On a remote logging road in northern British Columbia, just before a bridge that crosses over the Morice River, three painted plywood billboards block the way. “Stop – No Access without Consent,” one reads. Another has a painting of a skull bleeding oil, with an arrow and wrench where the crossbones should be.
This is the Unist’ot’en blockade. It’s been here for years, now, standing in the path of three major pipelines that could one day trace their way through the forests nearby.
In August 2015, the checkpoint made headlines. Protesters had been blocking pipeline workers all summer, and rumours were circulating that there was going to be a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raid on the camp. Reports said police were filling up nearby hotels. By the 28th, people were saying some kind of action was imminent.
In the days leading up to that Friday, hundreds of people and organizations signed a letter to the RCMP and the provincial and federal governments expressing support for the Unist’ot’en. The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs signed, as did the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. So did Naomi Klein, Elizabeth May and David Suzuki.
At 5:47 p.m. on the 28th, the BC RCMP released a statement saying they had no intention of “taking down the camp.” The RCMP respect peaceful protest, it read. Everything else you’ve heard is wrong.
So the raid never came. But something else happened instead. The next Monday, four chiefs of local First Nations released their own statement, saying the Unist’ot’en did not speak for them. They’d signed on to two of the proposed pipelines. They wanted the jobs, needed the development. Turning down the project would be shortsighted, they wrote in the statement. Everything else you’ve heard is wrong.
I was not the first city kid to drive that logging road, and I wouldn’t be the last.
I drove it about a year before the rumours of that RCMP raid. It was September 2014, and the leaves were turning, and I was scared. The blockade is a thousand kilometres north of Vancouver, and the last stretch is 70 kilometres of gravel logging road winding through the trees. I was following another car and we were driving fast, too fast for my Civic. The others up ahead were worried that a logging truck might hit us from behind if we drove too slowly. So I was fishtailing around some of the bends, holding the steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles turned white.
For the past several years, a steady stream of volunteers has taken that same pilgrimage into northern B.C. They’ve gone to live in a bunkhouse built beside those three pipeline routes, to be part of one of the country’s longest-standing blockades, and to support the indigenous group that created it.
By that September, there had been a few run-ins with pipeline workers, but only a few. Mostly, the protesters were just living out there quietly, waiting for the pipelines to come. I’d decided to go because I wanted to understand what drew so many people to stand on a blockade when there wasn’t yet anything to block.
We arrived at the checkpoint in the late morning, and waited there. After ten minutes, a man and woman appeared at the far end of the bridge, walking toward us from the camp, unhurried. Freda Huson and Warner (Toghestiy) Naziel looked like they were in their forties or fifties, and were dressed in jeans and jackets and sturdy boots. When they reached us, it was she who spoke, unsmiling, to each of us in turn.
“Who are you?” Freda asked. “Where do you come from? How long do you plan to stay if we let you in? Do you work for the industry or government that is destroying our land? What skills can you offer? How will your stay benefit my people?”
We come from down south, we told her. We hope to stay a week. No, we don’t work for industry or government. My passenger, Sergei Van Hardeveld, said he’d help out however he could. I’m a journalist, I said. I bring attention.
Then Freda and Toghestiy walked back to the bridge to deliberate. “No small talk,” Toghestiy warned us. So we waited in silence until they came back and welcomed us, with little fanfare, to the camp. This is the traditional territory of the Unist’ot’en, they said. Nobody comes onto this land without permission.
The Unist’ot’en are part of the Wet’suwet’en, an indigenous people claiming title to a vast swath of land whose northern border stretches roughly from Smithers to Burns Lake. The Unist’ot’en claim smaller territories within Wet’suwet’en borders, one of which is intersected by three proposed major pipelines: Chevron’s Pacific Trail, TransCanada’s Coastal GasLink and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway. The first two are liquefied natural gas pipelines. Northern Gateway, of course, would transport oil.
The Wet’suwet’en occupy a region economically dependent on mining and forestry. But mineral prices have been falling since 2011 and, thanks to a massive mountain pine beetle infestation, 97 sawmills closed between 1997 and 2011, according to the Tyee. The number of people employed in the forestry industry dropped from 99,000 in 2000 to 53,340 in 2011. In the vacuum left behind, some see pipelines as the next big boom.
“We have to see this as an opportunity so our nation can go forward.”
The nation has a complicated system of governance that includes six Indian Act bands and five hereditary clans. The Unist’ot’en belong to one of those clans. While many of the hereditary chiefs remain opposed to pipeline development, most of the elected chiefs have signed on to benefit agreements for Pacific Trail and Coastal GasLink. None of them has publicly endorsed Northern Gateway.
In 2009, Freda took matters into her own hands. She and her husband, Toghestiy, built a log cabin squarely on the Northern Gateway and Pacific Trail right-of-way, though the pipeline route has shifted slightly since then. She started maintaining the checkpoint around the clock in 2012. Now, she’s building a healing centre on the same piece of land, where she hopes to offer trauma counselling for her people. She says she’ll live out there for the rest of her life.
There were about a dozen of us at the camp. Aside from Freda and Toghestiy and a couple of Freda’s family members, we were all white, and all from far away. Sergei had been living in Victoria. He’d come up with me because he didn’t have his own vehicle. He didn’t drive, in fact.
Sergei was 22 and a dreamer. He didn’t have any money to donate to Freda, but he’d found an old laptop and a bag of oatmeal to give instead, and a copy of Thoreau’s Walden. He thought the book would make a good addition to the camp’s small library.
I remember when he offered it. We were sitting around picnic tables outside the cabin, eating soup with baked beans and tinned tomatoes. He told Freda that Thoreau, too, had gone out into the woods to live alone.
Thoreau was a colonist, one of the other volunteers cut in quickly, part of a culture of oppressors.
Sergei argued back. “I would contend that Thoreau rejected his society.”
“He wasn’t fighting against colonization,” came the response, with finality.
There was an awkward pause, and Sergei looked chagrined.
Finally, Toghestiy spoke. “Well, then, we don’t want that book,” he said. Then he laughed. Then everyone laughed.
The days blended together. The volunteers didn’t wake up early. Often, we ate bear and moose and salmon that Toghestiy had hunted and fished. Freda eats only game now—no “white man meat,” she said. There’s no cell service out there—just a satellite phone and one slow laptop with an internet connection. Most of the power came from solar panels on the roof of the cabin, with a back-up generator for cloudy days.
Much of the time, we worked. Sergei and some of the others started building a set of composting toilets that Toghestiy had designed. I once spent an afternoon hauling piles of sodden cardboard from where they’d been left beside an outdoor fire pit to a storage room, where they could dry out and be used to start fires through the winter. We all spent many, many hours chopping and stacking wood.
Freda and Toghestiy had bigger projects, too. Toghestiy, especially, seemed to have an endless list of things he wanted to try, and a limitless supply of energy. Hidden away in the trees a short distance from the camp was the beginnings of a pit house, a traditional dwelling made of logs and packed earth, that was to become their permanent home. Toghestiy said he wanted to give the interior a modern feel, complete with a computer, to show people it’s possible to combine the old and the new.
The bunkhouse, where we slept, was built by supporters in a matter of weeks. And further down the logging road, volunteers had started a permaculture garden to help Freda and Toghestiy become completely self-sufficient. Near the bunkhouse, a broken-down truck sat where it had been left by a volunteer who drove it up and down the logging road in first gear and wrecked the transmission. Freda and Togehestiy laughed when they told us the story.
The Wet’suwet’en First Nation signed on to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in January 2015, under Chief Karen Ogen. She was elected chief in 2010, shortly after her band signed on to Chevron’s Pacific Trail.
Her nation is a small one, with fewer than 300 members. But it’s not alone. Coastal GasLink has signed project agreements with two of the other bands, and Freda’s band, the Moricetown Band, has signed a benefit agreement with the B.C. government for the project. Five of the six bands have also signed on to a benefit agreement with Chevron for the Pacific Trail pipeline.
Ogen lives near Burns Lake, where the Babine Forest Products sawmill exploded in 2012, killing two people and leaving dozens temporarily out of work. When her people come asking for jobs, for education, for housing, she’s the one who has to respond. And when TransCanada came calling, she felt she couldn’t just turn away.
“To say no is not beneficial to us,” she told me. “We have to see this as an opportunity so our nation can go forward.”
Ogen went to Prince George College with Freda, years ago. But there’s a difference of opinion there, now. Ogen says Freda’s angry about her decisions. “There was no sitting down, trying to deepen the relationships,” she said. “If you were for pipelines, that’s it, you were sort of blacklisted. You were, in the Unist’ot’en’s eyes, more like the enemy.”
Ogen hasn’t been to the Unist’ot’en checkpoint. And she knows that Freda and her supporters are not alone in their opposition to pipelines. But she believes Freda has more support coming from outside the Wet’suwet’en nation than from within it. There are a lot of non-Wet’suwet’en people up there at the camp, she said.
It’s hard to know how much Ogen’s community really stands to benefit from Chevron or TransCanada. Both projects have already employed some Wet’suwet’en, but pipelines are not generally known for providing long-term, stable jobs. Still, Ogen believes these deals are the best option on the table. She has to.
“To administer poverty is not enough for us,” she said. “What other opportunities are going to come our way?”
One evening shortly before I left, I was baking and Freda was sitting on the couch. I asked her why she allowed so many volunteers to stay in her home, year after year.
“We’re decolonizing people,” she said. She wanted to show them that it’s possible to live off the land. She wanted to prove that it could be done.
This crusade is Freda’s whole life now. It seems to me she’s driven by anger, in part. She seems angry at the pipeline companies, at people who don’t respect her right to defend her land, at the members of her nation who are working for Chevron and TransCanada (she calls them “token Indians”).
”I’m doing this for the future generations and I’m not going to stop.”
But she also believes she can live this way for the rest of her life, and bring her people with her. She believes she can help them heal. “We want to put the Indian back into our children,” she told me once, referencing a phrase famously associated with the horrors perpetrated by Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs through the residential schools program, “kill the Indian in the child.”
I found it strange to be there, to be living in the home of people who wanted us there and didn’t at the same time. Freda and Toghestiy got along well with the volunteers, but the arrangement is partly pragmatic. Volunteers give donations of money and food. They help man the checkpoint, and they provide volunteer labour.
At the end of the day, though, this camp is about Freda’s history, her culture, her people. We were just poking our heads over the windowsill, trying to catch a glimpse.
I went back to the blockade last summer, in June, just before the rumours of the RCMP actions began. Much had changed. They’d put up the building frame for a healing centre. The composting toilets were finished and working well. They were keeping goats and chickens in dusty pens behind the bunkhouse.
Other things had changed, too. This year, there were more people to block. The volunteers were spending shifts turning away workers from Coastal GasLink. They seemed tired.
Freda seemed tired, too, though her determination hadn’t wavered. She said she found the volunteers a bit much, sometimes, with their chatter and their endless questions. She didn’t always find their jokes very funny. “Age gap,” she explained.
I asked her what she’d be doing if she didn’t have to stay at the camp. She said she’d be hiking, hunting, fishing, picking berries. Living her life. She had a life, years ago, before she became a symbol.
“My life’s been on hold for five years,” she told me. “But I’m doing it for the future generations and I’m not going to stop.”
It’s not clear what happened two months after that, when reports began circulating about the looming RCMP raid. At the time, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs seemed confident the raid would happen, seemed sure that police were booking up hotel rooms in Smithers and Burns Lake. The RCMP refused to confirm anything until just before the raid was supposed to happen, when they finally announced they would leave the camp alone.
I asked Sergei about it recently. After he left the camp in the fall of 2014, he spent the better part of eight weeks living on Burnaby Mountain, protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Now, he’s planning to travel across the country and teach pipeline protesters how to avoid online surveillance. He went back to the camp shortly after the whole thing had died down. His theory is that there was never going to be any raid at all. “I still feel that that was a bit of a ruse on the police’s part,” he told me. “I think they were trying to see what the reaction would be.”
If they were looking for a reaction, they got one. The mere possibility of police action led to a huge wave of support for the camp. Everyone, it seems, got behind the protesters, from politicians to environmentalists to First Nations leaders.
Everyone except Karen Ogen and the other elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs, that is.
Ogen said B.C. First Nations leadership should recognize that the nation is divided and should step in to help, not pick sides. “Help unify the nation,” she said. “Promote unity. Encourage unity.”
The camp has been mostly quiet since then. The pipeline companies don’t do much work in the winter, and if the logging roads aren’t plowed, the blockade can only be accessed by snowmobile.
But now summer is on its way, and Freda is looking for volunteers to help with the annual spring construction camp, to take place in May. The plan is to keep working on the healing centre and the pit house, and to install an irrigation system for the permaculture garden. There are no signs that she’s lost her resolve.
Since the Unist’ot’en checkpoint was created, TransCanada and Enbridge have both proposed changes to their pipeline routes that would move them further from the camp. But that won’t address what’s really at stake here.
For Freda, this protest is a statement of defiance against more than pipelines. It’s a challenge to anyone who might try and tell her that this experiment of hers won’t succeed, that the days of living on the land are over.
But the fact remains that most of the Wet’suwet’en bands have signed on. They say they need this development. I’m not sure how many of the well-intentioned tourists at the camp are aware of that. Out there in the woods, it would be easy not to notice.
One day, a group of schoolkids was scheduled to visit the camp. They were coming from the neighbouring Gitxsan nation, Freda said, and there were going to be 60 of them. They were coming to learn about occupying the land. She spent several hours making a huge vat of soup for all the kids. We put out plates of crackers and cut up squares of cheese and bits of moose jerky.
And we waited. They were supposed to show up at 2:30, and they didn’t. An hour later, we were starting to eat the food ourselves. By 5 p.m., Freda and Toghestiy finally decided they weren’t coming, so we put the leftover food away. They didn’t seem angry.
I went back to Vancouver shortly after that, and I never heard whether they got an explanation. It might have just been a misunderstanding. Communication’s tricky out there, after all.
Research editor: Daniel Viola