Dr. Margaret McGregor and Dr. Larry Barzelai: Visit to Wet'suwet'en territory leaves a lasting impression

Two physicians say this part of northwestern B.C. illustrates the links between a healthy planet and the health of all living creatures

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      By Dr. Margaret McGregor and Dr. Larry Barzelai

      We are two physicians with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment  (CAPE), and last week we travelled to Wet’suwet’en territory to learn about efforts to prevent drilling by the Coastal GasLink (CGL) under the Wedzin Kwa (Morice River).

      Wet’suwet’en territory is located in the northwestern part of the province. It is remote and rural and most of us living in southern urban communities are unaware of what is taking place there.

      The river Wedzin Kwa starts at Morice Lake, runs for about 70 kilometres across Wet’suwet’en territory, joins the Bulkley River at Houston, and then flows northwest to join the Skeena River—the second longest river in British Columbia.

      The Wedzin Kwa is one of few remaining pristine waterways. Its water is drinkable without treatment and nourishes multiple species of salmon. The Wet’suwet’en people refer to the river as “sacred” due to its life-supporting role on their land for thousands of years.

      At the end of September this year when drilling under the river was imminent, the Gidimt’en clan—one of five clans comprising the Wet’suwet’en nation and on whose land the drilling was due to take place—informed CGL they were trespassing and unauthorized to proceed with drilling.

      They then constructed a cabin and camp in the pathway of the intended drill site. We visited the camp last weekend to learn more.

      The road access to the camp is checkered with multiple, creatively built structures to enforce the message that those who are not officially welcomed by Gidimt’en have no right to trespass on the land.

      Access to the Gidimt’en camp is checkered with multiple, creatively built structures along the road to enforce the message that those who are not officially welcomed by Gidimt’en, have no right to trespass on the land.

      As two rather long-in-the tooth doctors, the idea of camping out in the rain and cold seemed daunting to say the least. Indeed, the camp medic we spoke to recounted how they had evacuated a number of supporters who were clearly suffering from hypothermia.

      And yet we witnessed a sizable community of Wet’suwet’en, people from other First Nations and non-Indiginous supporters—all of whom had decided to endure these difficult conditions to defend this waterway. And they are in it for the long haul.

      The newly formed community was impressive, from the tidy and efficient first-aid tent, to COVID protocols that would be the envy of many a public health officer, to the healthy and mouth-watering meals delivered by a trained cook.

      The initiative is also supported by all five house clans of the Wet’suwet’en.

      The day we arrived, we bumped into a support rally in Smithers where hereditary chiefs Na’moks and Smogelgem Dini Ze’ spoke to participants, encouraging them to visit the camp and urging everyone to protect the Wedzin Kwa.

      Hereditary chiefs Na’moks and Smogelgem speaking to attendees at rally in Smithers, October 15, 2021.

      Over the past 11 years, the Unist’ot’en clan has actually built an entire village over the proposed path of the pipeline, forcing CGL to reroute their trajectory.

      We had an opportunity to briefly meet with Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham, spokesperson for the Gidimt’en blockade). 

      Doctors Larry Barzelai and Margaret McGregor meeting with Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham).

      This powerful spokeswomen and mother of three has presented at several CAPE meetings in the past about the absence of free prior and informed consent from any of the Wet’suwet’en clans and the illegality of CGL’s intrusion onto their territory—recognized as such by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997.

      In the face of repeated intimidation, Sleydo’s articulate accusation that CGL has stolen Wet’suwet’en artifacts serves as a powerful lesson for any aspiring law student.

      Several days ago, two other chiefs, Dsta’hyl and Tse’besa, from another Wet’suwet’en clan (Lihk’samisyu), issued a violation order to Coastal Gaslink.

      CGL has already cut a huge swath of trees across the proposed route of the pipeline, causing major disruption to the migration and hunting patterns of caribou, bear, coyotes, and other wildlife.

      Huge swath of trees that ends at the Wedzin Kwa (Morice River) and starts up again on the other side.

      The realization that the health of living creatures relies on clean water, clean air, and nutritious earth, that is, a healthy planet, is something Indigenous people have known for millennia, but biomedical scientists have failed to recognize until recently.

      There is however, scientific evidence that the so-called natural gas intended to run through the pipeline from northeast B.C. to the coast for export, presents a growing threat to planetary health.

      The gas (called methane) is now recognized as a significant contributor to global warming that packs a carbon footprint that is 86 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period.

      And climate science has determined that methane is a major contributor to planetary warming and our climate emergency.

      In addition to its global warming effects, methane pollutes millions of litres of water with each well that is drilled through a process known as fracking.

      The extraction of methane through fracking pollutes the air, and is associated with higher rates of cancer, preterm births, lower birth weight, birth defects, flares of asthma and heart conditionsdepression and anxiety, and road traffic accidents.

      Science has also demonstrated the extraction of this so-called natural gas can harm wildlife and farm animals, and induce earthquakes.

      For governments and policymakers to continue to support the expansion of this industry after the human, marine, and animal  lives lost to this summer’s heat dome, the wildfires, and the burning of Lytton is incomprehensible, and heeds neither Indigenous knowledge nor Western science.

      Driving out on the forest service road heading home, we could not help but feel deep gratitude to the Wet’suwet’en and their supporters for their efforts to protect their land, water and air and indeed, the health of our planet.

      Those wishing more information or to donate to the efforts of the Wet’suwet’en, can go to the following links:

      Gidimt'en Website: https://www.yintahaccess.com/  

      Unist'ot'en: http://unistoten.camp/fundraiserprotocols/

      Sovereign Likhts'amisyu and Namoks: https://www.facebook.com/likhtsamisyu/