Wet’suwe’ten leadership preparing for criminal trial over Coastal Gaslink

A well-known Wet’suwet’en land defender expressed concern that she and some supporters who oppose the Coastal Gaslink pipeline may go to jail after an upcoming trial.

“The human rights abuses, the Indigenous rights experiences we experience on the ground and that we have been experiencing for years, this is the first time that we are actually going to trial facing criminal charges for defending our lands and upholding laws,” said Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham).

For the past four years, there have been multiple police raids on Wet’suwet’en territory as RCMP enforce a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to stop those who oppose the pipeline from slowing construction.

Chiefs remain opposed to the pipeline running through their territory.

Last week, Amnesty International raised concerns over the forcible removal of land defenders and how they were treated by police.

In a report entitled, Indigenous land defenders criminalized, surveilled and harassed as pipeline construction continues on Wet’suwet’en territory, the organization said “Wet’suwet’en land defenders, Hereditary Chiefs and matriarchs are frequently harassed, intimidated, forcibly removed and criminalized by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and CGL’s private security guards for peacefully defending their unceded, ancestral and traditional lands.”

According to Sledyo’, five land defenders took a plea agreement last year. In 2023, thirteen Wet’suwe’ten and supporters are facing contempt charges for violating the injunction.

APTN News contacted the RCMP but didn’t receive a response before this story was published.

In the summer of 2022, Sledyo’, along with two other Wet’suwe’ten members, filed a civil suit against Coastal Gaslink, the RCMP and Forsyth Security alleging harassment and intimidation.

“Just as an example, the other day I was driving home, and I was followed by private security and the RCMP, both who I repeatedly asked to drive past me so I can pull over so they can go by me but they followed me, they continue to do that everywhere on the territory,” Sleydo’ alleged.

When complete, the Coastal Gaslink pipeline will carry fracked natural gas from northeastern B.C., to an export terminal in Kitimat on the coast.

It has the approval of 20 elected band councils along the route – but hereditary chiefs maintain those chiefs don’t have a say in what is developed on the territory – outside the reserve boundaries.

Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of what is known as the Delgamuwk case where the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that oral histories are valid evidence in a trial.

It also ruled that Aboriginal title exists as an “exclusive territorial right” that results from Indigenous peoples’ ancestral use and occupation of the land. It also clarified how Indigenous people could prove Aboriginal title.

It was a victory, but not a complete victory.

The court ruled Aboriginal title exists as a general legal principle but the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan had not proved their title to their territories. Instead, the court ruled “a new trial is warranted,” and sent it back to B.C.

The case never went to trial again.

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