Wet’suwet’en land defenders in Canada face risks experienced by environmental human rights defenders around the world

Published by Brent Patterson on

The Indigenous Wet’suwet’en land defenders protecting their territory in northern British Columbia from the construction of the TC Energy Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline are experiencing many of the situations, risks and dynamics that environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) around the world encounter.

Challenging extractivism – EHRDs are commonly at risk for opposing destructive extractive projects such as mining, hydroelectric dams, logging and agribusiness. The Wet’suwet’en oppose a fracked gas pipeline on their territory.

Megaprojects – EHRDs have experienced increased rates of violence when they oppose a megaproject that impacts their community. The $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline is a 670-kilometre infrastructure project that would lead to a $40 billion liquefied natural gas plant financed by transnational corporations.

Current development model – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michael Forst has commented that the root of environmental conflicts includes an imbalance of power, turning nature into a commodity, impunity and the current development model. The Coastal GasLink pipeline would transport fracked gas to the LNG Canada terminal approved by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office.

Seeking to stop violence – EHRDs often express concern about community tensions and the violence that can come with a megaproject. The Wet’suwet’en are concerned by the violence against Indigenous women that comes with the man camps that house the workers who would build the fracked gas pipeline on their remote territory.

Free, prior and informed consent – Indigenous EHRDs struggle to have their right to free, prior and informed consent (under ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) respected.  The Wet’suwe’ten hereditary chiefs have not given their free, prior and informed consent to the fracked gas pipeline.

Harassment – EHRDs commonly face harassment by police and private security forces. The Unist’ot’en have stated that have faced targeted and sustained harassment and intimidation tactics by police and private security on a daily basis.

Criminalization – Indigenous EHRDs are often criminalized for occupying their own territory (commonly framed as “aggravated usurpation” or illegal occupation). While the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized the Wet’suwet’en as the rightful title holders of the territory, a lower court granted TC Energy an injunction to prevent the Wet’suwet’en from blocking pipeline construction work on their territory.

Impunity – EHRDs are often subject to violence and harassment by state forces. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has argued that the RCMP decision to restrict movement from the 27-kilometre mark to the 4-kilometre mark on the Morice West Forest Service Road lies outside the scope of the B.C. Supreme Court injunction. And yet the police have maintained this exclusion zone and arrested human rights observers within it.

Gender-specific violence – EHRDs are often women (WEHRDs). They face the same risks as other defenders, but they are additionally exposed to gender-based violence and gender-specific risks. Unist’ot’en Matriarchs Freda Huson (Chief Howihkat), Brenda Michell (Chief Geltiy), and Dr. Karla Taiit were arrested today while holding a ceremony to call on their ancestors and to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

State violence – EHRDs are unarmed and peaceful but face armed force. The RCMP raid on Wet’suwet’en territory has reportedly involved helicopters, assault rifles, snipers, handguns, sound cannons and police dogs against unarmed land defenders.  

Judicialization – EHRDs are often arrested and detained in lengthy criminal justice proceedings that divert from their ability to protect their lands and waters. Twenty-eight land defenders and human rights observers have been arrested over the 5-day police raid. Some of those arrested were charged with contempt despite not violating the injunction.

Prolonged struggle for justice – EHRDs must commonly endure long struggles against ongoing injustices, impunity, incarceration and threats, and rely on international solidarity to sustain their struggle. While the Wet’suwet’en were removed from their land today, they remain resolute in their commitment to protect their land, waters, culture, and sovereignty.

To read more about these situations, risks and dynamics faced by EHRDs, please see Enemies of the State? How governments and businesses silence land and environmental defenders and Global Analysis 2019.

For more on what is happening to the Wet’suwet’en land defenders, you can follow their social media feed at Unist’ot’en Camp and Gidimt’en Checkpoint.

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