From being cancelled to brought back barely 48 hours later, a pro-LNG community celebration at Boville Square Oct. 12 drew both supporters and critics of the 670-kilometre liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline on which Coastal GasLink began construction this year and is scheduled for completion in 2023.
The event was organized by The North Matters (TNM) and billed as an First Nations-led non-political event.
Prior to its final iteration the First Nations LNG Alliance (FNLNGA) was was listed as the sponsor of the event, with TNM identified as a supporter.
However at around 5 p.m. on Oct 8, FNLNGA announced via email to media outlets the event was being cancelled .
Don MacLachlan with FNLNGA’s communications office told The Interior News this was due to timing conflicts.
“For the Alliance, sadly, timing was unfortunate all along, and got worse as the date got nearer.”
MacLachlan said the cancellation was in no way related to fears of protestors showing up.
“We’d have had no objections to critics of LNG or pipelines attending. It was to have been an open and public event. Indeed, we invited the federal-election candidates, and we know some are not onside with LNG development.”
When the rally was re-advertised as being on again, TNM was listed as the organizer.
Attendance at the event was a mix of some 50 individuals, some clearly in opposition to LNG and the proposed CGL pipeline with others clearly in support.
The federal election candidates for the Green Party (Michael Sawyer), Christian Heritage Party (Rod Taylor) and People’s Party (Jody Craven) were in attendance.
“What our group is all about is helping, building strength in northern communities by aligning and creating opportunities for its residents,” said David Johnston, a key organizer of The North Matters group to open the rally.
“What that means to us is coming together and having rational, respectful dialogue and listening to other peoples’ opinions in a calm, respectful way that helps support love, light and unity in our communities.”
Johnston also touched on the increase of political polarization in recent years and said the best way to bridge the gap is by coming together and listening to each other, even if you don’t necessarily agree with an individual’s point of view.
“We all need to work together and look at where that’s actually coming from, where that division is being fanned from.”
Proponents of LNG have often pointed to U.S. influence in Canadian environmental policy as a source of division. TNM recently sponsored talks by Vivian Krause, a researcher who has suggested a number of American companies are investing large amounts of money into curtailing Canadian resource development.
As Johnston passed the microphone off to CGL employee Bonnie George, Janet Williams and another unidentified woman got up and began to yell toward the speakers.
“You have no right to speak. You traitor! You sell-out!” the unidentified women yelled, as George introduced the next speaker, Chief of Witset Sandra George.
“I want to say you don’t belong to Cas Yikh and you don’t belong to our yinta … it’s our clan, they never asked us for permission,” yelled Williams as George began her speech, which was barely audible due to the competing voices.
The Interior News reached out to Williams for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.
While unclear, it seems the issue the women had with George speaking has to do with chief jurisdictional authority with regard to reserves and unceded territory.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has previously said elected chief’s jurisdiction ends where their reserve border ends.
However the Wet’suwet’en are claiming approximately 22,000 square kilometres of unceded territory, which the Office of the Wet’suwet’en has said multiple times is under the sole jurisdiction of the hereditary chiefs.
The land Smithers sits on is part of that territory.
“I’ll just define freedom of speech,” George said to begin her speech.
“It’s a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship and legal sanction,” she continued as the two protesters continued yelling.
“I’m here to represent the people that cannot speak, the people that have no voice,” said George, to both applause and chants of “it’s our land,” repeated multiple times by Williams.
“I have witnessed and attended gatherings where the right to gather has been abused and tread upon … I have the right to speak,” she continued.
“You have no right to talk on our land,” said Williams.
George continued, focussing on what she perceives to be the economical and environmental benefits of LNG and the CGL project.
She added she feels employees of energy sector and of resource projects have the right to a safe workplace and to not be harassed unduly because of their beliefs.
“Shame on you,” Williams and the other woman began to chant.
“Every community has the right to incentives, innovation and alternatives to the government to be sustainable and self-sufficient,” George continued.
“We have to give our people an incentive to strive for more.”
After approximate nine minutes of the women yelling at the stage, RCMP officers approached. One attempted to usher Williams aside, but Williams slapped at the Mountie’s arm and sidestepped her to continue shouting.
The officer continued to make efforts to move Williams along, but the woman rebuffed them. Eventually the officer grabbed hold of Williams and was quickly assisted by another officer who helped restrain her.
As the officers were leading Williams away she continued to struggle, at one point managing to bring herself to the ground.
“Throw me off my territory? What’s wrong with you guys?” Williams shouted.
The officers managed to get her back up and walking and lead her out of the square.
Following the ruckus George went on, touching on topics such as the argument LNG is a cleaner source of energy than coal, the interconnectedness of people’s lifestyles with the non-renewable energy sector and the importance of not underestimating the global market.
“Where do your clothes come from? What do you fill your vehicle with? What do you cook your food with?”
She wrapped her speech up with a simple message.
“I’m sorry if I upset people, but I have a right to speak.”
The celebration continued, with speakers including Gary Naziel of the Laksilyu (Small Frog) clan and Jeff Namox of the Gilseyhu (Big Frog) clan.
Other speakers touched upon similar topics, such as the importance of both creating jobs from the development of LNG but also doing so in an environmentally responsible way.
Namox referenced the two women who interrupted the event in his speech in discussing environmental responsibility.
“The two ladies here, we all know our environment is really important because if we even lose the bumblebee, mosquitos — I know the mosquitos are a pain but the birds need ‘em.
“I always say, if you have grizzly bear on your territory, your territory is doing pretty good because they’re the top of the food chain and they know where to shop.
Former Witset Chief Duane Mitchell also spoke at the event.
At the end organizers turned the microphone over to anyone with opposing views who wanted to come out and speak their mind.
Mavis Dennis did.
“I want to voice my opinion that I am against this pipeline,” she said. “It is going to hurt my culture, it is going to hurt the homelands that I belong to, it’s going to hurt the water. It’s not going to hurt any of you guys, it’s going to hurt my future and my future children.”
Dennis said she was not trying to change anyone’s opinions.
“I just want you to see that I’m alone right now, you guys told us that this event was cancelled so my people who would be standing next to me couldn’t make it, so I just wanted to stand here and tell you that I am against this pipeline not just for me but for my future, for my children, for the animals.”
Johnston closed the event by reiterating how much he feels it’s important to come together and have these conversations, even if they are tough ones to have.