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Human rights concerns mount as Gitxsan hereditary chiefs and Mohawk land defenders arrested by Canadian police

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Image: Gitxsan Huwilp Government/Facebook

Concerns about Indigenous sovereignty, the rule of law, police violence and the United Nations recognized right to free, prior and informed consent are mounting after the arrests of Gitxsan hereditary chiefs and Mohawk land defenders.

On February 24, CBC reported, "Several people, including at least two [Gitxsan Nation] hereditary chiefs, were arrested at a railway blockade in northern British Columbia Monday evening, according to witnesses."

Ten people were reportedly arrested, including Hereditary Chief Spookw (Norman Stephens) and 80-year-old matriarch Gwininitxw (Yvonne Lattie).

A 90-second video of Chief Spookw explaining the rationale for the blockade, made prior to his arrest, can be seen here. A 20-minute video of the night-time raid by the RCMP, recorded by Cody Wedlidi Merriman, can be seen here.

That morning, CTV reported that another 10 Indigenous land defenders had been arrested at a blockade on Mohawk of Tyendinaga territory in Ontario.

That news article notes, "A stream of police cruisers, vans, unmarked vehicles, and dozens of officers, including some wearing what appeared to be tactical gear were seen flooding the Mohawk blockade shortly after 8:00 a.m. EST."

Video of one of the arrests at Tyendinaga can be seen here.

While police dismantled these two blockades, multiple other Indigenous land defenders and ally blockades were set up in other parts of the country.

The blockades of railway tracks on Indigenous lands have been established in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en land defenders in northern British Columbia following an RCMP raid on their territory that began on February 6.

The land defenders have demanded that the RCMP leave Wet'suwet'en territory and that Coastal GasLink stop construction of a fracked gas pipeline on that territory until the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs give their free, prior and informed consent to the megaproject.

These demands have also been made by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

Mount Royal University professor Sean Carleton commented, "Canada has decided to force a kind of 'might is right' approach. And unfortunately, I think it shows a sign of weakness, and a lack of courage on Canada's side to actually sit down at the table, understand what the Wet'suwet'en chiefs were asking for, which was not unreasonable."

Carleton adds, "As a historian, I'm disappointed. We often talk about learning from the lessons of the past, so that we don't make the same mistakes, and here we are."

Ethan Cox of Ricochet said, "It's past midnight on the east coast, but [Ricochet journalist] Jerome Turner and I wanted to get you a story on the arrest of two hereditary chiefs tonight, because it signals a major escalation in the Wet'suwet'en crisis. A journalist also appears to have been arrested."

Notably, the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en were co-plaintiffs in the December 11, 1997 Supreme Court of Canada ruling known as the Delgamuukw decision.

CBC explained, "In the Delgamuukw case, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs established that the Indigenous nation has a system of law that predates the days of elected band councils enacted under Canada's Indian Act."

That article continues, "Under traditional Wet'suwet'en law, hereditary chiefs are responsible for decisions regarding ancestral lands. In the current dispute, some hereditary chiefs say the decision to approve a pipeline in their ancestral lands without consent is an infringement of their Aboriginal title and rights."

It then highlights, "Aboriginal title and rights are protected under the Constitution." Section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 confirms "existing Aboriginal or treaty rights" that had not been extinguished by surrender or legislation before 1982.

Kate Gunn, a lawyer with First Peoples Law, notes, "In the situation where we have a group that's been in court for years establishing title … I think that the obligations on the Crown [to justify a rights infringement] would be very high."

After the first RCMP raid on Wet'suwet'en territory last year, Bruce McIvor, lawyer, historian and principal at First Peoples Law, stated, "The fact that the Chiefs and their supporters found themselves facing heavily-armed RCMP officers is a testament to a complete and shameful failure of the rule of law."

Peace Brigades International-Canada continues to observe this situation with concern. As noted on this webpage, Peace Brigades International accompanies numerous organizations in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico who are under threat in the struggle to protect their ancestral lands and cultural heritage as powerful interests wish to exploit the natural resources found within and beneath traditional territories.

PBI affirms that Indigenous land defenders are essential allies, not enemies, and that the defence of human rights is not a crime.

Brent Patterson is the executive director of Peace Brigades International-Canada. This article originally appeared on the PBI-Canada website.

Image: Gitxsan Huwilp Government/Facebook

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