Wet’suwet’en cabin burned in suspected arson, but chief says land protection will continue

Land defenders had been using Hereditary Chief Gidsay’wa’s cabin as a meeting place to oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline

A cabin belonging to a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief has burned down along a contested forest service road near Houston, B.C.

Clan members are calling it arson but the cause is currently under investigation by the RCMP.

On Aug. 15, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Gisday’wa was disheartened to see his cabin smouldered to ashes.

He and his wife were set for a trip on the territory when they found police with the site taped off. The fire was still burning early that morning.

“I said what’s going on here,” Gisday’wa recalled in a phone interview with APTN News. “I said this is my territory, and that’s my cabins. They said there was an arsonist or something. They said they got a call at 9 a.m. about that fire.”

Earlier this year, when RCMP enforced an injunction against land defenders opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, Wet’suwet’en and their supporters used Gisday’wa’s cabin as a meeting place.

It was located on the 27 km mark on the Morice West Forest Service Road — outside the restricted injunction zone established by RCMP.

Read more: The Delgamuukw decision: Putting the Wet’suwet’en conflict in perspective

Gidimt’en Access Point Spokesperson Molly Wickham believes someone deliberately set fire to the cabin.

Wickham said that before the incident, those opposed to the pipeline faced hostility from some locals.

“A week ago, there were people driving by Gidimt’en checkpoint and shooting rifles off,” she said. “There are many vehicles that come by and throw garbage at people that are in the camp.”

RCMP spokesperson Madonna Saunderson told APTN in an email that police are investigating the incident.

“The fire occurred sometime overnight between Friday, August 14, 2020 and Saturday, August 15, 2020,” she said. “The fire was originally reported to the BC RCMP Community–Industry Response Group (CIRG) Quick Response Team (QRT) members who have been working in the Houston area, and they attend the scene.

“Houston detachment frontline members and the Regional General Investigative Section were called to the scene to assist in the investigation,” Saunderson continued. “The Forensic Identification Section was also called to the scene to process any evidence gathered in the area. Houston RCMP has conduct of the investigation, and it remains ongoing.”

Gisday’wa says the cabin burning reminded him of the time his parents’ house burned down in Smithers i the 1950s, and they had to relocate.

“Our house was the first one to be burnt, around 1953,” he said. “Then they burned all the other houses down just so they could have that land.”

Wickham said although no one was in the Gisday’wa cabin at the time, it doesn’t give anybody the right to vandalize their sites.

“This was meant to be somewhere our chiefs could come, and people could gather for years to come. We have cabin sites all over the territory since forever,” she said. “We have gathering places, we have even had feast halls on the territory. So the fact somebody’s not in [there] 24/7 doesn’t mean that it’s open for vandalism.”

Gidimt’en members are in discussions about building a new meeting place.

“We are already talking about how we are going to support to have a gathering place, to build something bigger and better,” said Wickham. “People think they can take us out, that we are just going to go away, but they need to start realizing we aren’t going away. We will always be there and if we have to keep rebuilding, that’s what we’ll do.”

Before the pandemic hit, the Wet’suwet’en conflict made headlines across the country.

They want people to know they are still on the territory protecting their rights.

“What we are fighting for right now is so our grandkids and great-grandkids don’t have to go through what we’re going through: fighting for our land, fighting for rivers, and fighting for our wildlife,” said Gisday’wa.

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