Written by Charlotte Powers
The Canadian economy is coming to a grinding halt as thousands of protestors construct rail blockades across the country. The protests are in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people, an indigenous population in Western Canada. The Wet’suwet’en are protesting the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their territory.
The Coastal Gaslink Pipeline is a 416-mile-long natural gas pipeline that runs across the Canadian province of British Columbia. The pipeline is owned by TC Energy, who was given a contract to build the pipeline in 2012.
Controversy began when it was revealed that several sections of the pipeline would run through the traditional lands of many First Nations, the self-governing indigenous populations of Canada. The hereditary chiefs of one such nation, the Wet’suwet’en, declared that they would not allow the pipeline to be built on their land.
Wet’suwet’en land was never ceded to the Candian government, which means that the Wet’suwet’en maintain sovereignty of their land under Candian law. However, TC Energy began work on the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline anyway. Protestors from Wet’suwet’en and elsewhere began blockading the access road to the construction site, which prompted the Supreme Court of British Columbia to issue an injunction against the protesters on Dec. 31, 2019.
The protesters defied the injunction and continued to refuse access to pipeline construction workers. On Jan. 1, 2020, the Wet’suwet’en chiefs served an eviction notice to the Coastal Gaslink Company. The notice warned the pipeline workers that they were “currently trespassing” on unceded Wet’suwet’en land.
Hoping to prevent an escalation in the protests, the government of British Columbia reached out to the Wet’suwet’en, offering seven days of meetings to negotiate a favorable outcome. However, the talks broke down after only two days, on Feb. 5.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) intended to enforce the injunction by arresting the Wet’suwet’en protestors and disassembling their roadblock. On Feb. 10, the RCMP arrested more than 80 protesters on Wet’suwet’en land and in Vancouver, including several of the First Nation’s matriarchs. Journalists, who had previously been prohibited from entering Wet’suwet’en land by the RCMP, were permitted to document this raid. One video from that raid depicts a RCMP officer aiming his sniper rifle at the protestors.
Standing in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, protesters began blockading roads and railways across Canada. CN Rail, one of Canada’s largest rail companies, announced that it would be halting all of its trans-continental shipments due to the blockades. Via Rail, Canada’s leading passenger rail service, announced that they were cancelling more than 150 trains for at least a week.
The continued blockades have forced the Canadian federal government to come to the table. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote to the leaders of the Wet’suwet’en and the rail blockades, making clear his intention to work toward a resolution with the protesters. “As you know, our government has been clear that there is no more important relationship to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples,” Trudeau wrote on Feb. 13.
While the protests were originally focused on the construction of new pipelines, they have greatly increased their scope, critically examining how the Canadian Government treats its indigenous populations, particularly when it comes to unceded land.