Down a long back road, south of Houston BC, there is a place known as the Unist’ot’en Camp. Situated on Wet’suwet’en territory, the Unist’ot’en Camp is a community of people reoccupying their traditional territory and living off the land. The camp, which consists of permaculture gardens and a pit house, creates opportunities for people to learn from the voices of elders and those who have protected and lived off of the land.
It also operates as a blockade for pipelines. The Unist’ot’en people live on their traditional territory and honour their birthright and responsibility to protect their territory by keeping oil and gas industry off of their land and disrupting plans for pipelines. The Unist’ot’en Camp website states that “a total of eleven companies are currently proposing to run oil and gas pipelines through Unist’ot’en territory, with several more companies announcing plans to join the new gas-rush.” The onslaught of pipelines are set to be built under their pit house, permaculture gardens, under the rivers that are nurseries for different salmon species, through the forests that are homes to animals, and through places of sacred ceremony. The pipelines are not simply an environmental risk, but a cultural and social injustice.
The Unist’ot’en Camp is built on the direct GPS coordinates of the Pacific Trails Pipeline, Enbridge Pipeline, and Coastal Gaslink Pipeline. In an interview with Toghestiy, one of the founding members of the camp, he explained that the camp was “created with the idea of resistance in mind but also for building a stronger community … we wanted to get our own people out here and living on the land again, but we also wanted to build a resistance community with people from all walks of life, from all over the planet, and it’s worked really well, we have people that show up from all over the world to be here.” This dedication to protecting the land results in an unwavering resistance in the face of industry trying to develop large-scale industrial projects on their territory.
The Unist’ot’en Camp not only works to protect their own territory but also bring a powerful voice in the fight towards indigenous sovereignty. Founding member, Mel Bazil, states that, “Initially, we realized this was not only a pipeline issue but a sovereignty issue on our part. We don’t only think of ourselves, we think in solidarity with neighbouring nations and the world around us, and when we got an understanding of the proposed fluids that would be transported in these pipelines, we realized this was a danger for the whole world, particularly communities affected by the tarsands and fracking.”
The Unist’ot’en people exercise full control over their territory and watch over the land, monitoring all areas to make sure no one is trespassing. With only one bridge making it accessible, the people at the Unist’ot’en Camp have been able to monitor and choose who is allowed in by using the protocol of “free, prior, and informed consent.” This protocol was once used traditionally to monitor who entered the territory and is now being practiced again. As so-called “Canadian citizens” we have been taught that we have the right to move freely on this land without regard for the unique territories where different languages are spoken, and different customs, stories, and traditions are taught. Toghestiy explains that “the settler populations could really help us and help themselves by making themselves aware of what is really going on in this world, educating themselves and realizing that if you’re walking around anywhere in North America you’re walking on somebody else’s land that was taken wrongfully from them …
There should be protocol for every move you do, you should be asking permission to go and work in that place, let alone exploit the resources that are there, and develop a relationship with those individuals.”
When asked about the protocol experience, Tamo Campos, who attended this year’s Action Camp said, “If people are wanting to lean on First Nations to win this pipeline battle, it’s equally important that they start understanding and respecting indigenous territories and sovereignty. At the bridge, that’s just what the Unist’ot’en clan has created with the protocol. It’s powerful and forces you to experience a border crossing that us settlers have been blind to since contact.” Each person entering is asked the same set of questions. Two of the questions which stump people working for harmful industries are, “Do you work for industry or government?” and “How will your visit benefit my people?” These are the kind of questions that leave people related to the oil and gas industry unable to enter, because they can’t answer the questions in a beneficial way. This protocol has kept unwanted industry out of their territory since 2009.
This summer from July 16 to July 20th, an annual Action Camp was held at the Unist’ot’en Camp. People from around the world gathered to learn, connect, and support the Unist’ot’en Camp, and other land defenders. Over one hundred people showed up and took part in workshops about land defending, civil disobedience, and decolonization.
The four days were intense, emotional, and beautiful. The stories shared were woven together through experiences of pain and triumph. We were fortunate to hear Wolverine speak about his experience as a warrior in the Gustafsen standoff. He stood in the line of fire to assert his sovereignty and protect his territory. We heard stories of resistance from the Secwepemc Women Warrior Society about their triumphs in reclaiming their sovereignty and building a healthy community. We practiced blockade training, and discussed police brutality, oppression, and colonization.
We met people who had travelled across Turtle Island, and the globe. Many came to Unist’ot’en camp because their homes had already been damaged as a result of environmental and social injustices. They knew the importance of protecting this land, culture, water, and the animals that call it home. Toghestiy stated, “a lot of people on this planet are becoming more aware of what is happening, not just with indigenous people but as a human population: the impact we’re having on this planet, the climate crisis that is happening, the acidification of our oceans, the Fukushima disaster, the BP disaster, the Exxon Valdez, and the amount of pollution from agriculture, and human pollution.”
The Unist’ot’en camp not only focuses on their own fight but also stands in solidarity with those defending their own traditional territories. Land defenders across Turtle Island congregated creating a powerful and diverse group of speakers and teachers. At the camp,“the radical politics that we’re promoting … forces people to take it a step further because that old model doesn’t work. The model that we’re presenting is physically making a difference on the ground and physically making a difference in those boardrooms of governments and corporations,” says Toghestiy.
It is a lesson we all can act upon to ensure a future that resists oppression and supports life and freedom for all living beings. The Unist’ot’en camp protects and honours the natural world that sustains us all. With the amount of people gathering and acting in solidarity with this camp it seems clear that this movement of resistance is growing.
Hannah Campbell is a member of Beyond Boarding, a group of avid snowboarders dedicated to spreading interest in environmental and humanitarian work. Check out their films at www.beyondboarding.com
Photo: Bridge to Unis’to’ten Camp by Hannah Campbell