Crown prosecutors have charged Indigenous land defenders with criminal contempt for defying a court order that banned interference with Coastal GasLink pipeline construction on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. A total of 19 people face charges, including Sleydo’, a spokesperson for the Gidimt’en Clan who was one of more than two dozen people arrested last November during an RCMP crackdown against Wet’suwet’en blockades. The criminal prosecution of land defenders is an act of blatant political repression that must be opposed by all workers and oppressed people.
Sleydo’, also known as Molly Wickham, resides with her family near the construction zone for Coastal GasLink’s 670-km natural gas pipeline, located on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia. Coastal GasLink claims that it has signed agreements with 20 elected band councils and therefore has Indigenous approval for the pipeline being built for LNG Canada. But the band councils are a colonial institution that only have jurisdiction over small reserve areas. Hereditary chiefs traditionally have jurisdiction over the unceded Wet’suwet’en land that the pipeline route runs through.
Others facing contempt charges include Shay Lynn Sampson, a member of the neighbouring Gitxsan Nation who has served as youth engagement coordinator for the group Indigenous Climate Action; and two leaders of the Land Back movement, Skyler Williams and Corey Jocko. Williams, who is Haudenosaunee, travelled to Wet’suwet’en territory to support hereditary chiefs and land defenders. The Indigenous revolutionary has faced persecution from the Canadian state following a successful stand against land developers on unceded Haudenosaunee territory at 1492 Land Back Lane, including his violent arrest in Toronto for speaking out against police brutalization of homeless encampments.
The bringing of contempt charges against Indigenous land defenders for fighting to protect their traditional lands, which is Wet’suwet’en territory according to Canadian law and for which the Crown has no legal jurisdiction, is pure state repression. The Canadian ruling class, which claims to respect “the rule of law” and under Justin Trudeau has professed its commitment to “reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples, has shown its true face: that of a bully for whom might makes right. As the tool of Canada’s capitalist class, the Canadian state exists to guarantee their profits and defend their interests. When the rights of Indigenous people clash with those interests, the state has always used every means at its disposal to crush Indigenous resistance. For the ruling class, the legality of its actions are irrelevant. As the ancient Greek philosopher Anacharsis said, “Written laws are like spiders’ webs, and will, like them, only entangle and hold the poor and weak, while the rich and powerful will easily break through them.”
Mass movements threaten the bosses
This latest repression follows years of struggle in which Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters have regularly faced off against militarized police. In January 2019, the RCMP attacked and dismantled the Gidimt’en checkpoint on Wet’suwet’en territory and arrested 14 people, which led the hereditary chiefs to allow access to pre-construction work behind the checkpoint while vowing that the fight was not over. In January 2020, after Coastal GasLink obtained a court injunction preventing interference with pipeline construction, the RCMP unleashed a full offensive against the Wet’suwet’en, blocking off the population of the territory, media, and food supplies; raiding one of the land defenders’ camps; and arresting dozens of people. That attack sparked a mass movement across Canada in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en that saw solidarity protests, occupations, and railroad blockades, which panicked governments and terrified the ruling class. The same month, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs issued a mandatory evacuation order for Coastal GasLink and all pipeline workers.
On Nov. 14, 2021, members of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation set up a blockade to enforce the eviction order, ordering Coastal GasLink to cease operations and leave their territory. Four days later, the RCMP forcibly cleared the blockade and arrested 27 people, which included Sleydo’, Sampson, and two journalists. Conditions upon their release from jail varied based on their identity. Wet’suwet’en members could return to the “exclusion zone” to engage in traditional cultural practices, but non-Wet’suwet’en members could not return at all except to pick up belongings or, for the journalists, to engage in “legitimate” work practices.
Land defenders released from jail were ordered to not interfere with building of the Coastal GasLine pipeline. While other Wet’suwet’en had to stay 10 metres away from construction worksites and equipment, Sleydo’ was ordered to stay 75 metres away. Even that order was a compromise between Coastal GasLink lawyers, who had called for Sleydo’ not to be allowed in a “court-ordered exclusion zone” around the pipeline at all, and Justice Marguerite Church of the B.C. Supreme Court, who warned that Sleydo’ may face harsher orders in the future if she violated her release conditions.
In April, Church invited prosecutors to bring charges against those arrested in November, noting that acts of resistance were “escalating”. Coastal GasLink lawyer Kevin O’Callaghan argued that the people arrested had willfully defied a court order to stay away from the construction zone knowing they would receive public attention. Church agreed, showing the unanimity of the state and Coastal GasLink: “There has been extensive use of mainstream media and social media to attract attention to the actions of the protesters,” the judge said. The message was clear: Canadian capitalists and their state were worried that growing support for Wet’suwet’en land defenders might threaten the scheduled 2023 completion of the pipeline, which at a cost of $40 billion represents the largest private-sector investment in Canadian history.
Although the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1997 in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia that the Wet’suwet’en had never ceded their land or extinguished the rights and title to their traditional territory, the court did not fully define those rights and title and left that up to a future case. But as Fightback noted in February 2019:
The Wet’suwet’en have never had the financial resources to launch a claim and legally determine title to their lands due to the enormous costs of an Aboriginal title case. However, the oil corporations and provincial and federal governments are terrified at such a prospect because a ruling recognizing Wet’suwet’en title over their traditional territory would put an end to multiple pipeline projects. This explains the urgency on the part of the oil corporations and the provincial and federal governments to get injunctions issued against the Wet’suwet’en checkpoints, and to get the pipelines constructed as quickly as possible before the legal ground can shift.
A May update in the B.C. business press reported that two of eight sections of the Coastal GasLink pipeline have now been built and the overall project was 65 per cent complete. But it also noted concerns that the project was falling behind schedule and seeing cost overruns, and that there had been “no pipe laid in [a] section plagued by protests”. With investors more and more nervous, the Canadian state has sought to crush the blockades by prosecuting the movement’s leaders and making an example of them. It is a chilling warning to anyone who would stand in the way of Canada’s capitalist class: “Continue to resist, and we will destroy you.”
Labour movement must act
The struggle for Indigenous rights is the same fight as the struggle of the broader labour movement. The state is an instrument for the oppression of workers and all marginalized groups. The police who arrest Wet’suwet’en land defenders also arrest trade union leaders on picket lines. The courts that issue injunctions against pipeline blockades issue injunctions against workers to stop them maintaining hard pickets against scabs.
Last year, we saw a tremendous example of united action when in response to a mining development in Nunavut, Inuit hunters blockaded the Baffinland airstrip and mine access road. A group of miners wrote a letter expressing their solidarity with the Inuit. This kind of solidarity points the way forward for our movement. As we wrote at the time:
The labour movement has every interest in supporting the Indigenous struggle to force companies to bend to the demands of Indigenous autonomy and consent. Development projects cannot carry on without the consent of the working class. Any labour action in opposition to corporate developments would only strengthen the struggle against the continued exploitation and oppression of Indigenous peoples. Defeating corporate encroachment on Indigenous land would only weaken the rightwing [sic] and the capitalists, thus strengthening the working class struggle in general. In order to make this a reality, the labour movement must openly and firmly link up with the struggle waged by Indigenous people.
Organized labour everywhere must demand that all charges be dropped against opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline who are being prosecuted for defying the court injunction, and do everything in their power to realize these demands up to and including solidarity strikes. Workers involved in the pipeline project itself have a unique opportunity to bring together the movements for Indigenous and workers’ rights. At the end of June, amid rising inflation, almost 200 LNG Canada camp workers called on the company to extend to them the same 12-per-cent wage increase it had granted to building trades workers the previous month. Any job action affecting pipeline construction, if it were to include demands to drop all charges against land defenders, would not only maximize pressure on the state to drop the charges, but on the bosses to grant workers’ demands for better wages and working conditions.
Drop all charges against land defenders!
Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers, unite against capitalism!