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Protesters plan to stay at legislature until RCMP leave Wet'suwet'en territory

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A group of Indigenous youth occupying the steps of the legislature in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say they’re not going anywhere until the RCMP leave Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C.

About 300 hundred people attended a rally at the legislature Saturday afternoon, before blocking the intersection at Fort and Douglas streets and then shutting down the Johnson Street Bridge to vehicle traffic for about four hours. The bridge reopened just before 7 p.m.

“The very clear message is that British Columbia needs to call off the RCMP,” said spokesman Kolin Sutherland-Wilson.

The group wants to put pressure on Premier John Horgan to meet with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who say they are defending their sovereignty as a nation in opposing the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline project that crosses their territory.

Elected chiefs and band councils representing Wet’suwet’en nations have agreed to the pipeline project. But Sutherland-Wilson, who is from neighbouring Gitxsan territory, said band councils only have jurisdiction over small parcels of land, while hereditary chiefs have maintained title over much of the territory.

The pipeline, part of the $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export terminal project, runs from Dawson Creek to Kitimat on the northwest coast.

Sutherland-Wilson wants to be clear that what is at issue is about more than opposition to a pipeline.

“These aren’t anti-pipeline protesters. They are a sovereign nation upholding their laws,” he said. “Is there no room for Indigenous governance within Canada? Is that the message? If that’s so, then we are seeing the exact same assimilatory and genocidal nature that has defined Canadian history from its inception, and the reason that we’re here is because we reject this trajectory.”

Sutherland-Wilson said the action in Victoria is also about more than what’s happening on Wet’suwet’en territory, which he called “a very dangerous precedent for any relation with any Indigenous nation.”

“We’re starting to realize that in British Columbia, you cannot say no ever, and that if you do try to say no — if you try to protect your livelihood, if you try to protect the land that you exclusively live on — they will come at you with a full military invasion,” he said.

“What Canada is willing to do to the Wet’suwet’en people they are willing to do to any of us.”

The Victoria protest came as RCMP officers arrested 11 people who allegedly barricaded themselves in a warming centre in a forested area near the work site in northwest British Columbia on Saturday. They’re accused of breaching a court injunction related to opposition to the 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline that crosses Wet’suwet’en territory.

Ten people were arrested on Thursday and Friday while officers enforced a court injunction granted by the B.C. Supreme Court against people who interfere with the Coastal GasLink project. Among those detained was Sutherland-Wilson’s 22-year-old brother.

RCMP said in a statement Thursday they have maintained regular dialogue with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and elected band councils, Coastal GasLink and the government “to support or facilitate discussions in an effort to find a peaceful resolution, without the need for police enforcement.”

The group outside the legislature has been there since Thursday. On Saturday, dozens of youths who slept near the legislature’s ceremonial entrance gates huddled around a fire wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags.

Sutherland-Wilson said the fire, burning in a steel fire pit on the front steps of the building, is sacred and will continue to burn during the protests. He said the presence of a large pile of chopped firewood indicates people could be planning an extended stay.

“We’re definitely occupying this space while the invasion takes place because it’s highly symbolic,” he said. “We’re here at the gates, the royal gates that only the royalty and the lieutenant-governor … can use. We’re making it clear that the Canadian rule of law has never been just to Indigenous peoples.”

B.C.’s legislature is set to resume sitting Tuesday. The return of politicians for the spring session includes the arrival of Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin at the legislature gates to officially start the proceedings.

The B.C. legislature was not the only location where people came out against the pipeline — protesters in Ontario stopped railway traffic east of Toronto.

Ontario provincial police said protesters blocked VIA Rail and Canadian National Rail traffic from Toronto to Montreal and Ottawa since Thursday night.

Meanwhile, the RCMP said several of their vehicles have been damaged by metal spikes at a protest site near Smithers where people are opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Mounties said the vehicles were damaged when they entered a court-ordered exclusion zone for protesters on Friday night.

A post from the Unist’ot’en camp in Wet’suwet’en territory Saturday said RCMP helicopters left the area in the afternoon.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

— With files from The Canadian Press