Anyone who drove forestry roads to the Morice River bridge just north of Morice Lake last week met a sign that read, “STOP: No access without consent.”
Consent to cross came from leaders of the Unis’tot’en, a Wet’suwet’en clan that broke away from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en in 2008 and has since led grassroots protests against pipelines and mineral exploration as well as asserting title rights on their traditional territory west of the Morice.
For three summers now, Unis’tot’en leaders Freda Huson and Warner Naziel have organized a week-long camp out of a cabin by the Morice that they say is built on the exact route of the Pacific Trail pipeline.
“We will stop these pipelines from going through,” said Naziel, who introduced himself by his chief name, Toghestiy.
“They have to be mindful that there’s not just Canadian law. There’s traditional law that exists, and that was here long before Canadian law ever existed.”
Huson said as well as establishing the duty to consult the Unis’tot’en, the protest is meant to protect the Morice River.
“You can actually still drink this water, it’s so clean,” she said.
Starting with 60 supporters in 2010, Naziel said this year’s camp grew to about 160. He said nearly two-thirds bused or drove in from places like Victoria, Vancouver and places further afield, he said, while others came from local towns like Hazelton, Fraser Lake and Moricetown.
Naziel said he expects the camp to keep growing so long as work continues on Pacific Trail, Northern Gateway and other oil and gas pipelines that are proposed to run along the same corridor through northern B.C.
Pacific Trail, which would carry B.C. shale gas from the Horn River basin, is the closest to actual construction.
On Aug. 5, Naziel and Huson said they turned away a crew working to install drilling pads for Pacific Trail pipeline, which would be routed under the Morice River.
In November 2011, they closed the road to another crew taking rock samples for the same project.
Paul Wyke, a spokesman for Pacific Trails, said in an email that “Pacific Trail Pipelines understands that some members of the Unis’tot’en have expressed some concerns.”
“PTP continues to consult with all First Nations along the pipeline right of way and the project continues to receive a great deal of support from First Nations communities.”
Fifteen of the 16 first nations on the Pacific Trail right of way have signed an equity-sharing deal that totals an estimated $514 million over the 30-year life of the pipeline.
Earlier this month, a forestry company run by the Kitselas first nation started the first clearing for the right of way, logging as far west as the Clore River.
While pipelines are the focus of the protest, Naziel said that until they negotiated with the Unis’tot’en, contractors doing unrelated logging were also turned away from the Morice River bridge.
Andy Meints, owner of Meints Contracting, said half of the 35 people working for him were forced to take days off last week, since most of his logging equipment was trapped on the west side of the bridge.
By Wednesday evening, after face-to-face meetings with Canfor executives, Meints and other logging contractors were allowed to cross.
Houston RCMP Sergeant Rose said the camp didn’t require any policing.
“People have a right to protest,” he said. “And my understanding is it’s a rather peaceful protest because we haven’t had any calls for service.”
On Thursday, Naziel led the Interior News on a tour of the camp, and introduced a few of its leading members.
Zoe Blunt, an activist with Victoria’s Forest Action Network, fundraised to buy a school bus just for the trip from the island.
“This has been great,” Blunt said. “We brought a lot of really enthusiastic people.”
Many of those who came on the bus had never been in the B.C. backcountry, she said, or really talked to indigenous people before.
Still, she said, “They care very deeply about what happens here and everywhere else the pipelines are planned for, and in the fracking fields, and in the tanker ports and the coastlines.”
Blunt said the Forest Action Network is a grassroots group with no full-time staff, but their tree-sits and blockades have brought change, including the end of a resort development planned for Juan de Fuca Provincial Park.
“That’s the tactic,” she said. “We’re not going to preserve an area by climbing a tree. But it can cause both parties to sit down together.”
Born and raised in and around Fort McMurray, actor Tantoo Cardinal said she joined the Unis’tot’en camp and also risked arrest at a Keystone XL protest in Washington D.C. two years ago because she deeply opposes the oil sands development she says has poisoned rivers on her traditional territory.
“There’s absolutely no reverence for this land,” she said.
Wearing a red square to signify solidarity with Quebec’s student movement, which he had joined two weeks before coming to the Unis’tot’en camp, filmmaker Frank Lopez said the pipelines protest is part of a larger fight against runaway resource extraction.
“If we want to have any sort of earth or planet left, we need to stop the constant growth of industrial civilization in its tracks,” he said.
All around the Unis’tot’en cabin, protestors held open-air workshops on topics ranging from decolonization to police tactics, race relations, non-violent protest, and aboriginal medicine.
Power tools buzzed as one group built a smokehouse for a moose killed the day before, and in a long wall tent, campers lay down for acupuncture, spiritual healing and reiki massage.
At the centre of it all, Naziel stood in the Unis’tot’en cabin and pointed out a new solar-powered water system that was just installed by Energy Alternatives, the same company that built the solar panels in Houston’s Steelhead Park.
Naziel said after the camp, people will start living in the cabin full time to monitor pipeline activity and kick out pipelines workers.
Pacific Trail is the focus for now, he said, mostly because it’s first in line.
“The Pacific Trail Pipeline would effectively bulldoze a path for the Enbridge right-of-way,” he said, noting that it will also spur more hydro-fracking that he believes is dangerous to people in northeastern B.C.
“If we allow this pipeline here, we’re only contributing to the demise of our brothers and sisters there.”