The Law Union of British Columbia stands in solidarity with the Unist’ot’en House Group and the Gitdumden Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in defence of their traditional territories from colonial encroachment, in the form of Coastal Gaslink’s proposed natural gas pipeline. We call upon Coastal Gaslink and the Canadian and BC governments to recognize and respect the sovereignty of the Wet’suwet’en people and to cease plans to construct a natural gas pipeline on their territory.
The Unist’ot’en and Gitdumden have not given free, prior, and informed consent for the use of their lands for the construction of a pipeline. By continuing with the project despite the lack of consent, Coastal Gaslink is operating in violation of both Canadian and international law. The Canadian government, by providing not only tacit but explicit support – through, among other things, the deployment of police forces to compel compliance with court orders – is also in violation of its own domestic and international legal obligations. The BC government, by granting the company approval to build without consent on unceded territory, is violating its own promise to respect Indigenous rights and contradicting its rhetoric of reconciliation.
As an organization of lawyers and legal advocates, the Law Union of BC recognizes the legal system and hereditary governance structure of the Wet’suwet’en as just as, if not more, legitimate than the predominant colonial system which has and continues to suppress and undermine Indigenous legal systems and forms of justice. We further recognize that the colonial legal system has a long history of oppressing Indigenous peoples by legitimizing the use of violence against them. This is especially the case when Indigenous peoples stand up to protect land from extraction or destruction. The presence of the RCMP at sites of Indigenous resistance, and the use of court orders such as injunctions to forcibly remove Indigenous land defenders and prevent them from protecting their territories and upholding their own systems of law and governance is a glaring manifestation of the colonial violence which the state allows in defence of corporate entitlements.
Under international law, the Unist’ot’en and Gitdumden have the absolute right to sovereignty over their traditional territory. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) provides, at minimum, that Indigenous peoples “shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.” By constructing a pipeline across Wet’suwet’en land, Coastal Gaslink and the BC and Canadian governments are severing the ties of the Wet’suwet’en with their own land, without consent, in violation of international law.
Canadian law also entrenches the rights of Indigenous peoples to title and control of their own land. In the Delgamuukw decision, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that the hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en Nation could claim title to their traditional territory. The Court recognized the traditional laws of those people and that title to the land includes the right to govern their own affairs within that territory, but declined to make a declaration to that effect based on a technicality. Now, the Unist’ot’en and Gitdumden are offered no protection of their rights and title without launching a burdensome, costly and time-consuming legal battle that could take many years to resolve. Meanwhile, Coastal Gaslink has permission to build a pipeline on unceded territory aided by the colonial legal system and police forces. The company was able to obtain and enforce its injunction within a matter of weeks, with no respect for Unist’ot’en and Gitdumden laws or protocols.
The reaction of the Canadian state and the BC Crown to Wet’suwet’en resistance and assertion of jurisdiction on their land reveals the fundamental inability of the Canadian legal system to truly recognize and allow Indigenous sovereignty. Even in Delgamuukw and its successors, including the Tsilhqot’in decision, the legal system recognizes Indigenous sovereignty at the same time as it circumscribes it. So long as the Court considers that the colonial government “adequately consulted” with Indigenous peoples, it is permitted to suppress those peoples’ rights and trample their territory. Consultation, however, is not consent. Despite the colonial government’s failure to meaningfully consult with Indigenous people, let alone obtain consent from the actual stewards of the land being misappropriated, the Canadian state and the BC Crown willfully suppress Indigenous rights and seize Indigenous land for corporate exploitation.
The Unist’ot’en and Gitdumden are not the first Indigenous people to resist energy and extractive-industry projects on their land, nor will they be the last. With the world facing climate catastrophe, the importance of resistance to environmentally-destructive projects cannot be overstated. The Law Union of BC stands in solidarity with the Unist’ot’en and Gitdumden Clan and all other Indigenous peoples in defence of the land. We call upon the governments of BC and Canada and Coastal Gaslink to cease operations on Wet’suwet’en territory and to meaningfully recognize and respect Indigenous sovereignty in all future engagements with Indigenous peoples.