How to Stop a Pipeline: The People Behind the Unist’ot’en Encampment
In British Columbia, a clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation has reoccupied its traditional lands in order to stop several proposed energy pipelines.
Encouraging a Native revolution
Freda Huson is the face of a nonviolent, women-led movement to reoccupy the Unist’ot’en’s unceded territory and to maintain the clan’s relationship with the land. She was chosen by the clan’s hereditary chiefs as a spokesperson, a guide, and a leader in the movement to prevent pipelines from entering the territory. Today, she lives permanently on the land, which media and supporters call the Unist’ot’en camp.
Huson insists that the camp is not a protest but a responsibility. The location of the territory makes the Unist’ot’en the people nearest to the headwaters of the Wedzin Kwah (Morice River), and she says it is her duty to make decisions that will protect other clans of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and neighbors downstream. The water, the Unist’ot’en assert, is their lifeblood.
Thus far, she has succeeded. After more than five years of monitoring a checkpoint, rotating through volunteers, receiving threats from government and industry, garnering worldwide grassroots support, and erecting several permanent buildings in the paths of proposed pipelines, Huson is beginning to see her actions inspire others around the globe. “Move back to your land,” she urges. “Get off the reservations. We don’t need government to live. Just live like this.”
Building physical and financial foundations
As both a grassroots fundraiser and a builder for the Unist’ot’en camp, Dave Ages demonstrates how large-scale support can start small.
He embarked on his first major goal last year: building the bunkhouse for volunteers on Unist’ot’en territory and crowdfunding it with a Fundrazr campaign. More recently, he and his wife, Virginia Monk, raised close to $40,000 to complete the first phase of the camp’s Healing Centre.
Ages’ crowdfunding work has been instrumental in financing these structures, but when he visits the camp, he serves as a carpenter. He calls himself an ally, not a supporter. “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of indigenous people to fight the fossil fuel economy, and then it’s the role of others to help them out,” he says. “That’s a terrible burden to place on them. I see us working together in a common cause.”
With the first stage of the Healing Centre complete, Ages contributed to the Unist’ot’en’s ultimate vision for the camp by building an educational space. And it all began locally: The people of Galiano Island, a community of about 1,200 near Victoria, B.C., that Ages calls home, donated more than a quarter of the $90,000 he and Monk have raised for the camp so far.
Ferrying volunteers to the frontlines
In 2012, activist Zoe Blunt paid cash for a 48-passenger International Harvester diesel school bus. Armed only with supplies, volunteers, and a knowledge of nonviolent direct action, her Summer Action Camp made its first voyage to the Unist’ot’en camp.
That trip kick-started the camp’s most vital support network: volunteers. Since 2012, the summer caravan, operated through the Vancouver Island Community Forest Action Network, has ferried about 350 volunteers to the camp and hundreds more via near-weekly rideshares. The network also offers workshops and a legal defense fund for pipeline opponents.
Wary of the entanglement of government and corporations, Blunt says the network takes the side of the underdog. Her involvement in indigenous-led movements began with an effort to save the Elaho Valley, an area sacred to the Squamish First Nation, from logging. After a series of arrests, tree sits, and nonviolent occupation, the campaign succeeded: Loggers backed off, and rights to the Elaho were restored to the Squamish people.
Such experience leads Blunt to believe the tiny Unist’ot’en clan can stand tall against big oil. “[The clan is] in a position of power,” Blunt says, “and their power comes from their own land—or should, if there is any justice or fairness in the world.”