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The Colonizer Always Comes Out

Extractive industries and governments have gotten smarter about how they talk about Indigenous rights—but the bottom line stays the same.

Martin Ouellet-Diotte/AFP/Getty Images

A soft piano tune twinkles in the background. The words “Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project” appear and then fade to white. Edward, a member of the Gitdumden clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and a construction monitor for the project, introduces himself as the scene cuts to a series of picturesque shots of snow-topped trees. Speaking to the middle distance off camera, Edward talks about the preservation efforts of the pipeline project and his ancestors’ desire “to build a better life for themselves and their family.” Speaking of his CGL co-workers, he says, “Well, I guess they are my family.” Cue a final shot reading “Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project.” This is the face of the pipeline that TC Energy and its investors want the public to see. 

The TC Energy-backed Coastal GasLink Pipeline is a 416-mile project designed to carry natural gas through northern Canada and on out to Kitimat, on the western coast of British Columbia. There, at the heavily subsidized LNG Canada plant, the gas will be refined and shipped overseas to customers in Asia. The project, which snakes across the province like a cobra with its head raised to strike, also cuts through the unceded traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.

On TC Energy’s website for the project, the company, in bold font, boasts the claim, “more than one-third of all field work conducted by Indigenous Peoples,” adding, “we listen to and value Indigenous voices and their connection with the land.” As noted in nearly every other article on the pipeline, CGL has the approval of both the Canadian federal government and B.C.’s provincial government. It also has the backing of 20 elected First Nations councils, including the Wet’suwet’en’s elected band councillors, a body of local politicians with authority over the municipal functions of their villages. It is, by all appearances, the ideal scenario: a pipeline developed in partnership with the Indigenous stewards of the land. 

Except that beyond the soft focus ads and hollow pledges about partnership, there remains the violence of the project—a violation of the land itself and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the matrilineal leadership of the First Nation, who have not given their consent to the project.

At its heart, this is the story of another pipeline devouring culturally significant and sacred Indigenous lands. But it is also a story of the ways that extractive industries and seemingly liberal governments are evolving in response to highly visible land disputes with Indigenous communities and growing public alarm over a looming climate disaster. TC Energy and multiple layers of government are trying, often successfully, to take advantage of distressed First Nations economies, a slanted legal system, and a biased media atmosphere to present themselves as reformed—environmentally conscious, broadly respectful of Indigenous sovereignty—while they quietly and violently seek to demolish Wet’suwet’en resistance to the pipeline. 

Earlier this month, the hereditary chiefs—seven citizens who represent the five clans and, under Wet’suwet’en law, have the ultimate say over what happens in the traditional territory—evicted all CGL workers on their land. Later that same week, the Wet’suwet’en leaders allowed CGL workers to return to the land in order to winterize their equipment, in what Hereditary Chief Na’Moks of the Tsayu clan told The New Republic was meant to be a “sign of good faith.” For a brief moment, it seemed like a rare victory might be in store for First Nations leadership fighting to protect its ancestral homelands.

But this week, the kindly image CGL had crafted in its P.R. campaign fell away to make the company’s colonial prerogatives clear. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police set up a barricade on the access road, blocking off both the media and the Wet’suwet’en from accessing their territory. Shortly after the RCMP blockade was in place, B.C. Premier John Horgan spoke with the press. “All the permits are in place for this project to proceed,” Horgan told the Times-Colonist. “This project is proceeding and the rule of law needs to prevail in B.C.” (TC Energy did not respond to The New Republic’s request for comment on the police action by publishing time.)

In 1997, the landmark Canadian Supreme Court case Delgamuukw v. British Columbia found that, as the CBC summarized on the case’s twentieth anniversary, treaty rights were not legally “extinguished” when B.C. became part of Canada in 1871, and, further, that “Indigenous title rights include not only land, but the right to extract resources from the land.” This was a seminal case for the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en First Nations, which had sued the B.C. government.

Under their legal system, the Wet’suwet’en’s elected councillors who support CGL have jurisdiction only over their villages, and the hereditary chiefs are the final word on land use in the traditional territory. As Peter Grant, the lawyer for the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, stated last year: “We agree the rule of law has to apply, but doesn’t that mean that when there’s recognition of the proper title holder you deal with the proper title holder?”

“It must be stated clearly: We’re not going anywhere,” Hereditary Chief Na’Moks said. “We will remain on our land. This is only an entity, they come and go. We’ve been on our lands for thousands upon thousands of years.” 

Even with the Delgamuukw ruling, the B.C. courts have repeatedly sided with CGL in their injunctions, citing federal permits and approval by the elected councils as proof that TC Energy has done due diligence. (In a review of injunctions involving Indigenous nations and corporations, the Yellowhead Institute found, in 2019, that 76 percent of injunctions filed against First Nations by corporations were granted by the courts, while “81 percent of injunctions filed against corporations by First Nations were denied.”)

And so, after just over a week of tense but sustained peace, with the state and its police force at its back, CGL’s pipeline was back on. The Wet’suwet’en have already seen what the RCMP has in store for them now that CGL and the courts have made their most recent play: Last January, the RCMP enforced an injunction and  conducted a raid on a Wet’suwet’en camp, ending in the arrest of 14 Wet’suwet’en citizens. An investigation by The Guardian later revealed that police commanders had instructed their officers that “lethal overwatch is req’d”—which, as The Guardian notes, is a “term for deploying an officer who is prepared to use lethal force”—and that officers should feel free to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want” to remove a roadblock constructed by Wet’suwet’en citizens. 

“The Royal Canadian Mounted police cannot be working on behalf of just an industry,” Hereditary Chief Na’Moks told The New Republic. “They’re supposed to be there for the safety of all people, and yet they are more being told to do like a private security firm for this corporation and this industry.”

This is what it looks like when extractive corporations essentially meld with the federal and local governments: Wet’suwet’en citizens are also Canadian citizens with their own legal claims to the land, but the police force being aimed at their bodies and their land does not represent their interests. Because of the legal paper trail CGL assembled, with the support of Canadian and local governments, the public perception of the Wet’suwet’en rejection of the pipeline will likely linger in a gray area. Now, just as CGL intended, the Wet’suwet’en can be cast as “protesters” or “criminals.” “We’re upholding our law as Wet’suwet’en people,” Wet’suwet’en Governance Director Molly Wickam told The New Republic. 

What’s playing out now feels like a direct repeat of what happened a year ago, almost to the day—the only difference is that CGL is getting savvier about appearances. The corporate campaign to make it seem like the Wet’suwet’en are uniformly on its side—with the remaining holdouts as outliers—is just an expensive mask. Underneath it sits the same oppressive greed that has long plagued Indigenous people on this continent, be it from corporations or their government enablers. And if the violence is unseen and unrecorded, and if the Wet’suwet’en rejecting the pipeline don’t have the “rule of law” on their side, then it makes the spin all the easier to sell. 

In the face of heightened public scrutiny, CGL and the Canadian government, much like their American counterparts, have (slowly) learned how to parrot talking points about respecting sovereignty while refusing to actually practice it. The government’s support of CGL over the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs is just the latest in a long line of examples of undercutting the authority of the chiefs and the First Nations. The names and places may be new to American readers, but the framework of the Wet’suwet’en struggle is the same one that has been playing out across the continent since the Europeans arrived: Standing Rock to Atlantic CoastLine 3 to Mauna Kea. And now, again, to Coastal GasLink.