Last week, a Wet’suwet’en chief seized heavy equipment at a series of worksites along the historic Kweese War Trail in northern British Columbia, enforcing ancient trespass laws against pipeline contractors who ignored his warnings for a year.
On Oct. 27, after a four-day campaign that left a snowy mountain road littered with nearly a dozen immobilized bulldozers, rock trucks and excavators, Chief Dtsa’hyl (Adam Gagnon) was ambushed by RCMP and Coastal GasLink (CGL) security and arrested without incident.
Dtsa’hyl is one of several Wet’suwet’en hereditary name holders to be criminalized for efforts to uphold the nation’s sovereignty. In January 2019 and January 2020, the RCMP led high-profile militarized raids of blockade camps and a healing lodge deep in unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. That incursion sparked protests and solidarity actions across Canada.
If completed, the CGL pipeline would deliver gas from fracking operations in northeast B.C. to an export terminal in the port town of Kitimat. The project is propped up with billions of dollars in tax credits and subsidies from both the federal and provincial governments.
But leaders in the Likhts’amisyu (Fireweed Clan) government, which long predates the founding of Canada, say they have never been consulted on the pipeline—which crosses lands that do not belong to the Crown.
“We’re dealing with a snake with no head,” Dtsa’hyl said in one video posted to social media last week as he disabled a line of machines across the entrance to a remote pipeline camp, confiscating components. “None of the executives of CGL will come to the table unless we have a few assets.”
Coastal Gaslink’s parent company, TC Energy, did not reply to requests for comment.
In a press release, police said “Houston RCMP have received several calls of complaints about the protest group allegedly committing acts of vandalism and thefts to CGL equipment in the area.” Dtsa’hyl faces criminal charges for mischief and theft, and a civil charge for breach of an injunction protecting the pipeline route.
He called the charges “insulting,” pleaded not guilty and was released on conditions pending trial in February.
Arrested alongside Dsta’hyl was Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, who was riding in Dtsa’hyl’s red pickup truck when police and security guards surrounded and blocked them on a single-lane bridge.
“I stand here as a diplomatic prisoner of the Gitxsan nation,” Sutherland-Wilson said smiling, holding his handcuffed fists above his head. His house group, Wilp Git’luuhl’um’hetxwit, is part of the same Fireweed Clan.
“I fully stand behind the Likhts’amisyu Clan Government, and all those who seek to uphold the traditional laws of the land.” Sutherland-Wilson was charged with possession of stolen property and released on the condition that he stay away from the area, except for the purposes of hunting or trapping.
Wet’suwet’en people illegally barred from territory
While her relatives faced a column of police, Likhts’amisyu Chief Tsebesa was blocked from her land, dozens of kilometres away, by an impromptu barricade of CGL heavy machinery and security personnel. Under Wet’suwet’en law, Tsebesa is responsible for the territory of Lho Kwa (Glacier River) where Dtsa’hyl temporarily stopped pipeline construction.
The valley is cut through by an ancient footpath called the Kweese War Trail. According to Wet’suwet’en oral history, it is lined with the bodies of warriors who succumbed to their wounds returning from a war waged centuries ago against trespassers who had murdered the family of a high chief. Before Coastal Gaslink, Lho Kwa was entirely untouched by roads or industry, standing out within the 22,000 square kilometers of unceded Wet’suwet’en land as the single most intact area.
“They have destroyed it,” Dtsa’hyl said. “It is just incredible, the site degradation on the most pristine mountains, side hills, river banks. It’s beyond belief.” Parts of the Kweese Trail, including archeological sites and culturally modified trees that prove continuous use since before European colonization, have simply been bulldozed.
“This has been done without consent. There’s been absolutely no consultation with our hereditary chiefs,” Tsebesa said. “They had just kind of snuck under people’s noses and come up and done what they wanted to do to the place.”
On Oct. 24, Dtsa’hyl and Tsebesa traveled with a caravan of Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan family members toward Lho Kwa, intending to witness the destruction of the territory. After being assured by pipeline security guards that they would be escorted through, Dtsa’hyl and Tsebesa were blocked by a rock truck parked across the road.
Radio chatter suggested the group was deliberately delayed by security, while contractors were instructed to create a barricade.
CGL has previously been warned by regulators against illegally excluding Wet’suwet’en people from their lands, after Gidim’ten Clan supporting chief Sleydo’, Molly Wickham, was stopped from monitoring pipeline construction. Last Sunday contractors refused to budge, in breach of their permit.
“We’re not going anywhere. We’ll stay here for a day, a week, a month. Whatever it takes,” Dsta’hyl told Coastal Gaslink’s security, as supporters built a bonfire and set up a makeshift camp at the site of the CGL barricade.
Part of the group turned around, while others advanced in the dead of night. By early Monday morning, CGL’s rock truck barricade had been pushed to the side of the road, with heavy equipment tracks leading up to the scene. With the road open, a caravan of supporters followed the pipeline route to the gates of CGL’s most remote work camp, where contractors set up a new line of machines to halt the Likhts’amisyu advance.
Amid a stockpile of 48-inch steel pipe, Dsta’hyl once again set up camp, disabling several pieces of heavy equipment and transforming them into sleeping quarters and an outdoor kitchen.
“It’s not your guys’ equipment,” Dsta’hyl told CGL’s private security on Oct. 26, as he inspected the machines blocking his path. “As of now it’s Wet’suwet’en property. Likhts’amsiyu government property.”
As workers and private security looked on and recorded, Dsta’hyl and a small crew approached and methodically removed components from the machines, temporarily cutting off the camp to vehicle traffic and immobilizing pipeline work.
“It’s amazing that Dtsa’hyl was able to come up and do what he did, almost completely reliving our historical story about the Kweese wars,” Tsebesa reflected. “I’m very thankful to Dtsa’hyl for stepping up and recognizing the significance and importance of this territory, and really breathing life back into it and showing this land the respect that it deserves.”
There is no treaty, no bill of sale or formal agreement between the Wet’suwet’en or Gitxsan peoples and Canada. The 1997 Delgamuukw–Gisday’wa Supreme Court of Canada decision found that Aboriginal title— a collectively held right to exclusively use and occupy land—has never been extinguished across 58,000 square kilometres of Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan territory.
Dsta’hyl cited the Delgamuukw–Gisday’wa decision repeatedly in his conversations with CGL contractors and police, reminding them who the real authority is on Wet’suwet’en territory: the Wet’suwet’en people, through a traditional system of laws that long predates Canada or its colonial courts.
It was under these laws, in January 2020, that the high chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en clans issued and enforced an eviction notice against Coastal Gaslink, blocking construction for over a month.
“We must re-assert our jurisdiction over these lands, our right to determine access and prevent trespass under Wet’suwet’en law, and the right to Free Prior and Informed Consent as guaranteed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” the eviction notice states. “Moving forward, we insist you respect our human rights, our rights as Indigenous people, and our authority as Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs.”
The Crown responded with waves of militarized police raids, arresting Wet’suwet’en Tsake’ze (female chiefs) and Skiy’ze (children of chiefs) on their own land and clearing the road for the pipeline company.
Reflecting on this week’s actions after release from a jail cell in Houston, Dtsa’hyl said, “Wet’suwet’en law was a heck of a lot more stringent than it is today. In the old days, what happened with Wet’suwet’en law was trespassers were only given one warning. They come back again, they were shot.
“That’s just our law,” he continued. “And now we are watering it down, and we are looking at assets that have no soul. None of these pieces of equipment have souls. So they’re not losing nothing other than their equipment. And we deliberately chose equipment because it’s not the workers’ fault that CGL is so unscrupulous.”
Returning to the gates of the man camp to retrieve his belongings, Dsta’hyl found many of his possessions vandalized. Charged with theft, he refuted the idea that he had stolen anything—the machines were simply “immobilized” until CGL could file an appeal with the Likhts’amisyu government to retrieve the equipment.
“In return, we wanted them off our land.”
An ancient alliance
The last time police raided Wet’suwet’en territory, Kolin Sutherland-Wilson started a solitary protest on the steps of the B.C. legislature in Victoria that ballooned into a weeks-long occupation. Ports, rail lines, highways and government offices were all blocked in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, in a nationwide movement dubbed #ShutDownCanada.
“If anyone is wondering about the state of nation to nation relationships within Canada, in this era of so-called reconciliation, just look at the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en hereditary governments,” Sutherland-Wilson said after he was released from custody last week. “We are repeatedly being arrested, dehumanized and subjected to the aggression of both RCMP and Coastal Gaslink contractors, who have basically been enabled as vigilantes.”
“This is a situation that should be diplomatically navigated by both the federal government and the provincial government to resolve things peacefully with the title holders of the land,” he said. “Instead we’re seeing the RCMP and industry used in concert to continue the agenda of exterminating our rights and title as Indigenous people.”
The Git’luuhl’um’hetxwit shut down clearcutting on their territory six months ago, erecting a steel gate guarded by a permanent camp outside the village of Anspayaxw, or Kispiox. Likhts’amisyu chiefs travelled to Gitxsan territory in June to join a meeting with provincial forestry officials, an act of solidarity returned by Git’luuhl’um’hetxwit members this week.
Rebuilding a village
Dtsa’hyl, a master carpenter, builder and musician, previously tangled with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans over restrictions on Indigenous fisheries. In addition to his duties monitoring Likhts’amisyu territories, he has been active in reclaiming a village site at Parrott Lake, south of Houston.
In recent years, log cabins, greenhouses and garden plots have been built circling a lake of lily pads, kingfishers, and jumping rainbow trout. Solar panels power a communal kitchen, and keep a satellite internet connection running. In the summer Wet’suwet’en families bring their kids out to swim in the lake, and learn about their history and culture.
By agreement with Recreation Sites and Trails B.C. the Likhts’amisyu have kept a public recreation site as part of the lakeside village, welcoming campers and canoeists from all over the region. Still, some locals have openly threatened to burn down the village, echoing a long history of arson attacks that have challenged Wet’suwet’en presence on their land from the earliest decades of colonization to the present day.
On Oct. 17 Dtsa’hyl intercepted and disabled a Coastal Gaslink excavator operating without permission upstream from Parrott Lake, in the eastern portion of Likhts’amisyu territory. “I gave all you guys the warning last year,” he told a security guard. “You guys are not supposed to be here, and I let everybody know that your equipment is going to be subject to seizure. We are going to decommission and seize your equipment.”
Confronted this week by a Coastal Gaslink security guard who tried to read him the injunction, Dtsa’hyl put it simply: “We’re not a part of B.C., we’re not a part of Canada. So that injunction is completely invalid on Wet’suwet’en territory. Our laws predate common law.”