Recently, I spent a week in Wet'suwet'en territory in northwestern B.C. I drove up in an old school bus with a group determined to help the Unis'tot'en (the Big Frog clan) and Lhe Lin Liyin (the Guardians). We were prepared to block the Pacific Trail Pipeline that will carry fracked natural gas from B.C.'s northeast to Kitimat.
With all the attention on Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, the approval of the Pacific Trail Pipeline in April has received little notice. The pipeline is opening the energy corridor that Enbridge, Kinder Morgan and Pembina will use if they also get approval. It will create a swath of devastation several kilometres wide.
In all the necessary talk of Enbridge's abysmal record of spills and pipeline malfunction, the war between Alberta and B.C. for profits and the possible refinery at Kitimat, the issue of First Nations' sovereignty has been all but ignored. My experience up north tells me this is a glaring blind spot.
Our bus arrived at the bridge across the Morice River, an hour southwest of Houston, at 4 a.m. A sign told us to honk and wait. After some time, two elders arrived. We came forward one at a time, stated our names and our purpose and were nodded across the bridge. The leaders at the Wet'suwet'en camp allow allies through.
When contractors for the pipeline arrive at the bridge, the elders talk to each one and explain their position before they send them back. This land is unceded territory. No treaty has ever been signed. This protocol represents indigenous people's stand for their nation against further industrialization of their birthright.
Over our five days, we were hosted magnificently by the Wet'suwet'en people. They danced and drummed for us, fed us a moose they'd hunted and salmon they'd caught. They taught us to make "Indian ice cream," squeezing tiny sopallalie berries until they foamed pink.
We learned how industrialization has changed the land. The caribou, once plentiful, are gone; the forest we camped in is a spectre of dark spars due to the pine beetle. Few rivers in the area are safe to drink from. The Morice River is still pure, a resource the Wet'suwet'en are determined to protect. We heard straight talk about race relations, learning we each had to take to heart.
I was struck by the resolve of these people. The Unistoten, along with the Yinka Dene Alliance and Gitxsan traditional leadership, have taken a stand to protect their lands from further industrialization, a stand for the health and fruitfulness of generations to come.
Around campfires, we heard stories of shattered culture and personal grief - stories similar to those I'd heard at the Victoria peace and reconciliation process, but even more powerful there on the land. We watched kids passionate to dance with their elders, kids learning traditional skills almost lost, now being reclaimed.
I came away with the deepest respect for our hosts. They, like so many of us, oppose fracking for natural gas and diverting enormous quantities of fresh water to extract bitumen from oilsands, clearcuts and mines that devastate traditional lands, and turning Canada into a petrostate where democracy shrivels as foreign companies take the money and run.
Premier Christy Clark seems to think this is a showdown over profit share. She's missed the point. This is no game. First Nations are deadly serious. Canada would be in better shape if our federal and provincial governments had half the vision of our hosts.
Unfortunately, as opposition to Enbridge builds, I see few signs that our federal government is listening. The joint review panel on the Enbridge proposal appears to be window dressing. If Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to ram these pipelines through, I fear a western Oka.
Back home, I can still taste the sharp sweetness of sopallalie ice cream and the richness of my first oolichan. These memories are a kind of trust. I challenge all of us who care deeply about the integrity of this great land to stand strong with northern First Nations who, following their protocol, stand on guard for themselves and for us.
Dorothy Field is a Victoria artist and writer.