For the first time since people began protesting against the Coastal GasLink (CGL) natural gas pipeline where the route passes through Wet’suwet’en territory near Houston, arrests have resulted in criminal convictions.
In the Supreme Court of B.C. Monday (Dec. 12) in Smithers, five people were sentenced for breaching a court injunction, three with $500 fines and two with 25 hours of community service.
The sentences for Amanda Wong, Joshua Goskey, Nina Sylvestor, Layla Staats and Skyler Williams were the result of a joint submission by Crown and defence counsels following guilty pleas.
The five were part of a larger group arrested in November 2021 when Mounties moved into the area along the Morice River and Marten forest service roads near Houston to enforce a court injunction by removing blockades and preventing pipeline workers from accessing the work site.
A tale of three injunctions
Coastal GasLink first received an interim injunction from the provincial Supreme Court’s Justice Marguerite Church in December 2018 after filing a civil lawsuit against Freda Huson and Warner Naziel (hereditary chief Smogelgem), whose Unistot’en Camp lay in the way of the company starting pre-construction activities.
In January 2019, police enforced the injunction by taking down a gate preventing workers from accessing the work site and arresting 14 people. In April of the same year, the Crown dropped charges citing insufficient evidence to support criminal contempt charges.
By December 2019, blockades of the access road had been re-established and Coastal GasLink once again applied to the court for an injunction, which was granted on Dec. 31.
Prior to enforcement, however, talks were scheduled between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the province and the company. While Coastal GasLink had signed agreements with all the Wet’suwet’en band councils, the hereditary chiefs have remained opposed to the project from the beginning and maintain consent for industrial projects on Wet’suwet’en territory is their purview, not that of the Indian Act band councils.
Talks were scheduled for a week, but broke down after just two days. That led to the second major round of conflict when RCMP moved in en force in February 2020 to uphold the injunction. Over the three days of the enforcement, police removed three blockades and arrested at least 22 people.
This time, the enforcement triggered a solidarity movement across the country. Protests by Indigenous people and supporters shut down the CN rail network in eastern Canada, suspended most Via Rail passenger service, and temporarily blocked traffic on streets and bridges and at ports in multiple cities.
A blockade of the CN tracks in New Hazelton led to 12 more arrests.
Again, the Crown declined to prosecute either the 22 arrested near the CGL work site or the 12 arrested in New Hazelton. In the CN case, the BC Prosecution Service (BCPS) said there was insufficient evidence nine of the defendants had prior knowledge of a separate injunction preventing rail blockades. For the other three the Crown decided prosecution was not in the public interest because there was no violence or property damage.
However, CN was unwilling to drop it and petitioned the Supreme Court to allow the company to pursue criminal contempt charges if the prosecution service was unwilling. In December 2021, Justice Ward Branch ruled that CN may proceed against three blockaders, saying that not maintaining the possibility of criminal contempt “may undermine the administration of justice.”
The sentencing of the five individuals Monday in Smithers, coincided with an announcement the same day that Crime Stoppers and the B.C. Independent Contractors and Businesses Association were putting up a $100,000 reward for information on the identities of approximately 20 individuals who allegedly attacked the CGL camp near Houston in February of this year.
On Feb. 17, security guards at the site reported to RCMP that 20 masked individuals, some armed with axes were attacking them and smashing their vehicle windows.
Police said when they responded the road had been blocked with burning downed trees, tar-covered stumps and boards with spikes in them.
While working through the blockade, police said people threw smoke bombs and fire-lit sticks at them, injuring one officer.
That incident, the company said, caused millions of dollars of damage to property and machinery.
No arrests have been made to date.
The sentencing also coincided with the last day of four days of Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the landmark Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa Supreme Court of Canada decision.
That ruling established that Indigenous rights to their traditional lands exist and are protected under the Constitution. It also established oral testimony as valid evidence for title claims.
What it did not do was resolve the First Nations’ actual title claim of jurisdiction over roughly 58,000 square kilometres of northwest British Columbia.
In fact, Justice Church cited Delgamuukw in her original decision to grant the injunction.
“The Aboriginal title claims of the Wet’suwet’en remain outstanding and have not been resolved either by litigation or negotiation, despite the urging of the Supreme Court of Canada in Delgamuukw,” she said.