Opinion: Canada is at a crossroads and the Wet’suwet’en are in its crosshairs

 January 21st 2022 | Published by the National Observer

Wet’suwet’en land defenders are in a battle with the B.C. government over future development of the oil and gas industry within their unceded territories. They want to protect their ancestral lands, water and traditional practices from the intrusion of industrial development.

On the other hand, our federal and provincial governments offer massive financial incentives to encourage fossil fuel companies to increase the extraction and sale of natural gas.

In Canada, burning fossil fuels accounts for 74 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the B.C. government says we can tackle climate change at the same time as we ramp up our fossil fuel industry.

This seems like pure cognitive dissonance.

At COP26, more than 100 countries pledged to decrease methane production by 30 per cent by 2030. And yet B.C. and Canada are providing hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives to companies to increase methane production.

Hundreds of people in B.C. died from the heat dome in June and the landslides in November. According to climatologists, these events are closely linked to climate change. We owe it to their memories to try to prevent future similar events.

Both British Columbia and Canada have signed on to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Yet excessive force continues to be used to repress Indigenous populations when they try to protect their land from industrial development.

The Unist’ot’en, a house group of the Wet’suwet’en, said in a press release: “The proposed pipelines are a threat to the watershed, as well as the plants, animals and communities that depend on them. The Unist’ot’en are fighting for the future health of the land. They are protecting the traditional hunting, trapping, and fishing territories to ensure that the natural beauty and bounty of the earth will be enjoyed for generations to come.”

They are particularly distressed and angered by planned pipeline construction beneath the most important river running through their territory — a river whose waters are still pristine enough to drink.

Sleydo’, spokesperson for the Gidimt’en, one of five clans of the Wet’suwet’en, has described the river like this: “Wedzin Kwa is our sacred headwaters that feeds all of the Nations downstream. All of our future generations rely on the salmon, the animals, and the water that runs from our sacred headwaters.”

The Wet’suwet’en still have access to a pure, clean water supply, unlike so many other Indigenous Nations. Why risk adding them to the list of those burdened with boil water advisories?

Of special concern to us as physicians is the status of the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre. Dr. Karla Tait, director of clinical programming for the centre, has noted: “We saw the healing lodge as an opportunity to expand and offer this to our community members. We envision holding healing camps there. It is a chance to return to … land-based wellness practices of our ancestors.”

Invasive large-scale industrial development on nearby lands is clearly incompatible with the work of the healing centre.

Freda Huson (Chief Howihkat) a Unist’ot’en hereditary leader who founded the healing centre in 2010, recently won the Right Livelihood Award — the “alternate Nobel Prize” — for her “fearless dedication to reclaiming her people’s culture and defending their land against disastrous pipeline projects.” In her words: “The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us. And if we don’t take care of her, she won’t be able to sustain us, and we as a generation of people will die.”

The Supreme Court of Canada in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia concluded “the provincial government has no right to extinguish the Indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral territories.”

If our commitment to UNDRIP is real and not simply cosmetic, then there must be a radical change in government behaviour.

People across Canada have been distressed to see the RCMP raid the Gidimt’en camps — more than once — with assault rifles and police dogs.

Canada’s Constitution is predicated on “Peace, order and good government.” Are we really applying this framework to our treatment of the Wet’suwet’en?

Wet’suwet’en members were carted off to jail for simply wanting to live in harmony with nature. Several reporters covering the story were also taken to jail. Conduct like this is more typical of a military dictatorship than of a democratic country like Canada.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination began calling on Canada to withdraw police and security forces from traditional lands in 2019. It specifically asked the government to stop construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline until it receives free, prior and informed consent from all affected First Nations.

Our country is truly at a crossroads. Decisions being made now will shape Canada’s reputation for many years to come. In this critical time, we ask our leaders to think carefully about their role in history.

Dr. Larry Barzelai, Dr. Warren Bell, and Dr. Melissa Lem are B.C. family physicians and members of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

Photo by Wikimedia Commons