Thousands of government employees work from home as protesters target their offices

The sounds of singing, drumming and chanting carried through the streets of downtown Victoria on Friday, as people calling themselves Wet’suwet’en land and leadership defenders peacefully “picketed” government buildings.

The group said they were trying to shut down the B.C. government, in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose a natural gas pipeline through their territory in northern B.C.

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Those gathered outside dozens of entrances to government buildings in Victoria and Saanich asked government workers not to cross their lines, and to join them. Demonstrators did not physically block people from entering or exiting buildings.

There are 13,000 B.C. public service employees working in Greater Victoria, according to a provincial spokesperson, but few were seen crossing the lines. Notices on the main entrance to the Ministry of Health building at 1515 Blanshard St. suggested workers use alternate entrances. One demonstrator at the building said a “trickle” of employees had gone inside.

Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, said members were advised not to cross the lines in front of government ministries on Friday. “A line is a line in terms of the labour movement here in B.C.,” said Smith. “In the absence of a ruling from the Labour Relations Board on its legality or an injunction, we advise members not to cross a line.”

Smith could not say how many members took the day off or worked from home on Friday.

Don Wright, deputy minister to the premier, issued a statement saying more than 6,500 employees — more than double the normal number — used the government’s virtual private network to do their jobs away from their offices on Friday.

Ta’Kaiya Blaney, an Indigenous youth from Tla’amin Nation north of Powell River, said part of the group’s message is that “reconciliation is dead,” echoing a phrase that was painted on Canadian flags hung upside down outside the B.C. legislature during the past week.

“For Canada to move forward, we really need to have our bottom line be Indigenous sovereignty, and until that is respected — until our lives are valued and Canada demonstrates that value of our lives — we will continue to impact their bottom line,” she said.

The action across the city was tightly organized, with designated media spokespersons for the overall protest. Police liaisons — tasked with observing police behaviour and interactions with demonstrators — were at many locations, wearing reflective safety vests.

Call-and-response chants rang through downtown streets.

“What do we do when Indigenous lands are under attack?” “Stand up. Fight Back.”

Another chant called for Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “stand down.”

A core group of Indigenous youth who occupied the legislature steps for six days until Tuesday night made the rounds to government buildings where groups were gathered, singing and drumming as they arrived.

“We don’t need your rule of law,” they sang. “RCMP off the yintah.” Yintah means land in the language of the Wet’suwet’en.

Friday morning saw none of the tension that boiled over on Tuesday at the legislature when police physically separated some demonstrators who had linked arms and blocked MLAs and legislature staff from entering the building to attend the opening of the spring session. The ceremonial arrival of Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin was cancelled; she would have walked through the building’s front doors on a red carpet to the sounds of a 15-gun salute.

Victoria police said later that four people made allegations of assault following the legislature blockades on Tuesday. Police said three of those people received non-life threatening injuries and one person reported damage to equipment.

Police did not specify whether the people who reported injuries were involved in the demonstrations or trying to get through the blockades, but said their request for victims and witnesses of assaults was for anyone, “no matter who they are.”

Police vehicles could be seen circling the streets where groups gathered Friday.

A demonstrator’s police liaison who spent the morning outside an entrance to the Ministry of the Attorney General said he was not aware of any interactions between police and demonstrators.

The morning culminated in two large gatherings at the corner of Pandora and Douglas streets, where the crowd heard from some of the Indigenous youth who had camped outside the legislature.

“This is a moment in history,” said Saul Brown. “We just got a call from the B.C. Royal Museum asking for signs for posterity and longevity of this movement, because there is no going back.”

David Alexander, head of archives for the Royal B.C. Museum, was conducting “rapid response collecting” at a picket line on Superior Street on Friday, handing out his business card and asking demonstrators at various sites to donate their signs and pamphlets.

“We hold the memory of the province,” said Alexander. “This is a significant event, so if any of the protesters are interested in donating signs and that sort of thing … we often do this out at protests.”

Morgan Mowat, a media spokesperson for the protesters, called Friday’s attempt to shut down ministries a success, saying it “showed how much people care about ensuring Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are heard.”

Similar demonstrations will continue to pop up until the Wet’suwet’en chiefs’ authority over their unceded land is recognized, said Mowat.

As the groups disbanded shortly before 1 p.m., Victoria police said in a tweet that they weren’t aware of any disruptions to traffic, summarizing the morning in two words: “peaceful event.”

The $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline is a key part of the $40-billion LNG Canada project and 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.

Coastal GasLink, which has provincial approval to build the pipeline, has signed benefit agreements with all 20 elected First Nations along the pipeline’s path, but five Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say the project has no authority to build on their traditional unceded territory without their consent.

Environmentalist David Suzuki, host of CBC TV’s the Nature of Things, paid a visit to the University of Victoria on Friday night, where he told a gathering of about 60 people he wanted to thank Indigenous youth for standing up for what he called the “Titanic battle over the future of the planet.”

“It’s not about pipelines, it’s not about climate change, it’s about the way that we live on this planet,” said Suzuki. “That’s what the dominant society does not want to face.”

“What I hope you are doing is making them meet with the Indigenous leaders, the leaders of the Wet’suwet’en,” he said.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

charnett@timescolonist.com

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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