In Wet’suwet’en tradition, an eagle feather is a deadly serious warning to trespassers: stay away.
Infringing on the tribe’s traditional territories was considered so serious that “trespassers were given one warning if they were caught off of common trails or hunting in another clans’ territory,” the nation’s band office website declares. “The warning came in the form of an eagle feather. If the person was caught trespassing again, it was punishable by death.”
On Nov. 20, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Toghestiy issued the ominous eagle feather warning to surveyors from Apache, the Texas-based corporation hoping to build the Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP), a partnership with fellow Houston firm EOG (formerly Enron Oil and Gas) and Calgary-based Encana. The pipeline would take natural gas extracted from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to the coast through the nation’s B.C. lands.
The same day, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Toghestiy and his wife, Freda Huson – of the Unist’ot’en (“protectors of the headwaters”) clan – also erected a blockade across PTP’s right of way with other activists, and confiscated company equipment in defiance of the 28 billion litre-a-day natural gas route.
“Oil and gas extraction (has) a lot of money being thrown at it by investors from all over, because everyone is really hoping to get rich while the price is right,” Toghestiy told Windspeaker from the snowed-in blockade site. “And they’re going at it with such a feverish pace that they’re just ignoring Aboriginal people.
“The Aboriginal people are sitting here, and we’re the last defenders of the land. If there’s any other line of defence, there’s none more strong than the Indigenous people.”
An Apache Canada spokesperson told Windspeaker that the protest didn’t come as a surprise, but claimed that other First Nations are supporting the project.
“We understand that there are some members of the Unist’ot’en who have expressed some concerns and we continue to consult with First Nations along the entire proposed Pacific Trail Pipeline route, including the Unist’ot’en,” Paul Wyke said. “The Pacific Trail Pipeline continues to benefit from strong First Nations’ involvement and support for the proposed project. Fifteen of 16 First Nations along the proposed PTP right-of-way support the project.”
Toghestiy disputed the claims of Aboriginal support for PTP.
“We’re here to make sure that the company can’t continue to try to pass off this stand-off, to shrug it off and say they’ve got 15 of 16 First Nations supporting their project,” he retorted. “We know that’s wrong, because those people they’re trying to consult are Indian Act bands, and Indian Act tribal councils.
“They don’t have any jurisdiction off of the reservations; it’s the hereditary owners of these lands that do.”
On Nov. 27, activists across Canada – plus an event as far away as the Caribbean island of Trinidad, and demonstrations outside energy firms in Texas and California – staged solidarity rallies against PTP. The solidarity protests took place in a total of 18 cities, include every major Canadian urban centre.
“It was very important to show support for the Unist’ot’en, and for the Wet’suwet’en people and their territories, because what’s happening there has happened to all of Turtle Island,” Kat Norris, with the Indigenous Action Movement, told Windspeaker at Vancouver’s rally. “We’re talking about mines, fracking, the destruction of territories, and the infraction of sovereign rights to use their land.
“If the pipeline gets built, how long before another oil spill? What about their fishing, because that’s how they make their living? On a very basic level, fracking is going to break the world, because the Earth that we stand on is what provides us with life. We’re breaking apart the world, piece by piece. Underground testing – I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could say that’s okay. There was an earthquake off the islands recently; it’s just a matter of time before the Earth just can’t take anymore.”
Hydraulic fracturing – the process of injecting high-pressure liquids deep underground, breaking up shale rock and releasing natural gas – is one of the most controversial fossil fuel extraction methods today, with numerous concerns arising around groundwater pollution, high water use, and even the risk of causing earthquakes.
The US Geological Survey states on its website that, “Fracking causes small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern. In addition (…) the injection of wastewater into the subsurface can cause earthquakes that are large enough to be felt and may cause damage.”
But the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers insist that fracturing poses little risk to people or the environment.
“The scientific evidence indicates that seismic activity resulting from hydraulic fracturing causes no injury or property damage, and does not poses a risk to public safety or the environment,” the lobby group’s website states. “The technology is carefully used and managed to minimize any environmental impact, particularly on groundwater.”
For now, the Wet’suwet’en blockade continues – heartened by support for their cause amongst activists continent-wide, who are also confronting three separate, oil sands pipeline proposals: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain, and TransCanada’s Keystone XL.
“People from all over, and all walks of life, are doing something in solidarity with us to make sure the investors and the banks and industry and governments understand that the only people who have rights to make decisions on our lands are us,” Toghestiy said. “We’re going to be in this for the long run.
“There’s probably going to be a lot more call-outs in the future. And if things escalate, we ask other people to join us in the escalation, because we’re not the only ones fighting this. Everybody else should be fighting for it as well, because it’s all of our futures.”