A group of protesters on the sidewalk hold up a banner stating "Hands Of Wet'suwet'en" and featuring a red hand print in the middle of the text.

Canada: Indigenous land defenders criminalized, surveilled and harassed as pipeline construction continues on Wet’suwet’en territory

Four years on from the first large-scale police raid on Wet’suwet’en territory, Indigenous land defenders in Canada are still experiencing serious human rights violations as the construction of the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline continues on their unceded, ancestral and traditional territories, said Amnesty International today. The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs – the authorities of the Nation according to Wet’suwet’en Law, as affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1997 Delgamuukw ruling – oppose the construction of the liquified natural gas pipeline in their unceded territory and have not given their free, prior and informed consent to the project.

“In a democratic country such as Canada, which relies on its reputation on the world stage of being such a respectful and safe country, why are the Wet’suwet’en/Indigenous Peoples being targeted with such violence? Why are we less ‘human’ and why do we have to stand up against such abuses? Why must we be criminalized on our own unceded lands for protecting human/Indigenous rights and doing our part to protect the right to clean water, safe foods and our very existence?” said Chief Na’Moks, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief.

Wet’suwet’en land defenders, Hereditary Chiefs and matriarchs are frequently harassed, intimidated, forcibly removed and criminalized by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and CGL’s private security guards for peacefully defending their unceded, ancestral and traditional lands. In three large-scale police actions in the territory in January 2019, February 2020 and November 2021, a total of 74 Wet’suwet’en and other land defenders, legal observers and members of the media were arrested and detained. During these raids, the RCMP were equipped with military assault weapons, helicopters and dog units, and operated alongside private security guards to burn down buildings and desecrate Indigenous ceremonial spaces.

Following these violent police raids, criminal charges were laid against Indigenous land defenders for peacefully defending traditional and unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. Notably, in November 2021, the RCMP forcibly removed and arrested several Indigenous land defenders and others for allegedly defying a 2019 court injunction that prohibited blocking access to worksites where CGL employees build the pipeline. At least 15 of these individuals were subsequently charged with criminal contempt. In December 2022, five land defenders were sentenced with fines and mandatory community service in relation to their defence of the territory. Currently, 13 members of the Wet’suwet’en and other land defenders are planning to defend themselves against the charges of criminal contempt for allegedly defying the injunction. 

‘Criminalized for being who we are

“Indigenous peoples have always been criminalized for being who we are and standing up for the yintah. British Columbia and Canada thought they wiped us out or assimilated us enough so they wouldn’t have to use guns to control us anymore. But just like we survived genocide, we survive their militarized raids year after year because we understand the necessity to protect our way of life and life itself,” said Sleydo’, Cas Yikh of the Gidimt’en Clan, Wet’suwet’en Nation. For this reason, the Wet’suwet’en Nation continues to stand up for their human rights and speak out against criminalization. In June 2022, members of the Wet’suwet’en filed a civil lawsuit in British Columbia against the Province of B.C., members of the RCMP, the private security firm Forsythe, and Coastal GasLink, seeking damages for intimidation and other claims towards Indigenous Peoples near the roads leading to the pipeline’s worksites.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) enshrines the rights of Indigenous Peoples to protect and conserve the environment of their lands and to not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories, and requires States to obtain Indigenous Peoples’ free, prior and informed consent prior to approval of any project that affects their lands and territories. The UNDRIP also recognizes the right to effective remedies and redress for any and all infringements of individual or collective rights that takes into account Indigenous legal systems and international human rights. Both Canada and British Columbia have passed laws that mandate the government to bring domestic laws in compliance with the UNDRIP. Additionally, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has stressed that states – including Canada – that are party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination must obtain the informed consent of Indigenous Peoples before taking decisions that directly relate to their rights and interests.

“By allowing Coastal GasLink to continue construction on the traditional, unceded territories of the Wet’suwet’en without their free, prior and informed consent, the governments of Canada and British Columbia are not only contravening the spirit of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, but also their binding human rights obligations,” said France-Isabelle Langlois, Executive Director of Amnistie internationale Canada Francophone. “Amnesty International calls on the governments of Canada and B.C., and CGL, to immediately cease all construction on the pipeline and return to constructive discussions with the Hereditary Chiefs that respect the laws and the right to free, prior, and informed consent of the Wet’suwet’en people.”

“The Canadian government and CGL must immediately withdraw security and policing forces from Wet’suwet’en territory. Their presence severely limits the ability of Wet’suwet’en people to exercise their rights over their traditional territories,”

Dr. Zosa De Sas Kropiwnicki-Gruber, Amnesty International Canada

In 2019, the CERD called on Canada to halt CGL’s pipeline until free, prior, and informed consent was obtained. Subsequently, the Committee issued a letter to Canada in 2020 highlighting Canada’s problematic interpretation of its obligation to obtain the community’s free, prior, and informed consent, and duty to consult as a “duty to engage in meaningful and good faith dialogue with Indigenous Peoples” before proceeding with the project. In May 2022, the CERD issued a third letter to Canada noting its concern over the escalating use of force, surveillance and criminalization of land defenders and peaceful protestors by the RCMP, its Community-Industry Response Group and private security firms. Despite this, the Canadian government has not responded to the CERD’s letter and has failed to implement the Committee’s recommendations. Construction of the pipeline continues without the consent of the Wet’suwet’en and is enabled by an ongoing RCMP and private security presence that continues to maintain surveillance, intimidate and harass Indigenous Peoples.   

“The Canadian government and CGL must immediately withdraw security and policing forces from Wet’suwet’en territory. Their presence severely limits the ability of Wet’suwet’en people to exercise their rights over their traditional territories,” said Dr. Zosa De Sas Kropiwnicki-Gruber, Director of Research, Advocacy and Policy of Amnesty International Canadian Section (English Speaking). “All allegations of harassment, intimidation, threats and forced evictions of Indigenous and other land defenders on traditional and unceded Wet’suwet’en territory must be investigated immediately.”