Nearly 100 environmental and Indigenous groups have backed a letter demanding over two dozen financial backers of a controversial natural gas pipeline in B.C. divest from the project.
In a letter to LNG Canada and 26 financiers of Coastal GasLink, three Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say government and industry have failed to properly adhere to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as they move ahead with the construction of the 670-kilometre-long pipeline.
“The Coastal GasLink project is in violation of UNDRIP, adopted at both the provincial and federal level in Canada,” states the letter, adding that its construction without Wet’suwet’en consent is “an infringement of our title and rights.”
They added: “It is an illegal project.”
Passing through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory, the pipeline is the biggest of its kind in Canada. When completed, it will connect gas fields in northeast B.C., with a massive processing facility on the coast. Critics say the pipeline and LNG terminal in Kitimat will make it impossible for B.C. to reach its emission reduction targets; the B.C. government maintains the massive gas project is tailored for a world shifting toward renewable energy, where “global markets are expected to favour lower-carbon natural gas producers.”
The letter to investors — which includes several major banks and financial institutions from Canada, the United States, China and Australia, among others — serves as a “formal notice” the pipeline project doesn’t have the consent of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, and invites the backers to meet with Indigenous leaders.
Rob Henderson, a former chief economist at National Australia Bank, one of Coastal GasLink’s investors, said in a written statement the project was a risky investment as it would “inevitably become stranded assets as the world shifts to renewable energy.”
In an email to Glacier Media, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation said Coastal GasLink has been engaging with Indigenous nations since 2012, when the pipeline project was submitted for a provincial review. Since then, ministry spokesperson Meghan McRae said the BC Environmental Assessment Office has continued those consultations, including with hereditary chiefs.
“The company has project agreements with all 20 elected chiefs and councils of the Indigenous nations along the pipeline route,” said McRae.
But where elected chiefs have been in support of the pipeline, hereditary chiefs have not. When protests erupted across Canada in support of Wet’suwet’en title rights in early 2020, it was the hereditary chiefs who activists sided with.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have said the authority of the elected chiefs and councils along the pipeline route is limited to reserves created under the Indian Act. Traditional lands on unceded territory, they say, remains under their authority.
ALL EYES ON MORICE RIVER
Since Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs issued an eviction order to Coastal GasLink in 2020, the pipeline project has drawn international media attention. That order “still stands,” notes the letter, despite ongoing attempts by RCMP units to set up an exclusion zone around a Wet’suwet’en blockade near Morice River.
Known as Wedzin Kwa to the Wet’suwet’en, the Morice River flows into the Bulkey, eventually draining into the Skeena River at the town of Hazelton.
Roughly two dozen "land defenders" have set up a blockade near a drilling pad, where Coastal GasLink is planning to boar a tunnel under the river.
“That’s where the salmon go up. The salmon is one of our staple diets. If this is destroyed, we’re all going to suffer the consequences,” Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Frank Alec (Dini ze Woos) told Glacier Media.
Traditionally, Woos said the body of water has been a conduit for grizzlies who feed at the river before moving into the nearby hills to hibernate. But in recent years, he said the bears haven’t been seen.
“We don’t see the grizzlies anymore. We’re concerned about that. They’re our spiritual animals,” he said, pointing to a long and interconnected food chain that includes steelhead trout, elk, caribou and mountain goats.
“All of these are connected and all of these are traditional harvesting areas.”
Over the last several weeks, Woos said he has split his time between Burns Lake and a cabin supporters have built in a muddy clearing in the path of the pipeline.
In late September, Coastal GasLink president Tracy Robinson said in a statement the company was nearly finished its clearing work in Wet’suwet’en territory, and was getting ready to cross the Morice River. The company, said Robinson, would use a micro-tunnel method of drilling that “does not disturb the stream or the bed and banks of the river” and “was determined to be the safest and most environmentally responsible method after thorough expert assessments.”
Despite government and industry statements to the contrary, Woos said he and other Wet’suwet’en land defenders have been locked out from proper consultation.
On Aug. 6, Coastal GasLink obtained a “Site Alteration Permit” to destroy a protected archeological site 200 metres from camp. That’s left those who support the blockade skeptical of the lengths the company will go to to safeguard the river.
“We don’t trust the technology. We don’t trust what’s going under there,” he said. “It’s quite concerning if they have a pipeline under there — 50, 75 years from now, if it ruptures? We don’t know what kind of poisons are going to go from that.”
‘THIS IS IT’
Woos said that while he has not been in contact with Coastal GasLink, he has been in communication with B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commissioner Paul Jeakins, the Deputy Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Fazil Mihlar, and Stikine MLA Nathan Cullen.
When they met on Sept. 16, Woos said his people wouldn’t move from the blockade and asked them to put a hiatus on pipeline construction in the area of the Morice River. Last week, Woos said he received a letter from Cullen indicating a 60-day moratorium was approved.
Woos said he is holding out hope this will be the moment when all sides can come together to talk seriously about Wet’suwet’en title and stewardship over their traditional territory.
“This is it. This is where it’s going to start,” said Woos.
At the same time, Woos said his people aren’t moving, despite a court-approved injunction. Two land defenders have been arrested in recent weeks, including one Woos said was subjected to “pain compliance” from RCMP officers after he chained himself under a school bus set up at the blockade.
Woos said the hereditary chiefs are prepared to sit down with Premier John Horgan, and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau down the line. But “to talk a peace treaty” has to be premised on recognizing Wet’suwet’en title over the land, he said.
“Plan B: We’re not moving — at all. If they’re going to shoot, and if we’re going to die, we’ll die. We’re ready,” said Woos.
“Just let it be known: We’re saving this river for everyone, not just Wet’suwet’en.”