What's really illegal? The defence of unceded Wet'suwet'en territory or provincial permits for Coastal GasLink pipeline?
Just over a week before the RCMP arrested Unist'to'ten matriarchs on February 10, I was able to interview two of them—Freda Huson and Karla Tait—for a feature article in the Georgia Straight.
I asked Huson what she wanted to tell our readers. The first words that came out of her mouth was that she was not a "protester".
"I'm following Wet'suwet'en law by occupying my land," Huson declared.
She went on to describe how the province had "mismanaged every resource extractive industry that ever hit our territories".
Her father's territory was polluted by seepage of acidic waste from the Equity Silver Mine. This peaked in the 1980s and continued for many years after that.
"They had a breach of a tailing pond where [people in his] territory did salmon fishing," Huson said. "They can't hunt there anymore. And it's still not cleaned up."
That led to subsequent fights by the Wet'suwet'en against another mining project.
But the highest-profile battle has been over the Canadian state's attempt to create an energy corridor through unceded Wet'suwet'en territory.
First, there was Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, which was eventually vetoed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after various court battles.
Next, there was an attempt to push through the Pacific Trails pipeline, which would have delivered fracked natural gas to a Chevron LNG plant in Kitimat. Chevron is not proceeding, so that pipeline project appears to be dead.
The latest pipeline project is being advanced by Coastal GasLink, which is owned by TransCanada, New York–based KKR, and AIMCo, which manages Alberta public-sector pension funds.
Huson accurately predicted that she would be forcibly removed from her home, even though hereditary chiefs won a declaration in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997 that Aboriginal title was not extinguished when B.C. joined Confederation.
“I live here," she said. "I’ve been here for along time. I live in a cabin.”
Huson feels that she's protecting her unceded territory and that the Coastal GasLink pipeline is illegal under Wet'suwet'en law. And that doesn't make her a "protester".
Meanwhile, Tait declared that Wet'suwet'en laws would never support a project as destructive as the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
"We’re just in too delicate a position at the headwaters of the Wedzin’kwa [Bulkley and Morice rivers]," she said at the time. "Our whole society is structured around our salmon runs and access to our territories. So it’s at odds with our values.”
In a commentary on Straight.com, Unist'ot'en legal counsel Kate Gunn and Bruce McIvor wrote that the Supreme Court of Canada has concluded the province's issuance of permits—like the ones for the Coastal GasLink project—"is not based on established legal authority".
"It is based on the fact that the Province has proceeded, for over 150 years, to make unilateral decisions about Indigenous lands," Gunn and McIvor wrote. "The fact that the Province has acted since the 1860s as though it has full authority to decide how Indigenous peoples’ lands are used does not make doing so legal or just."
Huson's viewpoint that she's not a protester was reinforced by UBC journalism professor Candis Callison in an interview with the Toronto Star.
Callison, a member of the Tahltan Nation, said that calling Indigenous people "protesters" has the effect of erasing their long relationship with lands and waters, as well as their long resistance to being dispossessed from the land by governments and corporations.
But many in the Canadian media refuse to use the term "land defender" to describe Huson and the other Wet'suwet'en members and their allies who oppose turning Canada into an LNG petrostate—possibly in the absence of any legal authority to do so if it involves unceded Indigenous territory.
Rob Shaw of the Vancouver Sun, for example, tweeted "I can't believe a UBC journalism professor would suggest such a thing."
That was followed by more Shaw tweets trashing journalism professors in general.
Shaw's outburst prompted a lively discussion over social media involving people who work or have worked in journalism.
Former Global TV reporter Catherine Pope, who's since worked for the labour movement, tweeted: "One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter—as we used to say at Reuter's in London."
Former Vancouver Sun business editor Stewart Muir, who heads an organization promoting resource extraction, tweeted: "I am maintaining a growing list of alternative terms for these protesters, as used by actual Wet'suwet'en nation members. 'Land defender' is not on it."
Sandy Garossino, a public-affairs commentator and former prosecutor, tweeted that "Opponent" seemed fine to her.
Former Victoria TV news anchor Hudson Mack tweeted: "The dictionary defines protester as 'a person who publicly demonstrates strong objection to something'. This is a neutral term. 'Land Defender' is not. I shudder to think this kind of thinking is what's being taught to @UBC journalism students."
Province columnist Mike Smyth tweeted: "One side says call them 'land defenders' and other side says call them 'economic terrorists' I think 'protester' is a good spot to land. Accurate."
Global B.C. News reporter Sarah MacDonald tweeted: "There's accurate and objective terminology that doesn't require the use of either phrase ('supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs'). Arguments around terminology (generally) often don't take into account the obligation of news outlets to report without editorializing."
Callison is coauthor with fellow UBC journalism professor Mary Lynn Young of Reckoning: Journalism's Limits and Possibilities, which was recently published by Oxford University Press.
"What we hope becomes clear in this book, with evidence and argumentation, is that what journalists think happened is deeply related to who they are and where they're coming from in broad and specific senses—and that there are multiple truths and perspectives that contribute to understanding what 'really' happened," they write in Reckoning.
(You can read the Straight's review of Reckoning here.)