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Indigenous Activists Are Being Arrested In Canada For Protesting A Pipeline

What you need to know about the pipelines that stretch across the Wet’suwet’en Nation's territory

After weeks of turmoil, the fight for Indigenous land rights in Canada, propelled by TC Energy’s plans to build the Coastal GasLink pipeline, is no closer to a resolution. On Monday (February 24), Canadian police once again attempted to break up a massive blockade near a train crossing in Ontario, where an Indigenous group is currently fighting to stop the pipeline’s advancement onto Wet’suwet’en Nation territory in British Columbia, the New York Times reported. Several people were arrested, and that clash added fuel to an already fiery dispute between Indigenous communities and the Canadian government.

The confrontation comes to a head after three weeks of protests and blockades sprouted up over the construction of the $6.6 billion pipeline expansion project, which has sparked heated debate across the country. Here’s what we know.

Where is the conflict happening?

Natural gas pipelines reach across both the United States and Canada, and many of them connect the two nations underground. This pipeline crosses from Dawson Creek to Kitimat, British Columbia, roughly 640 miles away, and goes directly through Wet’suwet’en Nation territory, according to the Guardian.

Indigenous leaders say the pipeline could contaminate their land, which they rely on to harvest food, medicine, and water. Plus, it's their unceded territory, and the Canadian government is supposed to respect those boundaries. As a result, the conflict isn’t contained to the pipeline’s proposed route; protests have erupted across the country.

Who’s protesting?

The protest began as a movement by a small group of Mohawk people, according to the New York Times, but has grown into disruptions by people from all over the nation, including allies and activists. Wet’suwet’en people have been a large part of the movement, but agreement on the pipeline differs greatly among members of the tribe. Some members support the pipeline because developers have promised to spend millions of dollars with Indigenous businesses, while others oppose it altogether.

How long has this been going on? 

In short: A while. The Canadian government approved the Trans Mountain Expansion Project on June 18, 2019, which was the first step in allowing the company to drill through land across the country — part of that land is the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s unceded territory. But, on New Year’s Eve 2019, British Columbia’s Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in the province the right to remove protesters and blockades that are stopping them from doing work, the Intercept reported. The following day, the Wet’suwet’en Nation served Coastal GasLink with an eviction notice, telling the company that the protesters aren’t going anywhere and that GasLink is “currently trespassing” on their unceded territory, the Financial Post reported.

Nearly a month later, Wet’suwet’en chiefs agreed to meet and negotiate with the provincial government, but what was originally a seven-day meeting was cut short after just two days. On February 6, the day after the negotiations failed, RCMP officers enforced the New Year’s Eve court injunction and removed blockades in Wet’suwet’en territory; activists erected another blockade Tyendinaga, Ontario, which directly impacted train schedules.

On February 16, a related protest shut down a U.S. border crossing. That day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held an emergency debate in the House of Commons with Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer. A few days later, rail companies temporarily laid off 1,500 workers, according to The Toronto Star, as another blockade popped up across rail lines in Edmonton. Counter-protesters later dismantled it.

On February 20, RCMP officers moved off of Wet’suwet’en territory as the Canadian government worked through their next steps. But by February 22, thousands of protesters rallied in downtown Toronto in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose the pipeline.

Two days later, police arrested 10 protesters, including members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.

What is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doing about it?

On February 21, the prime minister said that “the barricades need to come down now,” according to the Guardian. That statement stands in direct contrast to his campaign promises in which he said he’d prioritize reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

“We cannot state strongly enough our extreme disappointment in the absolute lack of good faith shown by a Prime Minister who continually expresses his government’s priority is improving its relationship with Indigenous Peoples,” The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake said in a statement. “What has happened over the past few days has, in fact, undone progress in building relations with Indigenous Peoples.”

Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Woos told the Guardian the barricades won’t be coming down any time soon.