The B.C. government is calling for the blockades by the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation outside of the Coastal GasLink project to end.
Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, says emergency access to over 500 Coastal GasLink workers due to the blockades on the Morice River Forest Service Road.
Starting at 5 a.m. Sunday, the clan told workers they had eight hours to “peacefully evacuate” the area before the main road into the Lhudis Bin territory was closed at 1 p.m.
The development comes 50 days after the establishment of Coyote Camp, which halted efforts by Coastal GasLink to build an essential part of the 670-kilometre pipeline that would transport natural gas from Dawson Creek in northeastern B.C. to Kitimat in the province’s North Coast region.
“Our government is concerned about the health, safety and well-being of those workers as the obstructions on the roads prevent access in and out of the worksites. The right to protest does not extend to criminal actions,” said Farnworth on Monday.
“Over the past three years, the Coastal GasLink project has been under construction and providing jobs and economic opportunities for thousands of people across northern British Columbia, including First Nations communities.
The project has all the permits necessary for the work currently underway, and the project is now over 50 per cent complete, says Farnworth.
Sleydo’, whose English name is Molly Wickham, is the spokesperson for the Gidimt’en Checkpoint, which controls access to the part of the Wet’suwet’en territory.
She said in a press release that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have “never ceded, surrendered, or lost title to the territory” and that Coastal GasLink employees have been breaching both Indigenous law and an eviction notice that was issued nearly two years ago.
“They have been violating this law for too long,” she said.
Farnworth says the province has attempted to facilitate discussions between Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and representatives of the Coastal GasLink project for many years.
“This fall, in response to protests and police enforcement of the injunction related to the pipeline project, the government engaged former President of the Haida Nation, Order of Canada recipient and respected Indigenous leader Miles Richardson as an interlocutor to encourage dialogue among the parties. Unfortunately, despite our government’s best efforts, these initiatives have not been successful.”
In response to the eviction, Coastal GasLink said in a press release that a B.C. Supreme Court injunction issued January 7th, 2020, allows the company to have “continued safe access” to the area.
“This is in the same region where the group has illegally blockaded a Coastal GasLink worksite, in defiance of the B.C. Supreme Court injunction, since September 25th,” the release said.
“Our primary concern continues to be for the safety of our workforce and the public. Coastal GasLink has continued to seek dialogue to resolve this situation, however, to date, these offers have not resulted in any response. We are actively monitoring this evolving situation.”
Jennifer Wickham, Gidimt’en Checkpoint media coordinator, said Gidimt’en Chief Dini ze’ Woos was in contact with officials from Coastal GasLink and that the clan had initially anticipated “full compliance.”
She said that around the 1 p.m. deadline, the company asked the chief for a two-hour extension for employees who were already on the sites to travel out of the territory boundary, but after two hours, no movement was made.
“I’m not sure what their intention was by asking for more time and then not doing what they said they would,” Wickham said. “I’m not sure how that benefits them.”
The 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline’s path approved the project, but Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs from all five clans of the nation claimed the project had no authority without consent through their traditional system of governance.
They issued and enforced an eviction notice against Coastal GasLink, sparking nationwide solidarity protests and paralyzing pipeline work throughout Wet’suwet’en land.
Wickham said Sunday’s eviction came with conditions that no RCMP officers travel past the 30-kilometre point on Morice River and that all workers leave peacefully without any violence or harassment.
“If either of those two things are breached, then the road would be closed immediately and they would have to figure out another way to get their employees out,” she said.
Dawn Roberts, the director in charge of B.C. RCMP communications, said police are aware of the notice and the situation is being monitored and continually assessed.
“We have had and will continue to have a police presence in the area. The primary responsibility of those officers has been to conduct roving patrols and respond to any complaints, but there has been no indications that I’m aware of that we were doing any enforcement today,” she said.
To date, B.C. has invested over $1.25 billion on the project, with more than $1 billion being awarded to Indigenous-owned businesses or joint venture partnerships, according to Farnworth.
With files from the Canadian Press