Democracy Now! speaks to Unist’ot’en member Dr. Karla Tait about yesterday’s RCMP violence against Wet’suwet’en people, and how it fits into the big picture of colonialism in Canada.
In Canada, armed forces raided native Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia Monday, with at least 14 arrests being reported. Land defenders faced off with Royal Canadian Mounted Police as the police breached two checkpoints set up to keep pipeline workers out of protected territory. Indigenous leaders are reportedly being blocked from their territory. TransCanada Corporation has been seeking entry into indigenous territory, where they are planning to build the massive $4.7 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline. Land protectors from First Nations clans set up two encampments where they had been physically blocking entry to TransCanada workers.
We speak with Karla Tait, a member of the Unist’ot’en House Group of the Gilseyhu Clan. Dr. Tait is also the director of clinical programming for the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Canada, armed forces raided native Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia Monday, with at least 14 arrests being reported. Land defenders faced off with Royal Canadian Mounted Police as the officers breached two checkpoints set up to keep pipeline workers out of protected territory. Indigenous leaders are reportedly being blocked from their territory.
WET’SUWET’EN LAND DEFENDER: The Wet’suwet’en have won rights and title to their lands. We did not hurt anyone. The hereditary chiefs say, “No, you cannot go through our lands.” And under your law, the authority is them.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: TransCanada Corporation has been seeking entry into indigenous territory, where they’re planning to build the massive $4.7 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline. Land protectors from First Nations clans set up two encampments where they had been physically blocking entry to TransCanada workers. This is a protester speaking after being arrested.
PROTESTER: There were a couple of the protesters who had secured themselves to the barricade inside. I’m not sure exactly how, but the rest of us were standing watching and singing, as they pried people loose. And the only thing I could do for myself was try to block the path between the bus and one side of the bridge. And I’m not a big person, but I was big enough to stand. And they had asked me to move, and I said, “No, I’m not moving. I’m here to the Wet’suwet’en, and I’m not moving.” And so they said, “Well, we can arrest you.” I said, “Yeah.” And I’m proud to have been arrested.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is Wet’suwet’en Chief Namox speaking after the arrests.
CHIEF NAMOX: Today was a perfect example of who steers the government. And it’s absolutely industry. Industry told government how to direct the RCMP. The RCMP removed the fence at the access point, arrested people, have charged a number of them. They were following the law of the Wet’suwet’en. What happened today was our trespass laws were broken. But according to Canadian law, who is being steered by industry, they say that these people are now criminals.
Now we need all Canadians to stand up and tell this government that they have to treat indigenous people as human beings, hereditary chiefs as true owners of this Wet’suwet’en land. And we will never give up our rights, title or jurisdiction or authority to any form of government.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Karla Tait, a member of the Unist’ot’en House Group of the Gilseyhu Clan. Dr. Tait is the director of clinical programming for the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre.
We thank you very much for being with us, Dr. Tait. Can you explain—first set the larger context for us. Where is this happening in British Columbia? Talk about what the larger struggle is right now.
DR. KARLA TAIT: So, this is occurring just outside of Houston, BC, on our unceded traditional territories. It’s about an hour’s drive down the forest service road.
And in terms of a larger context, the Unist’ot’en camp was established when my aunt took up her residence there in 2010. So she’s been living there on our territory for eight years. It’s been used by our chiefs, by our membership, for trapping and other purposes, for millennia before that.
And the reason that Freda took up her residence there and started fundraising to build our Healing Centre is she wanted to fulfill our family’s vision of bringing healing to our people on the land, but also she wanted to ensure that projects that were going to compromise the integrity of that healthy environment, of that healthy land, were not permitted to proceed without permission of our hereditary chiefs, who have jurisdiction over that land.
So, she’s been there for a long time, had defeated or maintained that territory against the Enbridge pipeline. And more recently, we’ve been faced with provincial permits and pressure to allow the Coastal GasLink to begin construction.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, the Coastal GasLink pipeline, could you talk about its potential impact on your lands? And also, this issue that the company is claiming it has gotten the necessary approvals from the elected leaders of the indigenous people—could you talk about the difference between the elected leaders and the hereditary chiefs?
DR. KARLA TAIT: Sure. I’ll start with the second question. So, we do have a hereditary governance system that’s been in place since time immemorial. It’s a highly stratified system in which hereditary chiefs belonging to each of the clans oversee their house group’s territory, and they’re responsible for stewarding it and ensuring that that land is available for use and benefit of their members, to provide for them.
The Wet’suwet’en law they abide to ensures that conduct on any respective house group’s territory isn’t going to negatively impact their neighbors. So, these projects, that are environmentally precarious—and we saw this with Enbridge—you know, our hereditary chiefs have been unified in their opposition, because there is too great a threat to the limited remaining territory that we have as Wet’suwet’en people, particularly for the Unist’ot’en. We have less than 10 percent of our traditional territory remaining that can actually support programs like our Healing Centre, which is based on connection to the land and revitalizing cultural identity.
And we need the land and the critical infrastructure there, such as the medicine-gathering grounds; the berry patches; the trap lines; the fresh, clean, potable water that runs through our territory and provides a spawning, like a salmon spawning estuary, headwaters that feed many more communities downstream, that split into two main river systems here in the north.
So, that hereditary system was recognized by the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa Supreme Court of Canada ruling of 1997, in which Canada recognized that we had never extinguished our aboriginal rights and title. We’ve never ceded or surrendered our territories. And the hereditary chiefs had provided that oral testimony on which that ruling was based.
Now, Coastal GasLink and many industry projects have been consulting and reaching out to band councils in Canada, which only have jurisdiction within the boundaries of their reservations. And reservation lands make up less than 1 percent of the territory in Canada. And all of the reserves, at least to my knowledge, that have signed on with this project are not within the pathway of the pipeline. That pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory goes through a number of traditional territories assigned or belonging to hereditary chiefs, who have all stated verbally their opposition to this pipeline and have never been—received any meaningful consultation, nor have they given consent to this project.
I guess I would add, as part of our Wet’suwet’en law and that responsibility to ensure our territories are intact and healthy for future generations and to be mindful of our activities that could negatively impact our neighbors, Coastal GasLink is a liquefied natural gas project, and so we are well aware that the environmental costs of fracking are huge. You know, they use up fresh water that is in limited supply in our world.
And moreover, you know, those proposed pipelines do breach. You know, we heard of an explosion near another First Nation here in Canada in October, near the Lheidli T’enneh community, and it caused the evacuation of the whole community. And in a remote setting like ours, where there are fragile systems in place, like pristine salmon estuaries, an explosion like that could be hugely detrimental and hard for the environment to recover from, and could compromise the safety of residents at our Healing Centre.
AMY GOODMAN: Karla—
DR. KARLA TAIT: Yes?
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the Canadian MP Nathan Cullen speaking on Monday.
NATHAN CULLEN: The main concern that I came up here today was to see the RCMP checkpoint denying Wet’suwet’en access to their own territory. Denying the press access to what is happening further up this road here also seemed to me not in the interest of public safety or peace. The Parliament, just a few months ago, stood and voted and passed the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If the current government thinks they can just do something in Parliament but not actually enforce it on the land, then I don’t know what that vote means.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Canadian MP Nathan Cullen. The environmentalist, activist, author Naomi Klein, professor at Rutgers University, tweeted, “A shameful day for Canada, which has marketed itself as a progressive leader on climate and Indigenous rights. It has just invaded unceded Wet’suwet’en territory and arrested land defenders, all for a gas pipeline that is entirely incompatible with a safe climate.”
Our guest, Dr. Karla Tait, a member of the Unist’ot’en House Group of the Gilseyhu Clan, a Native Canadian, speaking to us from a couple hours from the site of contention right now. If you can explain, Karla, what is happening right now? When did the Royal Canadian Mounted Police get involved? What kind of checkpoints or blockades have they set up? And describe what you understand has taken place with the arrests of, it looks like, at least 14 indigenous people at this point.
DR. KARLA TAIT: Well, to my knowledge, the police had breached the Gidimt’en checkpoint. And the Gidimt’en Clan is another of the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. That checkpoint was erected with the support of all five clans and was determined in a smoke feast, which is, I guess, our—where our laws are enacted within our communities, through the feast system.
And I understand, yesterday, that at least 23 units of police officers arrived on site, some of them members of a tactical response team that were dressed in fatigues and heavily armed. They blocked access for the public and anyone, actually, wishing to go on site at the 27-kilometer mark. And the Gidimt’en checkpoint on that forest service road is at the 44-kilometer mark, so quite a ways up, up the road. So a lot of media weren’t even able to witness how they planned to enforce the injunction.
From what I heard of contacts, you know, our—I know my hereditary chiefs had made efforts to go and be on our territory, to be with my aunt and my mother, who are at our camp right now, on our territory. And they were—they were denied access. Our Chief We’alih and Lht’at’en were not able to go in. Our Chief Knedebeas, however, was permitted to go as far as the 44 checkpoint to speak with a police liaison. None were permitted access any further.
It sounded like there was a great deal of fear from those at the checkpoint, just because of the force that had shown up for a peaceful protest. I know I’ve seen mixed reports and adjusted reports about some burning of pallets or other things at the site. I know some of the flags that we’d prepared for the nation were damaged. So, I guess I’m questioning where the arson—or who had started the arson. But I know that there were a few folks that were affixed to that gate, and there was some use of force to push through the gate and potentially some injuries to some of the land defenders there. And I did get confirmation that Molly Wickham, the spokesperson for the Gidimt’en, was one of the people detained and arrested.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, your aunt and her partner are both named in the injunction that Coastal GasLink secured from the courts. Have you had any offers of support from other First Nations in Canada or the United States, or are you asking for support from others outside the area?
DR. KARLA TAIT: We’ve had a really good showing of solidarity and support through our Unist’ot’en Healing Centre’s webpage. People have been donating to our legal fund. You know, I believe there’s a national day of action call-out that the Gidimt’en had requested, and a number of demonstrations going on across Canada and other countries, just to bring light to the fact that, you know, we are facing violations of our aboriginal rights and title here, and there is a great deal of force to remove us from what remains of our land and the violation of Canada’s commitment to the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
Moreover, we have this—established the fact that we’ve never ceded or given up rights to our territory, and that’s recognized in the highest court of Canada, through a really protracted, expensive court case, in which we paired up with the Gitxsan people. So, I think that this is a really key juncture for Canada and its relationship with indigenous people. And for all of the talk of reconciliation and all of the positive momentum we’ve seen even with the establishment of a self-determined or -governed health authority here in BC, there’s so many ways that Canada had been turning a tide, and I think instances like this reflect truly where Canadian interests lie. And it seems that they’re willing to ignore and overstep and oppress indigenous rights and title when it serves economic interests.
AMY GOODMAN: Karla Tait, I wanted to read from a statement issued by the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which claims jurisdiction in the area. They write, “For the land in question, where the Unist’ot’en camp is currently located near Houston, BC, it is our understanding that there has been no declaration of Aboriginal title in the Courts of Canada. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada issued an important decision, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, that considered Aboriginal title to Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en traditional territories. The Supreme Court of Canada decided that a new trial was required to determine whether Aboriginal title had been established for these lands, and to hear from other indigenous nations which have a stake in the territory claimed. The new trial has never been held, meaning that Aboriginal title to this land, and which Indigenous nation holds it, has not been determined.” Again, that’s a statement of the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Karla Tait, your response?
DR. KARLA TAIT: I would say those are colonial tactics that we’ve seen for the 150 years since Canada was colonized. You know, we are at an extreme disadvantage working to establish our rights and title in a court system that the state has the ultimate authority over. You know, the state drafts the laws. They control the legal force used to enact those laws.
And I think that court case was so significant, because, for the first time, our hereditary system, our hereditary chiefs were able to speak and provide testimony to the fact that we’ve occupied and governed our lands and maintained them for millennia through a complex governance system that predates Canada. So, it is an act of oppression to expect that we, through great expense, challenge that and provided that landmark case. And I’d say we were—you know, a good friend of mine put this in good words—understandably, took a breather and need to, in Canada’s eyes, do that next step.
And in our eyes, by hereditary law, we have pre-existing Wet’suwet’en law that governs these lands. So, by that note, I’d say Canada has the responsibility of showing how they have jurisdiction over territories that we governed long before Canada existed. It is complex, playing within a system that is markedly stacked against you. And so, I would say that this is an important critical juncture about the future of aboriginal rights and title and the relationship between Canada and its indigenous people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to go to Molly Wickham of the Gidimt’en Clan speaking Saturday night.
MOLLY WICKHAM: You know, people like to think that things have gotten a lot better in so-called Canada and in our communities and that things aren’t the same that they were 150 years ago. But that’s just a fallacy. It’s false, because we know, right now, in this reality, that the state is willing and capable of using the same kinds of violence that they have used against our people for the last 150 years here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Molly Wickham of the Gidimt’en Clan speaking Saturday night. Dr. Karla Tait, your understanding is she was one of the people arrested?
DR. KARLA TAIT: That’s correct. She was. I think she summed it up really clearly. She was acting at the direction of her clan and with the approval of her hereditary chiefs to defend that territory against trespass, essentially, is what is occurring. By Wet’suwet’en law, Coastal GasLink, the province are committing trespass on our unceded territories. They have never meaningfully consulted with our chiefs, and they forcefully removed members and guests from our territory, in the interest of an economic profit, you know. So, I think it’s a huge violation of our rights.
And my thoughts are with Molly and with my family, who’s still in Unist’ot’en, you know, and I’m very fearful for their safety. The relationship between aboriginal people and the police has not been a good one in Canada. You know, they were complicit in the removal of our children during the residential school era, which was legally sanctioned. So the removal of our people from our territories, from our limited remaining territories, is, I believe, an act of violence against our people.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Karla Tait, finally, your message to the world, what you want to see happen right now?
DR. KARLA TAIT: So, my message to the world is, we need support and solidarity. We need vocal dissent to this stance that Canada is taking against indigenous people. We need to hold our government accountable to the commitments that they make as a nation on the rights of indigenous people. And we just need respect and humanity shown to the original people of this land.
AMY GOODMAN: Karla Tait, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Dr. Karla Tait is a member of the Unist’ot’en House Group of the Gilseyhu Clan, speaking to us about the conflict that’s taking place right now in British Columbia. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.