNDRIP and principles of free, prior, and informed consent be respected by the government and the RCMP. 

In response to this call, supporters of the Wet’suwet’en people on these Lkwungen territories separately organized back-to-back direct actions, shutting down the Swartz Bay BC Ferries terminal on the morning of Jan. 20, and conducting an Indigenous youth-led sit-in of the Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources for over 18 hours. The sit-in lasted from Jan. 21 into the morning of Jan. 22 before the Wet’suwet’en supporters were forcibly removed by municipal police.

Since CGL’s eviction, the RCMP have established an exclusion zone, setting up a checkpoint to restrict access to the territory, citing safety concerns. In a statement released on Jan. 30, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have agreed to a week of discussions with the BC government to de-escalate the conflict. In an email to CBC, the RCMP indicated their intent to remain on stand-by for the duration of the talks, but also remarked that “additional resources may be noted in the Smithers-Houston area,” re-affirming numerous reports of heavy and growing police presence in the region. 

Tensions are high as the land defenders anticipate a repeat of last year’s raid on the Gidimt’en checkpoint, and all eyes remain on Wet’suwet’en.

Demonstrators arrived at the Swartz Bay ferry terminal by 6:00 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 20 to prevent the first sailings to Vancouver. All photos by Joshua Ngenda.
A generator and floodlights were set up to clearly illuminate signs carried by the demonstrators.

Kolin Sutherland-Wilson of Gitxsan nation, who had recently completed his own week-long solidarity demonstration occupying the steps of the BC legislature building was on the scene of the ferry action to speak to media representatives.
The occupation of the Ministry of Lands, Mines, and Petroleum Resources began at 11:00 a.m. on Jan. 21 and lasted over 18 hours. The Indigenous youth inside the building live-streamed their sit-in on social media, to supporters across the country.
Throughout the night of the ministry sit-in, supporters of the sit-in outside the ministry photographed, videoed, and also live-streamed interactions with police on the scene.
External supporters maintained communication with a designated legal observer inside the building.
Earlier in the night, police liaisons negotiated with supporters to provide food and water to demonstrators inside.
Over 35 officers from the Victoria and Saanich Police departments were on the scene over the course of the action, according to participants who documented police names and badge numbers.
Interactions with police at the ministry sit-in escalated over the course of the night. Police first merely restricted access to the building, then pushed out a police line securing the area in front of the door. Demonstrators were given a final warning and opportunity to leave around midnight, but maintained a stand-off until 3:00 a.m. Wednesday morning before arrests and physical confrontation began.
After the first arrest, supporters outside the ministry laid themselves in front of the police van to prevent police from transporting Ma’amtagila matriarch and land defender Tsastilqualus.
In response to opposition from the crowd of supporters outside, police altered the arrest tactics to form a protective column of officers before attempting to move arrestees to the waiting vehicle.
Throughout the night, supporters kept up chants in solidarity with the demonstrators inside, including“Stand up, fight back,” “No more war/on Indigenous people,” “Decolonize/this is the hour/we do not respect your power,” and “The people/united/will never be defeated.”
The Indigenous youth inside the building stood with arms linked, awaiting their arrests.
After separating them from the larger group occupying the building, police carried them out through the mass of supporters outside, who drummed and sang the Women’s Warrior song through each arrest
As arrestees were loaded into the waiting police vans, they called out to the crowd, reiterating their support for Wet’suwet’en and their intent for a peaceful demonstration.
The arrest proceedings at the ministry paused halfway through for an ambulance to provide medical attention to one of the demonstrators occupying the building. Since then, a formal complaint of excessive use of force has been filed through the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner. The Victoria Police Department has denied allegations of injuries inflicted during the arrests, but committed to fully cooperating with any investigation, as reported by Victoria Buzz.
As Sutherland-Wilson was shut into the back of a police van on Wednesday morning, he shouted out his continued support of the Wet’suwet’en cause: “A victory for the Wet’suwet’en is a victory for all of us!”
Regalia worn during the demonstration had to be handed off to a supporter for safe-keeping during the arrest proceedings.