B.C. crown prosecutors say they will seek up to 90 days in prison for a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief. Dtsa’hyl was arrested and convicted of criminal contempt after impounding Coastal GasLink pipeline equipment. Dtsa’hyl warned the company it was trespassing on Fireweed clan territory.

If granted, it would be the harshest sentence yet in the long-running jurisdictional dispute. The Wet’suwet’en say the Crown has no legal claim to their land and is resorting to force rather than negotiate with the traditional government.

The TC Energy pipeline is protected by ex-military contractors and police who have used sniper rifles, dogs, chainsaws and axes to enforce a B.C. court injunction. “It’s important for all of us, as Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en, to stand up to that,” said Kloum Khun, head chief of Medzeyex (Owl House) and brother to Dtsa’hyl.

“We gave him the right to go and defend our land, and he did exactly what we told him to do,” said Kloum Khun outside a sentencing hearing in Smithers last week. “We have defence laws of our territory, and it’s important that we start enacting them.”

Coastal GasLink has cost TC Energy billions more than expected, as contractors struggled with extreme weather and rugged terrain. Regulators handed the company fine after fine as erosion and sediment damaged salmon streams on Wet’suwet’en territory.

Meanwhile, pipeline work camps have fueled drug trafficking, sexual violence, road accidents, disease transmission and driven up the cost of living across the region. The whole experience has leaders in nearby communities rethinking their support for TC Energy’s next project, the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline.

Communities fear police violence

The Gitxsan people have an ancient alliance with the Wet’suwet’en. They’ve watched with alarm as a 190-kilometre strip of their neighbours’ land has been effectively seized at gunpoint.

Leaders from both nations rallied outside the courthouse while Dtsa’hyl’s lawyers spoke inside. They’re calling for the RCMP’s controversial injunction enforcement unit, the Community-Industry Response Group, to be disbanded.

“These fellas, you know, they’re dangerous,” said Gordon Sebastian, executive director of the Gitxsan Treaty Society. “A Gitxsan person will lose their life in a split second if one of those folks get nervous and they’re aiming that gun.”

Sebastian pointed to the 2009 police killing of Rodney Jackson, a Gitxsan man who was hunted down by an RCMP tactical team after he failed to appear in provincial court. Constable Bruce Lofroth fired eight rounds from his assault rifle, shooting the unarmed man in the back outside a cabin in the remote village of Kisgegas.

“The C-IRG, they’re all trigger-happy people. And that authority they have is the injunction, and it’s a licence to kill. We do not want to see that here on the Gitxsan territories and the Wet’suwet’en,” said Sebastian.

Controversial pipeline deals linger

A decade ago, the B.C. government dangled millions of dollars in front of band councils and hereditary leaders to support both TC Energy pipelines: Coastal GasLink and PRGT. After closed-door negotiations, twelve Gitxsan chiefs signed in 2016.

The agreement was leaked, fueling division within the community. Many Gitxsan felt a decision that important should have been discussed publicly. Some disputed the authority of individual chiefs to sign a contract on behalf of thousands of people who were never informed, let alone consulted.

Gordon Sebastian was one of the signatories. Some have since passed away. Others, he says, may be having second thoughts.

“We will definitely talk about it amongst ourselves, and if there’s good reason, we will probably just stop it. It’s not a matter of getting out of the agreement or not, it’s just a matter of saying no pipeline.”

The province claims to be neutral in disputes between or within Indigenous communities. But in the case of both the Wet’suwet’en and the Gitxsan, B.C. has consistently chosen to fund, meet with and legitimise pro-pipeline voices – while urging police to arrest opponents.

Time for “kindness and unity”

Next door to the Gitxsan, leaders from the Gitanyow Nation also signed a pipeline impact benefit agreement with then-Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, John Rustad. Ten years later, the Gitanyow are raising significant concerns about a proposed LNG terminal that would receive gas from the PRGT line.

“I’ve heard many comments in our communities around, potentially, leaders who have signed with these companies,” said Tara Marsden, speaking on a panel last week about colonial megaprojects in northern B.C.

“And you know, the teachings that I always bring to this are from the Sigidim Haanak’, the aunties who helped raise me and teach me constantly. And they teach kindness and unity,” said Marsden, who works as Wilp Sustainability Director for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs Office.

“Yes, people will maybe be ashamed that they signed these agreements. And yes, they impact many more people than themselves. And they didn’t have, maybe, all the information that they needed at the time. But we can share with them that information in a respectful way.”

Marsden warned against playing into the “divide and conquer” agenda. “They want to pit us against one another,” she said. “We care about our lands and waters, but we also have to care for one another, even when some of our people make mistakes.”

The trial of Gidimt’en land defenders including Sleydo’ will resume June 17. Sentencing for Chief Dsta’hyl will take place in Smithers on July 2. TC Energy has until November this year to make a “substantial start” on construction of the PRGT pipeline. If the company fails to meet that deadline, its certificate and permits will expire.