In early August, grassroots community members of the Wet’suwet’en people hosted an environmental action camp in the area known by its colonial name as northwest British Columbia, which is unceded Wet’suwet’en territory.
The camp was held to raise support and awareness in the ongoing resistance to a planned ‘energy corridor’ that would see the Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP) run 463 km from Summit Lake and the Horn River Basin, through Wet’suwet’en territory, all the way to the port town of Kitimat on the west coast.
The ‘energy corridor’ which could end up being as much as three kilometres wide threatens to force its way through hundreds of kilometres of wetlands, waterways and forests, and farming and First Nations communities alike, carrying natural gas from fracking fields in eastern and northeastern B.C.
Our hosts were the Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en, who were hosting the action camp on this site for the third straight year. The Unis’tot’en or C’ihlts’ehkhyu (Big Frog Clan) is the oldest and most storied clan of the Wet’suwet’en, and its people the original descendants.
As we arrived on the eastern side of Wedzin Kwah, a large painted sign blocking the entrance to the bridge informed us to “Stop: No Access Without Consent.” Wedzin Kwah is the stream otherwise known by its colonial name, the Morice River.
We were approached by Mel Bazil, Skiy’Ze of the Gitimt’en clan, who indicated that we would be subject to a Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) protocol before being granted permission to enter the territory. He explained to us that the FPIC protocol was part of an ongoing process to transcend rights, because rights, he explained as he formed a small pyramid with his hands, come from a top-down structure, and that indigenous law does not recognize colonial laws and constructs. We were then asked to approach members of the Unis’tot’en, Gitimt’en, and Likhts’amisyu clans to engage in the protocol which consists of introductions and questions. What is your name and your history? Where are you from? Have you previously worked for government or industry? What are your intentions on the territory? What skills and contributions can you share with the community?
The Free Prior and Informed Consent protocol which is part of an ongoing process of decolonization serves as a reactualization of natural law and a manifestation of mutual freedom and respect in moving across land and territories without state borders. It also presents an opportunity to implement a new emancipatory standard of autonomy within first nations territories, re-establishing spaces free of the existence of the state. The grassroots Wet’suwet’en are not only implementing the Free Prior and Informed Consent protocol in their territory, they are actively encouraging other nations and clans to do the same.
As we settled in for the welcoming circle, hereditary chief Toghestiy explained to everyone that the large number of people present is an indication of how much support and solidarity the community needs moving forward in its ongoing fight.
From the very first afternoon the camp was buzzing everywhere with energy and enthusiasm. People gave all sorts of workshops during the daytime. Additional wash stations were constructed and latrines dug, banners were erected, and the kitchen began its perpetual motion which was sustained through a constant collective effort from the beginning of camp to the end. The ad hoc community was actively running the camp together.
The action camp has come and gone, but for several weeks now the Unis’tot’en and their friends and allies have transformed the site to the point where it can no longer simply be called a camp. With projects, ideas and organizing abounding, the site has transitioned from temporary installation to permanent community.
In early September, the days are marked with wildberry picking in the afternoons, the fruits of which will be canned and preserved for the winter months. All the salmon consumed at camp flows through a local, sustainable, ecological food system and is fished according to traditional custom and obtained from the rivers and tributaries of Wet’suwet’en territory. Likewise the hunting of wild meats follows traditional protocol which combines spiritual, traditional, and ecological elements. Moose meat is a camp favourite.
This past season a potato patch was planted by the river which soon promises to yield a generous harvest, and a root cellar is being built to that effect. The soil and different areas of the camp are slowly being explored and considered to maximize next year’s growing season.
Despite these early efforts, the camp still has ways to go in becoming self-sufficient in food production, but is making active strides in that direction. There is also talk of getting chickens for the winter as an egg source during difficult food times, and early planning for the building of a cob oven which will give the community the capacity to bake its own bread.
During the action camp in early August a smokehouse was built, the result of a day-long collective flash-effort that now allows the community to smoke and preserve wild meats on site. Shortly after camp, a banya steam bath was also built for relaxing down time in the evenings. Future planned projects include other cabins and structures, and a traditional pit house to be built in the pine terrace as additional sleeping quarters.
Traditonally, the Gitemden clan would construct fishing weirs across the shallow parts of Wedzin Kwah to catch salmon for their yearly sustenance. In fact, the word ‘gitimt’en’ in the Tsimshian language means “people who build weirs.” But they would not overfish and they would not burden the natural life systems that spawn the waterways. The Gitimt’en practised selective fishing where they would study each fish individually to gage its spirit and its energy, and trusted their intuition to determine whether to keep it or to let it swim free. Their custom was to let go the first fish of the season, so that he or she could carry the message to all the other fish not to be scared, that they could return along the same river path the following year. The Gitimt’en respected and took care of the salmon, so that the salmon would take care of them.
Today we drink directly from Wedzin Kwah, its water is pristine and crystal clear. It is this that the Unis’tot’en are defending; it is the river, the salmon, the forest, the moose and the berries that they are defending.
What is perhaps the most important distinction to make about the character of this community is that it is a community is resistance, yes, but it is also a community that is thriving, a community that is being cultivated and actualized.
The Wet’suwet’en against the Pacific Trails Pipeline must defend their traditional and ecological territory, but they should not have to. Mother Earth should not be degraded and the ecological world should not be threatened by the greed and the destructive indifference of industry. Dini Ze Toghestiy explains that all this time resisting should instead be spent building and cultivating the elements of their culture. That is why the Unis’tot’en camp community has centered itself on autonomy and self-sufficiency, to free itself from the colonial grasp of the state and the industrial system in order to create space for itself.
The building of this community is a profound process of decolonization where traditional territory is being reasserted and re-inhabited. Through an emancipatory historical reparation, the grassroots Wet’suwet’en and their friends and allies are carving out autonomous zones where life and culture can flourish in freedom once again.
What is now unfolding on the west bank of Wedzin Kwah is not simply resistance to a pipeline and the defense of a territory, but the building and rebuilding of a radical alternative and traditional living. That is why such a strong emphasis at camp has been placed on community building and empowerment, so that organizing and resistance can be holistically integrated into the spaces of everyday life. This is pre-figurative organizing that confronts an injustice by counteracting it with an alternative.
The resistance community, therefore, is the illustration that building and creating is the most comprehensive form of resistance, that there is no separation between life, and the defense of life.
Moving forward Unis’tot’en camp needs committed support in materials, resources, fundraising, awareness, and people. To join the effort and contribute please contact [email protected]
Julien Lalonde is a writer and community organizer who focuses on ecological justice, horizontal organizing, and creative resistance. He is currently exploring alternative communities across Turtle Island with friend and organizing partner Brett Rhyno. Julien is currently based out of Wet’suwet’en territory and blogs at culturesofresistance.wordpress.com.
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