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RCMP arrested 14 people on a northern B.C. forestry road on Monday, escalating tensions over a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through the traditional territory of B.C.’s Wet’suwet’en First Nation.

The Mounties were enforcing a Dec. 14 court injunction giving Coastal GasLink, a subsidiary of TransCanada Corp., access to the road where Wet’suwet’en people opposed to the pipeline had erected a checkpoint.

At Unist’ot’en, a second checkpoint further down the road, Wet’suwet’en said they were on “high alert” for similar RCMP actions to enforce the injunction.

The checkpoints and the crackdown

On a forestry road south of Houston, B.C., members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation are running checkpoints to oppose a pipeline being built on their traditional territory. The Wet’suwet’en’s elected band council has approved of the pipeline, but the checkpoints are backed by the hereditary leaders of the Wet’suwet’en’s five clans (of which Gidimt’en is one). They are still opposed to the pipeline, saying it could damage the watershed and wildlife.

Activity at the two camps – Unist’ot’en, which has been around since 2010, and Gidimt’en, which was built late last year – had been escalating after a B.C. Supreme Court ruling in December giving the builders of the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline an injunction so they could use the road unimpeded. The Unist’ot’en camp warned that an attempts to remove them by force would be “an act of war.”

On Jan. 7, the RCMP set up a roadblock near the Gidimt’en checkpoint, turning away media and members of the public before arresting 14 people. The move was denounced by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, whose president, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, called out the Canadian and B.C. governments for their past commitments to reconciliation with First Nations. The $6.2-billion pipeline being built by CoastalGasLink, a subsidiary of TransCanada Corp., would ship natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a coastal terminal in Kitimat. It is part of a $40-billion LNG project announced by the B.C. and federal governments last fall. Its route goes about a kilometre south of the Unist’ot’en camp.

Coastal GasLink got its environmental certification for the pipeline in 2014, and TransCanada has signed project agreements with 20 First Nations groups along the route. But in order to do pre-construction work, TransCanada says its only access route is the bridge over the Morice River, which is the area where the checkpoints are.

Disagreement over the pipeline hinges on a key Supreme Court of Canada ruling from 1997, the Delgamuukw decision, which upheld Indigenous peoples’ claims to lands that were never ceded by treaty. B.C. has only a handful of treaties, and most of the province is unceded territory subject to various unresolved land claims. In the case of Gidimt’en, the RCMP issued a statement ahead of the Jan. 7 arrests arguing that “aboriginal title to this land and which Indigenous nation holds it, has not been determined,” and a trial is needed to settle the question.

The dispute also heightens the political differences within the Wet’suwet’en nation. In B.C., disagreements are common between elected leaders (who oversee on-reserve matters) and hereditary leaders (who claim jurisdiction over traditional territory).

At the checkpoints: TransCanada has said it is not asking for the camp at the bridge to be dismantled, only for access to its pipeline right of way. The hereditary chiefs, for their part, say they will continue to oppose the pipeline, though any attempts to confront TransCanada’s workers may lead to more arrests in the area.

Across the country: Marches were planned across the country on Tuesday to support members of the Gidimt’en clan.

In Ottawa: With an election […]

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