Tucked within the forest down a dirt logging road in the central interior of British Columbia is the Unist’ot’en Camp.
It’s the Unist’ot’en clan’s re-occupation of Wet’suwe’ten traditional lands.
Freda Huson built the camp to reconnect with her Indigenous culture and to teach land-based wellness.
“People keep calling this a protest camp and it’s not a protest camp,” said Huson. “It’s a homestead, we actually live here and we get visitors from all over the world that want to learn about what we are doing.”
The only access to Huson’s homestead is a bridge that is protected by a large gate.
It blocks the road that leads to the future Coastal GasLink pipeline.
Although Huson welcomes some visitors – not all are welcome.
She said she wants nothing to do with workers from the oil and gas business.
“Our medicines, our berries, the wildlife, the salmon, the water, the air we breathe, a lot of those are not replaceable,” she said. “If they destroy those and wipe out those species then they are wiping out our food and our way of life.”
Huson built the first cabin along the Morice River almost 10 years ago.
It’s location was strategic – the front line of a battle that continues to this day.
“The number one reason that I moved back out was because of my dad,” she said. “He said the only way we are going to win and protect our territory is you have to occupy.”
A decade ago, an Enbridge pipeline project was threatening the territory – so Huson built her home right where the pipeline was scheduled to run through.
And for 10 years, she has been able to keep unwanted industry out.
But Huson and her supporters now face their biggest challenge.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline.
The brand-new, 670-kilometre pipeline project will bring fracked gas down from Dawson Creek, B.C., to LNG Canada’s processing plant in Kitimat.
One hundred and ninety kilometres of that pipeline will run through Wet’suwe’ten territory.
Huson said she has the full support of the territory’s highest hereditary chiefs to stop it.
“Unist’ot’en is not standing alone. We have the Wet’suwet’en, the head hereditary chiefs and their clans backing us,” she said.
Hereditary Chief Na’moks says the Coastal GasLink pipeline challenges and ignores the authority of the Wet’suwe’ten hereditary chiefs and their feast system of governance, which was recognized by a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1997.
“Each of the clans have held feast in our feast hall, which is our Parliament building, stating we are opposed to this,” said Na’moks.
“It must always be recognized that we are unceded, undefeated and we have never signed any form of document saying that we as hereditary chiefs are not the law and jurisdiction on the land.”
TransCanada, the company building the Coastal Gaslink pipeline signed agreements with all 20 Indigenous communities along the route, including the Wet’suwe’ten’s band council.
But the hereditary chiefs say the band doesn’t have the jurisdiction to give consent on behalf of the entire territory.
“I think the number one thing that people have to realize is that a band is like a municipality,” Na’moks said. “They have jurisdiction within the band boundaries. The territory itself belongs to the people and we as hereditary chiefs we’re obligated through our names – through our culture for thousands of years – to look after it.
“The band’s only look after the infrastructure within a reserve.”
But Karen Ogen, the former chief of the Wet’suwe’ten Nation, who is responsible for consultations and who signed the agreement with the gas company, says there has to be give and take for the good of the community.
“I really believe there’s a place for both levels of government to be working together for the people,” she said.
“But it seems a bit of a power struggle because the elected system isn’t going away any time soon and the hereditary chiefs system isn’t going away at all.
“As far as I’m concerned, the hereditary chiefs look after their clan members and the land, the elected chiefs look after the members and everything under the sun with very few resources to do it.”
Ogen says she’s not actually proud that she signed the agreement.
“I wouldn’t say proud. I did my job as the chief of the nation to take care of the people and our environment.”
Despite not having approval from the hereditary chiefs, Coastal GasLink recently tried to get past the gate to conduct preparation work at the pipeline site.
But members of the homestead turned them away.
The company, in turn, responded with an injunction application and civil suit.
Freda Huson says she’s not going anywhere.
“I live here, this is my home,” she said. “And I don’t plan to leave.”
Members of the homestead expect to be in court sometime this month.
Construction on the pipeline is scheduled for the first quarter of the new year.