What’s next for Wet’suwet’en land protectors?

“When the glacier melts, the world will catch fire.”

That’s a warning, issued by elders, that drives Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs as they work to uphold their Nation’s laws.

Having been sidelined in consultation processes and left out of critical negotiations over industrial activity that is transforming their homelands beyond recognition, Dsta’hyl and other hereditary chiefs have joined forces to push back against Coastal Gas Link’s (CGL) natural gas pipeline through their northern B.C. territory. 

The hereditary chiefs’ actions are grounded in Canadian law. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Delgamuukw, a case in which the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan Nations claimed Aboriginal rights and title to land in Northern B.C. While the results from the case did not resolve the issue of title, the decision affirmed and provided Canadian recognition of the legal orders which the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan have lived under for generations. 

During the pipeline approval process, not a single person from CGL came forward to negotiate with hereditary chiefs or obtain permission to be on their land. In 2019, Dtsa’hyl and his fellow hereditary chiefs took matters into their own hands: chiefs blocked bridges and seized equipment to enforce an eviction order they had issued under Wet’suwet’en law. 

B.C. responded with a heavy hand. RCMP sent in their Community-Industry Response Group  —  a unit under investigation following allegations of widespread misconduct during arrests —  to enforce a sweeping injunction. These raids on land defenders taking peaceful direct action were violent, and effective. Arrests were made, and prosecutors laid criminal contempt charges against 19 land defenders. 

On February 20, the court issued a verdict: they found hereditary chief Dsta’hyl guilty of criminal contempt. 

Find out more about Wet’suwet’en’s struggle, and resistance, on a webinar focussed on the next steps hereditary chiefs are taking to protect the yintah – and all of us – from disastrous climate change. 

A Charter Challenge to protect the right to a safe climate is a novel legal approach that would not only serve Indigenous leaders responsible for safeguarding future generations, but all Canadians for whom climate change poses a grave existential threat. While Feb 20th’s verdict is consequential in the short term, Dsta’hyl and his compatriots are focussed on the long game, in which they — after abandoned negotiations, lacklustre consultation, and unconstitutional treatment from Canada —  are taking their survival as a people into their own hands.

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