Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada

I’ve been asked this so many times. It’s the question that often flusters a social justice organizer working in North America. If I had to guess, I’d say I’ve been fielding this question since being involved in so-called “anti-globalization” protests of the late nineties. It seemed such a rude question to ask– I mean, why would you ask people:

“We know what you are against, but what are you for?”

But the thing is, however real and concrete principles are, that participation should not be limited to the ballot box, that wealth could be far better constructed and distributed, they are abstractions somehow.

“Another world is possible” has inspired a lot of books, poems, songs and artworks– but tangibly, how do we touch values? How do we make a poem walk, or a song breathe on its own?

Well, social justice doesn’t work like that. A poem must take inspiration from outside of itself to become real. So too must our most poetic reflections of a better world. I’ve seen many aspects of a social justice driven vision for climate justice in the last dozen or so years, in many places. Both inside and out of climate justice spaces, many times people who are trying to do this or that apply new methods of organizing, attempting to express new values in the here and now. But in only one place have I had the honour and pleasure to touch an entirely new world awakening. And awakening is very much the right term, because in many ways there is nothing new at all about the traditional values being put forth by the Unist’ot’en Camp, in the territory of the Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in the northern half of what is called British Columbia, Canada.

Following a principle that many land defenders of various nations across Turtle Island (North America) have embarked upon, The Unist’ot’en Camp has reclaimed their sovereignty against Canadian colonialism, against oil & gas developments and pipelines– not merely tar sands pipelines, but all fossil fuels in general and fracking in particular– but also against the historical games of the last few decades, where environmental NGO’s barter away indigenous rights in much the same manner as other colonialists. Early on in their struggles, many of the larger NGO’s were more than willing to move on and not follow through with help to the camp, only to return years later when the hard work had been completed by indigenous residents and their supporters.

Seemingly following trends, but in reality returning to the roots of Wet’suwet’en values, the camp has been at the forefront of tar sands resistance and making the Enbridge Gateway pipeline– once thought to be built before the Vancouver Olympics back in 2010– rot on paper. From a people reliant upon salmon migration, the camp has also “been against” salmon farming, both on and offshore. They have likewise opposed carbon credits, carbon offset schemes and the whole gamut of commodification of the climate itself.

They are opposed not only the the destruction of the environment, but similar destruction done to small communities in the pathway of such large-scale projects, with large “man camps” of workers, brought in large numbers that dwarf small communities and experience serious forms of social and physical violence as a result of this unwanted mass(and temporary) work-only based residency.

All of this is well and great, but “what are you for?” is the area that has made it the single best example and asset for climate justice and human rights in all of Turtle Island today.

One of the single biggest human rights catastrophes on every corner of Turtle Island for the last several years has been an ongoing opioid crisis, leaving thousands dead of overdoses due to deadly addictions. The Unist’ot’en Camp has been constructing a healing centre to help people– in particular but not solely indigenous peoples who have had their very lives threatened by drug and alcohol addiction.

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 some of our traditional teachings and land-based wellness practices of our ancestors.

Our people have been impacted by intergenerational trauma, and disconnected from those practices.

We are part of something bigger than ourselves. I am hoping we can emphasize how those traditional ways relate to current healing practices, leading to more holistic ways of achieving physical, psychological, and spiritual balance. – Dr Karla Tait

The territory has been chosen– and publicly so– for the years of re-occupation because it was a place where pipelines would want to try and pass. However, these locations are also where moose, fish, berries, many, many other traditional plants and animals have always been harvested and in fact exist within a rocks toss of ancestral trading routes used by Unist’ot’en and other Wet’suwet’en peoples for centuries. What the maps still call “Morice River,” the Wedzin Kwah meets Gosnell Creek here at Talbits Kwah– the name for the location of Unist’ot’en Camp.

This is NOT a “protest camp” nor a blockade, but a re-occupation and full community use of the lands. It is a resistance camp, in that those who are present are also engaged in education about a myriad of ways to resist so many of the evils that have plagued many different nations still controlled by Canada.

Following Canada’s own laws and Supreme Court rulings– never mind International Law and the Universal Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) that Canadian Federal leaders like to talk abut internationally as evidence that Canada is “turning a corner” in its relationships with indigenous nations– the continual, evidence based rights of occupation and use by members of the recognized nation makes their title absolute. The fact that it is not only the traditional, hereditary elders of the Unist’ot’en Clan but of all clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation that assert this title only underlines the point (The Delgamuukw decision on land title in Canada’s Supreme Court was filed in 1997 on behalf of the Wet’suwet’en and the Gitxsan, and forms the basis of Canadian title law involving hereditary elders, at least in theory).

If it’s “what are you actually for?” you want answered, how about: “Instead of pipelines along the river, there are teenagers along the trails.” Youth groups from all over– not only local– who are indigenous, want to learn about and protect the land have been able to find time to learn from the elders on the land here.

While oil and gas and coal and destructive energy projects are not part of their vision, solar energy to help maintain the camp as a safe place for kids and frail elders even in minus 20 weather is important. Being able to serve and remain attached to the community as its natural extension has led to localized gardening, food and water distribution systems. Proper elders spaces. Schooling, both indoor and out.

By now, thousands of people have come and gone from the camp at one time or another. Upon entering the territory you must go through the proper protocols as you would with any nation. But Canada not only refuses this, the Canadian state has quietly approved “liquefied natural gas” as an “alternative” to tar sands or other fossil fuels, when it is anything but (LNG is not only slated to be the worst emitter of climate gases in BC, but large amounts of it also would supply continued expansion of the tar sands gigaproject– the largest and most destructive project in human history, only a province and a mountain range away. Adding these together makes climate action, such as it already is, a sad joke).

By now most people reading here will be familiar with the dangers and evils of fracking; In this case, let me add the local picture: Climate justice campaigners, at least those tied to large, capital dominated and industry funded NGO’s, often would seek in their own language, “the win.” And this was then used to fund raise– opposition to the Enbridge Gateway pipeline for example, always specified “no tar sands pipelines” or “dirty oil pipelines” because NGO’s were in general not opposing fracking that was producing LNG in places such as northeastern BC.

This typical situation has left it appear to far too many people that the pipeline wars, in northern BC at least, were “won” by defeating the Gateway pipeline that was destined for the transport of tar sands bitumen, primarily for export. In the case of the Unist’ot’en camp, this reality was seen as heading towards their struggles many years ago, and as such have welcomed supporters from larger eNGO’s but made them know in no uncertain terms, this struggle was for the land, and against all forms of industrial energy projects, whether tar sands or fracking or others, such as “run of the river” projects.

Some individuals still maintained relations with the camp, but large scale organizations that sought to trade off one development for another, they have stayed a safe distance back as a result of the stand of the Unist’ot’en Camp. Asking for support as equals, various groups have issued this or that statement, but now is the time for them– just like Canada itself– to permanently change that relationship through actions and not words.

There is no other place on Turtle Island that synthesizes so much of what needs to be accomplished. We, as human beings, are back in some truly dark times– fascism is running rampant both on the streets and in far too many government hallways. Decency itself is under attack everywhere. Racism and white supremacy are running at a rate not seen in many generations. Yet the struggles to recognize the basic rights of indigenous peoples in Canada have not changed their basic orientation for decades either, because Canada has never ended the colonial relationship in any meaningful way, at any time.

The Unist’ot’en Camp does not have a better vision– they have a better reality.

It is not a series of pamphlets about the Spanish Civil War or the attack on the Winter Palace, or a rerun of Cairo only 6 years ago. It is not a story of what elders did in their prime long ago, but rather what is being done for elders today by others in their current prime. With the guidance of those same elders.

Canadians from all walks of life also really do want some kind of realistic reckoning. Course work is changed for every grade now, to reflect a new sensitivity to indigenous history, rights and traditions. If you seek to get into teaching now as a profession, you will have to go through a course that attempts to reconcile the real history with respect for indigenous peoples today. All across Canada you will hear about the latest place to have their traditional, indigenous name restored– from rocks in Vancouver waters to the same on the coasts of Labrador on the Atlantic Ocean, or in Nunavut and the Arctic.

If you want to challenge the idea that Canada is white supremacist, this is your call to action. It is no good to talk of naming mountains after the original indigenous inhabitants– if those still-today inhabitants lose those mountains. Respect is earned when it matters. This is all truly about respect, right?

Sometimes, despite what historians tell us, history paints a picture before time even passes. Seldom, but once in awhile, events take place with near-perfect timing to illustrate a much larger historical truth and it all takes place within a very short pair of weeks. But, before we get to that, I want to touch on the last decade. Climate justice organizing, from every corner of the globe, has spun its wheels while the planet has seen much a deeper slide into ever-more likely unpreventable run-away climate change.

While some projects here or there have been blocked or stopped outright, climate victories have been hard to quantify, to celebrate. With the ease with which new administrations come into play, wiping out the gains and hard fought legislation of years of work, trying to stem the rising tide as it were, there are few things to point to and say “This– this is the kind of long term, human involved answer to the overwhelming issues of climate change, colonialism and the massive racist backlash enveloping so much of the planet.”

What sustains climate justice organizing when the ‘leaders’ of environmental struggles often trade a lake for a river, and suggest destroying one community over another? How do policy wonks and arguments over numbers, policies and data not drown activists and organizers in a pond of pessimism? Humans need something tangible, not a mere vision and abstract idea– a deep down, in the earth human alternative.

For some years now, I’ve been off the front lines of climate struggle and instead engaged in a struggle within my own family. North American settler society has long been a place where elders do not receive even a tiny fraction of the respect that must be afforded by a truly human worldview. Much like used cars or no-longer-state-of-the-art phones, our elders are sent to the bin when they no longer produce wealth for capital. I decided to help my mother in her needy years, to maintain something like dignity for her as best I can in a society that is indifferent. It’s just one more aspect of capital run amok.

But not all elders are treated the same.

There are those, like the George HW Bush who recently passed, who spent a lifetime working in the CIA, trying to stop any and all movements to free people of the grip of the North American vision for decades. No matter how many crimes, how many dead are left in his wake Justin Trudeau spent time honouring his “dedication” and “service.” The tributes flowed in, and everything from bombing civilian bunkers to regularly groping women was suddenly forgotten– and more than forgiven.

In the past few months, hereditary chief of the Likhts’amisyu Clan– Dini Ze Smogelgem– has been showing that level of elders respect often forgotten. His own mother has been heading for her final journey from this life, and began to require palliative care. As is the right thing to do, his basic responsibilities as the husband of Freda Huson, caretaker of the land and camp (and spokesperson) of the Unist’ot’en as recognized by hereditary elders. Smogelgem has been a very public face associated with the camp since the outset of its construction, and as such is often key to support work and contacts with many who support from afar.

Upon learning of the end of life situation facing Smogelgem’s mother, Canadian oil and gas company TransCanada– using their project name, Coastal Gas Link, showed up and demanded access to territory years ago declared off limits to any fossil fuel exploration or related development. Being rejected, the company has filed to go to court at this precise juncture– because they understand the depth of integrity involved in caring for elders in the time they need a peaceful transfer. The Canadian courts move towards Unist’ot’en now in a move that is entirely reminiscent of everything colonial Canada has done before.

Trudeau– in just the last few days alone– has kept repeating the lies: “We want a new relationship with indigenous society” and then the other lie “We have a climate action plan,” that amounts to more emissions that speed up the process of run away climate change. These forms of abuse are hardly new, or unexpected, but seldom is it compacted together into one obvious ball of wrong. The provincial government led by the New Democratic Party– supposedly left wing– has also announced their climate plans for BC, and the single biggest emitter of climate changing gasses is slated to be the fracking fossil fuel LNG plans, almost by themselves making all the other moves redundant and for show. But this is all for show– as is any pretense of changing the relationship between nations.

December 10 is two things: International Human Rights Day, in yet another classic Eff you is also the court date for the attempted injunction. This injunction is targeting individuals as well as the camp itself, to try and force access to sacred territories long since declared off bounds. There are demonstrations planned across Canada and soon, elsewhere. Camp defenders lent their physical support to those at Standing Rock in recent years. They have met with indigenous representatives around the world. The Unist’ot’en are not alone. That’s why this “Shock and awe” version of serving injunctions at a time of great quiet are taking place: To prevent the time needed to rally supporters.

There are many who have already pledged to defend this community space that has already helped many heal learn, be inspired and return to traditions. This struggle is a long way from over, but if you believe in the concept of reconciliation, if you are one who thinks a new relationship with first nations is needed within Canada, if you are tired of feeling the disgrace of this centuries long horrible and often genocidal relationship being the ink that stamps your Canadian passport?

Don’t wait for the next panel discussing “complicated history.” Don’t get excited about the new-avenues within higher education that talk about traditional knowledge and restoration of weakened languages. This situation in Northern BC, Canada is the place where the true nature of respect for sovereignty, dignity, the right to be who they are and hey, while we are at it, doing the local part to resist the climate apocalypse is a good deal, too. If you don’t want to worry about the climate, the children, the hurting souls who have sought a place to heal in the Unist’ot’en Camp? The lands and the waters, the animals?

Get involved because you don’t want to see the Canadian government not only attacking first nations again, but also do it for the elders.

If you wonder whether or not Canada has changed? They see the dying moments of an elder who spent her life defending her community and the lands now being contested– as an opportunity for oil and gas.

Once you finish thinking about it, you can go here and figure out how you too can be involved:



Macdonald Stainsby is an anti-tar sands and social justice activist, freelance writer and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at mstainsby@resist.ca