Tensions have once again come to the surface in Wet'suwet'en territory these past few weeks. Coastal GasLink (CGL), which was thwarted last year by the #shutdowncanada movement, is attempting a new extractivist offensive, planning to drill under the Wedzin Kwa River. Using CGL's machinery to block the way of its workers, the access road to the drilling site was blocked on September 24, and an encampment was set up on site. The RCMP, who have been repeatedly denounced for excessive use of force,predictably came to the aid of the gas company. They were quick to arrest the land and water protectors and to dismantle the barricades. However, the barricades went back up almost immediately. Since then, land and water protectors have even put up a small house in the middle of the site most dramatically disfigured by CGL. This time, the struggle is not only about territorial sovereignty, but also about defending artifacts and historical evidence confirming that sovereignty.
With a permit issued by the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission, CGL has begun to destroy the Lhudis Bin site despite theologicalrecommendations from surveys conducted in 2015 and 2019. These reports indicated the presence of lithic stone tools and various artifacts confirming that Wet'suwet'en use of the land dates back thousands of years. Representatives of the Wet'suwet'en Nation had previously issued a complaint on February 14, 2019 to the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission regarding threats to these artifacts on these territories. However, according to the Commission, the operations conducted by CGL are in compliance under the terms of the Heritage Conservation Act and Oil and Gas Activities Act. The Office of the Wet'suwet'en, an NPO associated with the Gitxsan Nation and traditional leaders, claims that they have not been able to access this information.
The destructive actions CGL has committed were never accidents. It is part of the dual movement of colonization that consists of dispossessing indigenous communities of their territories and, in the process, denying their history and sovereignty over them. It is the history of Kanada that is repeating itself in accelerated form. In this regard, Sleydo' (Molly Wickham), a member of the Gidimt'en Clan, from Cas Yikh House, explains:
"It's evidence of our occupation of this land. This is legal evidence of our title. If they come and destroy this, they're wiping us off this territory. They're erasing the evidence of us being here. So, it's really important that it's protected."
A group of twenty Canadian and American archaeologists have written an open letter to the B.C. Archaeology Branch criticizing the work of Coastal GasLink. Despite this, the permits granted to CGL allow the work to go forward on the condition that any artifacts found on the site can be recovered before the site is destroyed.
While this decision may look good in the media, it actually contributes to the museufication of indigenous communities and the denial of their contemporary use of the land. According to Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, an archaeologist and lecturer at Simon Fraser University, the site must be understood as part of a vast network of routes traditionally used by Aboriginal people, but also as a space that is still key. Lhudis Bin is more than just an archaeological site; it is full of fruit trees and shrubs, including the prickly wood, used in traditional medicine to treat infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. There are also soapberry trees, blueberry bushes, trilobate viburnum and saskatoon bushes. As for the Wedzin Kwa River, it is at the heart of traditional and daily uses:
"It's so important because it's one of the last places where you can drink water right out of the river. It's one of the last places in the world where we can safely do that. That provides absolutely everything that we need to live. And we cannot afford to lose that ability," [Molly Wickham]
The drilling that is already underway directly endangers several species of salmon and trout, including the sockeye salmon. Not surprisingly, the latter is part of a reintroduction plan in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which has not prevented CGL from operating, revealing once again the primarily extractivist character of the Canadian state and its institutions.
We can see in this instance the three figures of the Indian as presented by Thomas King: "the dead Indian," "the living Indian," and "the legal Indian" the latter staying within the limits designated by the government and the extractivist companies. The "dead Indian" is that of bygone days, forgotten traditions. Fetishized and museified, a pure product of the colonial imagination, this image serves to sell merchandise or create tourist attractions. The " legal Indian " is the one identified by the Canadian colonial state and who will have to quietly return to the good path of civilization. Otherwise he would be a permanent thorn in the side of the Canadian project. The "living Indian" is not authentic, but is only a pale reflection of the past. At best, he will be allowed to recover the artifacts of the "dead Indian," but it will never be able to legitimately claim any sovereignty.
This new offensive of CGL is therefore nothing exceptional. It is perfectly in line with the logic of dispossession that has been in progress for several centuries. And this is not even the company's first affront this year. In recent months, CGL has also decimated other sections of forest, ignoring the lack of consent from the indigenous communities involved.
Last week, Gidimt'en Checkpoint launched an international call for solidarity actions, and the response from land and water protectors continues to this day. It should be noted that the RCMP Emergency Response Team, which was deployed in 2020 to attack the Unist'ot'en camp, is no longer mobilized in Fairy Creek, in the south of so-called British Columbia. The injunction against its defenders has not been renewed after more than a thousand arrests. This suggests a possible increase in repression of the Wet'suwet'en, as police forces move from one blockade to another. While this trend is worrying, it is also worth noting that the various decolonial and self-defence movements are continuing to overwhelm police capacity. The end of this saga remains unwritten.