During the second episode of the “We are Un-Frackable” webinar series, we delved deep into conversation that not only unpacked the legal strategy behind cases that will challenge the status quo on climate action, but we also learned about the hearts and hopes behind these legal pursuits for justice.
We were joined by Richard Overstall, a lawyer based in Penticton, British Columbia who began work with the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en peoples in the 1980s. He helped coordinate the scientific evidence in the Delgamuukw trial, and advised on the subsequent settlement and treaty negotiations, particularly in the areas of forest and land use. We were also joined by youth climate justice organizer and musician, Kiran Oommen, one of the 21 youth plaintiffs suing the US federal government on their actions fuelling the climate crisis.
The conversation was filled with heart-warming stories, inspiring strategies and tactics for using creativity to spur solidarity and action for Indigenous rights and climate justice. Richard shared with us one of his fond memories that spurred his motivation and commitment to these issues:
“It was a stunt with (Likhts’amisyu House Chief) Adam Gagnon. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans was harassing some of the older people when they were fishing and charging them with selling fish to non-Indigenous people. The right of Indigenous people to sell these fish hadn’t been tested in court, so Adam brought a whole bunch of fish in his pickup truck which we then parked underneath the federal fisheries offices. I walked up with my hundred dollar bill and handed it to Adam and we transferred the fish to my pickup. All of this was being recorded from the fisheries office windows and we had the media there, yet they didn’t do anything. I then drove to a friend’s house and before I had gone one block, along came the fisheries officer who confiscated the fish. I think they were intimidated by Adam, myself and the crowd of people so no charges were made so we couldn’t make it a test case unfortunately, this was before I was a lawyer. While we didn’t get charged we had a lovely time doing this stunt.”
Richard also shared with us how lawsuits go beyond just the legal framework but there are many different forms of assertion of rights and title on the land. He also emphasized how much the support of allies and donors means to the community.
“What usually happens in my experience with these types of cases when fossil fuel companies are involved…government lawyers and company lawyers tend to want to drag out the case with all kinds of motions and huge binders full of evidence we have to go through, so this will be expensive by the time we get through it. The support that RAVEN is able to put together is very important. The point about fundraising is that it puts the heart forward for the Wet’suwet’en chiefs and house members because Wet’suwet’en supporters are putting their money where their mouths are. There is a lot of stress and strain in these court cases, if people know their important work is being supported across the country and across the world, that really makes a huge difference.”
As for legal challenges across the colonial border on Turtle Island, Kiran described the important legal framework behind the youth-led lawsuit against the US federal government.
“In the US we can’t sue the government for not doing enough and unfortunately that has been the rhetoric. The US government is doing loads about climate change because they are causing it, by subsidizing oil and gas and not investing in renewable energies when they can. They continue to actively do things [that caused climate change] so the judge always says: “You can’t sue for not doing anything”, and we say: “Oh, that is not what we are doing, we are suing for the actions the government is doing. The government is harming the population through their active choices for decades.”
Kiran added, “There is a deeply entrenched understanding that climate change is bad, so I need to recycle or go vegan, those are good things but they won’t solve systemic issues. It has been the government and fossil fuel industries pushing personal choice into environmentalism because it turns our attention away from the actual perpetrators of the situation.” Kiran encouraged everyone to bring strengths and creative skills to this fight– they had recently organized a large benefit concert which unfortunately was cancelled because of the pandemic, but shows the possibility for gathering in joy and the ways we love, all for an important cause.
Stay involved with #solidarityfromhome as we gather in community online in support for Indigenous rights and environmental justice. If you are in the position to support the Wet’suwet’en legal challenges, please consider donating here.