Protesters blocked access to B.C. Ferries’ first sailings out of Swartz Bay on Monday to support Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in northern B.C. who object to a natural gas pipeline through their territory.
Up to 100 protesters stood across Highway 17 under the Lands End overpass near the ferry terminal, holding signs saying: “Respect Wet’suwet’en Law” and “Stop Colonial Injunction Pipeline.”
Two protesters lay on the road and kayaks blocked vessels. So-called “grassroots organizers” from various groups said they blocked the sailings “to demand respect for Wet’suwet’en sovereignty and oppose the threat of a violent RCMP invasion.”
The protesters say the blockade was in response to a recent call from the Wet’suwet’en for “solidarity” actions that “shut down rail lines, ports, and industrial infrastructure.”
The 7 a.m. sailing to Tsawwassen from Swartz Bay left 70 minutes behind schedule, while the 9 a.m. sailing was cancelled. Other sailings to and from the Gulf Islands were delayed. The delays created a domino effect of delayed departures throughout the morning.
Sidney-North Saanich RCMP were at the scene, but despite calls to remove the protesters, could not do so, said B.C. RCMP spokesman Cpl. Chris Manseau. “Everybody has the right to protest. It’s a very fine line. Obviously this is a very contentious issue.”
While former B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver opposes the pipeline and believes there is no room for Liquefied Natural Gas or any other fossil-fuel infrastructure in the province, he said blocking the ferries — which provide an essential service for many Islanders accessing urgent medical treatment in the Lower Mainland — is not a good way to convey a message.
“There are people who will be put at risk because of such actions,” said Weaver, who quit the party’s caucus last week to sit as an Independent and tend to a family health crisis that has seen him take many ferry trips to Vancouver in recent weeks.
“I don’t think you’re going to bring people with you, and sadly, I think what you’re going to do is turn people off against the importance of actually reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.”
But interim B.C. Green Party leader Adam Olsen, who represents Saanich North and the Islands, said while the action was disruptive to his constituents, it should be viewed through the lens of Monday being Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. The leader of the civil-rights movement fought racial discrimination that was embedded in U.S. laws.
“It’s important we don’t forget that some of the really important advances we’ve made in our society are the result of non-violent peaceful demonstrations,” said Olsen, who returned from visiting the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs on Sunday night. “In fact, I think that when we see these situations evolving to a point where there are demonstrations, where there are protests like this, it’s a failure of the policy of elected officials to actually do the job at the front end.”
At issue in the ferry protest is the proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline that would span 670 kilometres across northern B.C., starting near Dawson Creek and extending to an export terminal at Kitimat, where an $18-billion liquefied natural gas export plant is being built.
About one quarter of the line crosses Wet’suwet’en territory.
In November, B.C. became the first province to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, known as UNDRIP, which requires that governments and industry acquire the “free, prior and informed consent” of Indigenous Nations prior to engaging in projects on their territories, including resource projects.
Hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en Nation near Smithers say the project does not have their consent. (Although the hereditary chiefs are against it, five elected Wet’suwet’en band councils on the route, as well as 15 other elected Indigenous band councils, have supported it.)
B.C. Premier John Horgan, who supports both UNDRIP and the Coastal GasLink pipeline, said last week in a news conference that the declaration is “forward-looking” and doesn’t apply retroactively to in-progress projects such as the pipeline. Major construction is expected to begin this summer.
The Coastal GasLink is part of a $40-billion LNG Canada project and vital to the region’s economic future, said Horgan.
The premier said all the permits are in place for the project to proceed and it has received approval from 20 First Nations along the pipeline route. “The courts have confirmed this project can proceed and it will proceed,” said Horgan. “The rule of law must prevail.”
Kolin Sutherland-Wilson of the Gitxsan nation, a spokesperson for the protesters at the ferry terminal on Monday, said despite the passing of UNDRIP, B.C. is heading in a “backward” direction.
“If Indigenous governments are going to be criminalized on their own ceded lands, that’s not reconciliation,” he said. “We have to get out and do what we can.”
Sutherland-Wilson pointed to tensions that have grown since Dec. 31, when a B.C. Supreme Court judge extended an injunction against Wet’suwet’en members and anti-pipeline protesters, allowing Coastal GasLink to access the pipeline route.
Supporters of the hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en have felled trees along a road to the Coastal GasLink work site and are building a new support camp. They already occupy two other camps along the road to the site — Unist’ot’en camp and Gidimt’en camp.
Coastal GasLink has pulled its crew from the work site.
On Jan. 13, the RCMP began restricting access to the area where the court injunction applies, setting up a checkpoint at the 27-kilometre mark of a forestry road into the work site out of safety concerns.
Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May was headed from Tsawwassen to Sidney Monday morning when her ferry was delayed by the protest.
But May said she supports non-violent civil disobedience in the interests of reconciliation.
“I am much more concerned about the potential for RCMP action than I am for delayed ferries,” said May. “I think we have a real dangerous situation and there are a lot of tensions.”
May said she has asked relevant cabinet ministers to ask the RCMP to back down, de-escalate tensions and not enforce the injunction until “talks can happen.”
“That’s what John Horgan should have done when he was in the area,” said May.
“Doubling down on this ‘rule of law,’ as if hereditary chiefs have no rights, as if what they are doing is wrong, that is a complete betrayal of everything I have heard John Horgan say about reconciliation and UNDRIP.
“He’s reaching for a loophole in UNDRIP and he’s wrong in law.”
Horgan is on a planned tour of central and northern B.C., having stopped in Kitimat on Friday to visit the LNG site there.
On Jan. 15 the premier’s office said it received a request for a meeting from Wet’suwet’en Chief Nam’oks, also known as John Risdale.
Horgan said he had a set schedule for his tour and offered to speak to the chief by phone, but that offer was “rebuffed.”
The premier in a letter to the chief on Monday said he can’t vary the injunction nor direct the RCMP in fulfillment of their duties, but was willing to send Scott Fraser, minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, to meet on Jan. 22 in Smithers.
— With files from The Canadian Press