A new report by Amnesty International traces the years-long campaign of violence, harassment, discrimination, and dispossession against Indigenous Wet’suwet’en land defenders resisting the construction of Coastal GasLink (CGL) liquified natural gas pipeline through their unceded ancestral territory without their free, prior and informed consent.
The report’s launch coincides with the 26th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in Delgamuukw v British Columbia. This ruling reaffirmed Wet’suwet’en customary law.
'Removed from our land for Defending it’: Criminalization, Intimidation and Harassment of Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders [PDF] examines the human rights violations inflicted upon members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their supporters by the authorities of Canada and British Columbia; CGL Pipeline Ltd. and TC Energy, the corporations building the pipeline; and Forsythe Security, a private security firm contracted by CGL Pipeline Ltd.
Based in part on witness testimony of four violent, large-scale Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raids on Wet’suwet’en territory, the report finds that Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters were arbitrarily arrested for defending their land and exercising their Indigenous rights and their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
Amnesty International Canada's new report tracks a years-long campaign of criminalization and unlawful surveillance against Wet’suwet’en land defenders as they defend their ancestral, unceded territory against the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline construction.
'Removed from our land for defending it': Criminalization, Intimidation and Harassment of Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders
The Wet’suwet’en Nation, under the governance of its Hereditary Chiefs, is defending its ancestral, unceded territory against the construction of the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline.
The pipeline is owned by Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd., TC Energy Corporation (formerly TransCanada), Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co (KKR) and Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo). It is meant to transport natural gas extracted from the Dawson Creek area in British Columbia (B.C.) to a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility near Kitimat, British Columbia, Canada.
"They keep on talking about reconciliation. We live reconciliation every day. It looks just like that: they always have one finger on the trigger."
Chief Na'Moks, Hereditary Chief of the Wet'suwet'en
Shaylee Holland, Wet'suwet'en Land Defender
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Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous land defenders have experienced racial discrimination, including violations of their cultural and collective rights as Indigenous Peoples. Women defenders have also experienced both threats and acts of gender-based violence and discrimination.
"I’m not a protester. I’m a land defender. I'm doing this for not even just our children. It’s for everybody’s children. We’re doing this for everybody, not just us. For future generations."
Wet'suwet'en Land Defender
The Wet'suwet'en Nation
The Wet’suwet’en Nation has more than 5000 members organized in five clans: Gil_seyhu (Big Frog), Laksilyu (Small Frog), Gidimt’en (Wolf/Bear), Laksamshu (Fireweed) and Tsayu (Beaver).
These clans are made up of thirteen matrilineal house groups. Each house group has a House Chief (dini ze’ or ts’ask ze’) and supporting wing chiefs who hold advisory roles and assist in decision-making.
House Chiefs represent their houses. The various House Chiefs within a clan collectively represent the entire clan. Under ‘Anuc niwh’it’en (Wet’suwet’en law), each clan has the responsibility and authority to control access to their territories.
Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs have had continuous authority over Wet’suwet’en territory since time immemorial. The Supreme Court of Canada’s 1997 Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa decision affirmed the Wet’suwet’en’s hereditary governance structure and that Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs have authority over ancestral Wet’suwet’en territories.
According to the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, the Wet’suwet’en “have never relinquished or surrendered [their] title and rights to the lands and resources within [their] territory.” All five Wet’suwet’en clans oppose the construction of the CGL pipeline.
The 670-kilometre-long pipeline will pass through the territories of more than 30 Indigenous communities. About 190 kilometres of it will pass through Wet’suwet’en Territory in British Columbia, Canada.
If the pipeline is completed, it will divide the Wet’suwet’en Territory into two.
The Coastal GasLink Pipeline
Coastal GasLink Pipeline Route
Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, Gitxsan Nation
Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation shared that their ancestors inhabited and safeguarded the Yin’tah for generations. The wisdom of their ancestors serves as a guiding force for the Nation. By being on the territory and maintaining a connection to it, the Wet’suwet’en Nation cultivate meaningful bonds with their ancestors.
“The land gives me a huge sense of belonging. Not growing up with my grandparents. Not having that connection to extended family. It just fills that void. I feel like I have such a connection to my ancestors on the territory.”
Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham),
Wet'suwet'en Land Defender
The Wet'suwet'en Nation's Defence of the Yin'tah
Wet’suwet’en land defenders shared with Amnesty International that “the Wet’suwet’en struggle is a frontline to protect the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples and to prevent climate change.”
Since 2009, Wet’suwet’en land defenders have been constructing what they refer to as “re-occupation sites” across the Yin’tah as a way of re-affirming their authority over it. These sites are populated by Wet’suwet’en families, elders and children, and include residential cabins, pithouses, bunkhouses, healing lodges, a feast hall, and hunting and cultural camps.
Land defenders shared with Amnesty International that CGL has never received this permission nor consent to operate on Wet’suwet’en territory. In February 2019, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs called for a stop work order on the CGL pipeline. They issued eviction notices to CGL in January 2020 and November 2021.
Toronto on Feb. 17, 2020
“The Wet’suwet’en are stewards of the land. They are here to protect their traditional territories and to ensure that future generations of Wet’suwet’en are able to live and benefit from all that their ancestral land provides.
The Wet’suwet’en are not opposed to commercial and economic development on their traditional territories as long as the proper cultural protocol is followed and respect given. The Wet’suwet’en insist that every effort is made to ensure the protection of their traditional territories from environmental damage.”
Office of the Wet’suwet’en, Wet’suwet’en Title & Rights and Coastal GasLink, Submission to BC EAO and Coastal GasLink Pipeline, 2014
Photos above by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images, Ollie Millington/Getty Images, Amnesty International, Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images
A Fight for Everyone's Future
Wet’suwet’en land defenders shared that the fight is not just about Indigenous Peoples and their territories, but it is about everyone whose lives will be affected by the environmental degradation and destruction that the pipeline is, and will, cause.
The right to conserve and protect the environment is set out in Article 29 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [PDF]. This right has a special relationship with the defence of land and territory. Land defenders strive to protect and promote human rights related to the environment, including water, air, land, flora and fauna. They play a fundamental role in defending the rights of their communities to a safe and healthy environment, to a future with dignity and respect, and to their ancestral lands and livelihoods.
At the same time, land defenders protect the environment for society as a whole. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has stated that “environmental human rights defenders are at the heart of our future and the future of our planet.”
Around the world, land defenders increasingly face violence and violations of their rights on a daily basis. Indigenous land defenders find themselves in particularly vulnerable situations, especially those who live in rural and remote areas. Structural discrimination and racism are also a source of increased risks for Indigenous land defenders. Both States and corporations must respect the rights of everyone to promote and protect the environment. States must protect those who defend the environment from both State and non-State actors.
The Use of Injunctions to Override the Nation's Rights
A court injunction requested by CGL Pipeline Ltd. and granted by the B.C. Supreme Court has served as the legal justification for the RCMP raids and other forms of criminalization suffered by Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters.
Amnesty International has observed that, operating under the injunction, Canada and British Columbia, through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and CGL’s private security firm, Forsythe Security, harass, intimidate, surveil and criminalize Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters.
In four large-scale RCMP raids on Wet’suwet’en territory, over 75 land defenders were arrested and detained. During these raids, the RCMP were equipped with semi-automatic weapons, helicopters and dog units. It used excessive force to arrest Wet’suwet’en land defenders and forcibly remove them from their territory.
Amnesty International considers that the injunction unduly restricts the human rights of the Wet’suwet’en Nation to self-governance and control their territories.
“Injunction is the government and industries' way of ignoring our rights and ignoring that we have every right to be here...The injunction, as I see it, is a legal means for government and industry to push through projects, ignore us, push us out or criminalize us.”
Howilhkat, Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en Tsakiy ze’ (Chief) and Yin’tah (Land) Steward
“Since colonization, Indigenous Peoples in Canada have been subjected to an array of government policies aimed at dispossessing them from their territories and assimilating them into settler society. Forcing the construction of the pipeline without the Nation’s free, prior and informed consent – and criminalizing land defenders who exercise their rights – fit neatly into this pattern of Canada’s ongoing colonial behaviour towards Indigenous Peoples.”
Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English-speaking section
The persistence of Canada’s colonial dynamics limits the ability of Indigenous Nations to protect and control their territories and, in turn, preserve their culture and ways of life.
The CGL pipeline is owned by Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd., a wholly-owned subsidiary of TC Energy Corporation (formerly TransCanada Pipelines Limited). The pipeline will deliver natural gas extracted from the Dawson Creek area in British Columbia to a liquified natural gas (LNG) export facility near Kitimat, B.C., where it will supply Asian markets.
This LNG facility is currently under construction and is the largest single private sector infrastructure project and one of the largest energy investments in Canadian history. The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission (now the B.C. Energy Regulator) approved the pipeline, and it has the support of the governments of Canada and British Columbia.
Colonial Governance and Indigenous Peoples' Rights in Canada
The dynamics described in Amnesty International Canada's report fit neatly into a pattern of Canada’s colonial behaviour in relation to Indigenous Peoples stretching back centuries. Since colonization, Indigenous Peoples in Canada have been subjected to an array of government policies aimed at dispossessing them from their territories and assimilating them into settler society.
These policies and practises include forced eviction, relocation and dispossession, residential schools, Indian registration rules, mass incarceration, forced sterilization, the Sixties Scoop, the child welfare system and Indian Act rules, among others.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found that, “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada.
Amnesty International has documented that, since pipeline construction activities began, the RCMP, the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) or Critical Response Unit (CRU), and employees of Forsythe Security (the private security firm hired by CGL) have intimidated, harassed and surveilled Wet’suwet’en land defenders within their territory.
Wet’suwet’en land defenders shared with Amnesty International that they believe the RCMP and Forsythe Security are trying to force land defenders off the territory so CGL can proceed with pipeline construction.
On several occasions, RCMP officers told Wet’suwet’en land defenders that the Gidimt’en Checkpoint was not their home and that they were on Crown land.
Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation believe that they are targeted and profiled for being Indigenous and for being land defenders. During its visits to Wet’suwet’en territory in July 2022 and May-June 2023, Amnesty International observed the ongoing presence of these actors along the Morice Forest Service Road, as well as outside of the Gidimt’en Checkpoint and the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre (which are the permanent residences of several land defenders).
Illustration of Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders, Amnesty International
Intimidation, Harassment & Surveillance of Indigenous Land Defenders
Amnesty International documented the RCMP's criminalization of land defenders through large-scale policing operations on Wet’suwet’en territory when Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters were arrested for allegedly violating the terms of the injunction order.
Over the four large-scale police raids from January 2019 to March 2023, the RCMP arrested approximately 75 land defenders. Amnesty International considers that those arrested solely for exercising their Indigenous rights and right to freedom of peaceful assembly were arbitrarily arrested.
According to the RCMP, the January 2019, February 2020 and November 2021 police operations responded to peaceful actions that impeded pipeline construction by blocking the Morice Forest Service Road or access to a pipeline construction site. The RCMP justified its actions as enforcing the terms of the injunction order, which prohibits individuals from taking actions that impede pipeline construction.
“The police are trying to scare us, to drive us away and intimidate us, harass us, until we leave. The reason why I stayed, this is my home, my territory. I’m not gonna let a bunch of police officers drag me away.”
Savannah, Wet'suwet'en Land Defender
Large-Scale RCMP Raids on Wet'suwet'en Territory
Amnesty International considers it paramount to recall that the actions taken by Wet’suwet’en land defenders are an exercise of their collective rights as Indigenous Peoples to self-government and to control their traditional territories. Further, the actions taken by Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters fall under the human rights protections afforded by the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
Amnesty International heard from land defenders that the RCMP’s actions during the raids were characterized by both violence and fear. According to information shared with Amnesty International, officers stormed in with semi-automatic sniper rifles and police dogs, while helicopters and surveillance drones buzzed overhead. Land defenders reported arbitrary arrests, damaged property, and assaults by masked officers who refused to identify themselves.
"I had this moment of I’m not going to let them win. This was intentional. This trauma of police violence is meant to quiet us and meant to make sure we don’t show up at the next one and we don’t show up and we don’t speak out and we don’t do the interviews and we don’t do the publicity and we keep our mouth shut because we’re afraid.”
Layla Staats, Wet'suwet'en Land Defender
Amnesty International requested information from the RCMP and C-IRG about the raids and arrests of Wet’suwet’en land defenders. While C-IRG did not reply, the RCMP responded that it would be “improper … to comment on the contents of [Amnesty International’s] letter” because the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP (CRCC) has initiated a systemic investigation into the activities and operations of C-IRG. This investigation is ongoing.
Wet’suwet’en land defenders interviewed by Amnesty International indicated they have near-daily encounters with the RCMP and C-IRG. For example, between February and June 2022, members of the Gidimt’en Clan documented near-constant RCMP patrols at the Gidimt’en Checkpoint and Lamprey Village.
RCMP officers entered the Gidimt’en Checkpoint and Lamprey Village around 94 times in March, around 97 times in April and around 78 times in May. RCMP officers often refused to explain their constant incursions into the two sites. However, they sometimes read those present the injunction terms before entering.
The Gidimt’en Checkpoint and Lamprey Village did not block the Morice Forest Service Road and are kilometres from pipeline construction sites.
Amnesty International has documented that acts of intimidation and harassment by the RCMP against Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters include:
- entering the Gidimt’en Checkpoint and Lamprey Village multiple times a day (often without providing any reason for doing so)
- harassing those living and staying at the Gidimt’en Checkpoint, including during the night
- interrupting the construction of the Feast Hall
- demanding photo identification from people travelling down the Morice Forest Service Road
- demanding identification from land defenders even when their identity is already known to the officer
- shining high beams and spotlights into residential buildings that make up the Gidimt’en Checkpoint and Lamprey Village throughout the night
- seizing equipment and property, including locks and chains
- threatening land defenders and their supporters with arrest
- demanding that individuals who were previously arrested on the territory provide the terms of their conditions of release from jail
- taking pictures and filming land defenders living at the Gidimt’en Checkpoint.
"Ever since C-IRG came to the Wet’suwet’en territories, it’s felt like a police state..."
Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, Gitxsan Nation
RCMP & C-IRG
Wet’suwet’en land defenders indicated they also have near-daily encounters with employees of Forsythe Security. Amnesty International has documented that acts of intimidation and harassment by employees of Forsythe Security against Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters including:
- permanently stationing themselves along the Morice Forest Station Road
- stationing themselves directly outside the Gidimt’en Checkpoint, Lamprey Village and the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, and monitoring all activity, including cultural activities
- filming Wet’suwet’en land defenders who live on the territory and visitors to the territory, including children
- routinely following Wet’suwet’en land defenders and other members of the Nation in vehicles along the Morice Forest Service Road to and from the Gidimt’en Checkpoint, Lamprey Village, the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, land defenders’ homes, and sometimes for up to 50 kilometres into the nearby townships.
“The ways [employees of CGL and Forsythe Security] interact with us, in aggressive, intimidating or suggestive ways, make us feel unsafe... I feel less safe now that [my daughter] plays outside knowing there’s a strange man across the river watching; that there are drones up in the sky. I don’t really let her wander too far without one of us being near her."
Kskiy Ze’ Dr. Karla Tait, Unist’ot’en Yin’tah (Land) Steward
The majority of Wet’suwet’en land defenders on the frontline of resistance against the CGL pipeline are women. Indigenous women often have profound relationships with their lands and culture. At the same time, they play an essential role as leaders, knowledge-bearers and transmitters of culture among their families, Peoples, Nations and society as a whole.
The majority of Wet’suwet’en land defenders on the frontline of resistance against the CGL pipeline are women. Indigenous women often have profound relationships with their lands and culture. At the same time, they play an essential role as leaders, knowledge-bearers and transmitters of culture among their families, Peoples, Nations and society as a whole. While Indigenous women land defenders find themselves at the forefront of local, national and international struggles to advance their land and territorial rights, and protect the environment, they are also at particular risk and are more likely to face gender specific violence.
Wet'suwet'en land defenders shared with Amnesty International information about multiple instances of threats and acts of gender-based discrimination and violence that have been committed against them by the RCMP, Forsythe Security and CGL employees.
Several shared various incidents of being threatened over the radio, whose use is required while travelling along the Morice Forest Service Road, specifically to inform others about the kilometre marker that you are driving past. Others shared incidents of Forsythe Security employees being condescending and making sexist remarks towards them.
Threats and Act of Gender-Based Violence and Discrimination
“Like one of them spoke to me after I drove my mom and a supporter [to the emergency room] in the middle of the night. I radioed our kilometre number, and his response was ‘Are you hot?’. To be a woman, you know, who could have been travelling alone in the middle of the night and have some strange man, like a pipeline worker, comment about that, right after you’ve shared your kilometre number doesn’t feel safe."
Kskiy Ze’ Dr. Karla Tait, Unist’ot’en Yin’tah (Land) Steward
CGL Pipeline Man-Camp on Wet'suwet'en Territory
The introduction of CGL man-camps on Wet’suwet’en territory, which house predominantly non-Indigenous male workers, has also contributed to increases in threats and acts of gender-based violence against Indigenous women.
Many women Wet’suwet’en land defenders also emphasized their proximity to the Highway of Tears, as well as the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and allegations of the involvement of law enforcement officers in these disappearances and murders. All of these elements, in addition to direct threats and acts of gender-based violence, make them feel unsafe while travelling within and living on their ancestral territory.
“Women have reached out to us and told us that they are constantly being threatened to be murdered by workers at the man-camp. They’re threatened to be raped by the workers. Their employers won’t do anything. CGL won’t do anything. So, they reach out to us hoping that we can help them and we’re like, we’re in the same boat. We’re being threatened by workers. We’re being harassed by workers. We don’t let people walk back and forth by themselves, especially the Indigenous woman. It’s not safe to walk, even from there to here, which is like 300 metres."
Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham), Wet'suwet'en Land Defender
Costal GasLink Pipeline Man-Camps on Wet'suwet'en Territory
The actions of the RCMP and Forsythe Security do not seem reasonable or proportionate and unduly infringe on the human rights of members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
Amnesty International asked the RCMP, CGL Pipeline Ltd. and Forsythe Security about the allegations of threats and acts of gender-based discrimination and violence. CGL/TC Energy disagrees with the allegations in Amnesty's report and states that its “work is lawful authorized and fully permitted under the laws of British Columbia and Canada. The project went through a robust provincial regulatory process where Indigenous groups were consulted, and the potential impact to Indigenous rights, as well as economic, social, heritage, health effects and other issues and concerns were thoroughly assessed.” Forsythe Security did not respond to a request to comment.
Amnesty International considers that these actions form part of a concerted effort by the State to remove Wet’suwet’en land defenders from their ancestral territory to allow pipeline construction to proceed. These actions have also resulted, and continue to result, in ongoing violations of the human rights of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters, including the right to life, security of the person, privacy, family life, non-discrimination, and economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.
Amnesty International urges Canadian officials to:
- Stop the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline without free, prior, and informed consent from the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
- Drop the charges against Indigenous land defenders criminalized for opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
- End the harassment, intimidation, and unlawful surveillance of Indigenous Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters.
To view Amnesty International's full list of recommendations, please view the full report, 'Removed from our land for Defending it': Criminalization, Intimidation and Harassment of Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders [PDF].