Hundreds of demonstrators showing support for Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs blocked all entrances to the legislature building on Tuesday ahead of the opening of the spring session, preventing the ceremonial arrival of the lieutenant-governor for the speech from the throne.
Emotions ran high as MLAs, political staff and officials, surrounded by a phalanx of Victoria police officers in green safety vests, fought their way into the building.
Indigenous spokesman Saul Brown repeatedly asked Green MLAs Adam Olsen and Sonia Furstenau to “stand with us,” as police surrounded them and they walked through the crowd into the building. Cries of “shame” could be heard.
Organizers said the group wants the provincial government to immediately remove RCMP officers from Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C. and rescind the work permit for Coastal GasLink, which is building a 670-kilometre pipeline to transport liquefied natural gas from Dawson Creek to Kitimat.
“For too long has this government tried to silence us. For too long have they tried to define us,” Kolin Sutherland-Wilson told the crowd gathered at the foot of the legislature steps.
“There is a long history of colonialism that predates and underlies everything that is currently happening on Wet’suwet’en territory.”
A small group of Indigenous youth has been camped in front of the legislature’s front gate since noon Thursday. They said they were joined by about 100 people who slept on the stairs overnight Monday.
Brown said preventing the lieutenant-governor’s traditional entrance was a response to the arrests by RCMP of demonstrators trying to stop work by Coastal GasLink.
“The matriarchs at the Unist’ot’en camp were in ceremony, singing and dancing when they were arrested. They come after our ceremonies, and we call out and hold their ceremonies accountable,” said Brown, a University of Victoria law student
For the most part, protesters moved aside to allow politicians and staff to enter, while chanting “stand with us” and “shame,” but some, including reporters, were denied entry.
MLA Lana Popham turned away from an east entrance after one protester yelled in her face.
NDP MLA George Chow tried to jump down a stairwell to avoid protesters and fell, but said he was not hurt. Several MLAs couldn’t get into the building, and their seats sat empty.
A particularly heated confrontation took place when demonstrators blocking one entrance linked arms to prevent someone from entering.
Police officers forcibly separated protesters to create a passage through the crowd into the building.
Organizers reminded protesters to let people through and not to touch the police or the politicians.
“A soft blockade in this scenario means we are not actually resisting arrest. So upon an officer saying ‘You will be arrested,’ you stand down,” said one organizer. “Assert yourself. Don’t let the police hurt you. Don’t let the police push you aside. Don’t antagonize the police at all. But if it comes to that, stand down.”
Ima Rose performed a brief smudging ceremony, wafting buffalo sage, cedar and juniper in the direction of a group of Victoria police officers standing in a doorway.
People in the crowd carried signs that read: “Your pipedream is a nightmare,” and “For the Sake of our Grandchildrens’ Future.”
Supporters were asked not to speak to media, and to defer to organizers. Those who did comment said they came to show solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and express disappointment in the provincial government’s commitment to reconciliation.
Eddy Charlie said Canada’s colonial history is responsible for the division between Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and Wet’suwet’en elected chiefs, who have agreed to the pipeline project. Those supporting hereditary chiefs say that elected chiefs and band councils have jurisdiction over federal reserves, while hereditary chiefs assert title to the majority of the territory.
“The biggest issue is that colonization divided the Indigenous people from each other and they forgot how to use their voice together,” said Charlie, a residential-school survivor. “This divide-and-conquer thing trained communities not to use their voices in the way their ancestors did.”
A small police presence in the morning grew by afternoon to at least nine officers, some of whom carried cameras. Victoria police said later in a statement that they had received reports that people were injured during the demonstration and asked victims and witnesses to contact them. “Our officers have worked to ensure safe entry and exit to the legislature while balancing the right to peaceful protest. Peaceful protest does not involve pushing and shoving, nor obstructing people from their places of work.”
Some government staffers received minor injuries during the protests, said a provincial official. No details were provided and no numbers were available.
The Times Colonist spoke with several people who made it through the crowd into the legislature.
One woman said she was surrounded by a swarm of protesters, who called her obscene names as she pressed through the crowd to enter the building. Once inside, she discovered someone had spat on her clothing.
A man was accosted by a protester who launched a tirade at him and told him to go home. The protester pushed the employee’s chest. He shouldered past him to gain entry as another protester tried to calm the first one down.
Another woman said she had to squeeze through the crowd, but protesters were generally polite. A security guard assisted her through the throng, but in the crush someone’s elbow connected with her nose. She suffered a nosebleed, but did not believe the contact was intentional.
Victoria police said in a statement: “We’ve had many questions about why we have not arrested protesters. Our primary duty is to keep the public safe.”
Victoria councillors Sharmarke Dubow, Jeremy Loveday and Ben Isitt attended to show their support at the rally.
RCMP officers enforcing a court-ordered injunction in Wet’suwet’en territory against anyone preventing work by Coastal GasLink have been making arrests since Thursday.
The Mounties concluded enforcement of the injunction on Monday after arresting 28 people. Of those, six were released without charges or conditions and 14 appeared before a judge and were released with a condition to obey the injunction.
The RCMP said a temporary exclusion zone in the area was removed and everyone was free to enter the area. Police have an office on a forest service road at the centre of the dispute to help them conduct patrols.
In a statement, Premier John Horgan said his government is available to engage with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. “We know that this work isn’t easy. If we’re going to achieve it, we have to stay committed to this process, keep engaging with one another and find common ground.”
After six days camping out in front of the legislature, Brown said he’s feeling tired, but isn’t giving up. “We’ll leave when [Coastal GasLink is] out of Wet’suwet’en territory and the RCMP stand down.”
— With files from Carla Wilson and the Vancouver Sun