As a convoy of RCMP tactical officers in vehicles, helicopters and snowmobiles wound their way towards the 44-kilometre mark through Wet’suwet’en territory, Eve Saint, says she grounded herself.
She, and three others, stood resolute near a makeshift log gate and on a watchtower as dozens of officers surrounded the camp in northern B.C., where they had lived in the weeks leading up to the confrontation.
“This is Wet’suwet’en territory. We are unarmed. We are peaceful. You are invaders,” Saint, the 35-year-old daughter of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Woos who also goes by Frank Alec, yelled over and over again at the advancing convoy Friday, holding an eagle feather up high.
Saint estimated there were between 60 and 100 officers present, some wearing camo gear and armed with automatic rifles, on the road and in the surrounding forest, but the “44 four” as they call themselves, refused to leave.
“You have to take your stand, and that was the main focus — making sure they know I am on my own territory, that we are peaceful. We are not afraid of them or their guns,” Saint told HuffPost Canada Tuesday. “What we are doing in our hearts is way more powerful. We knew we were protected by our ancestors and our land.”
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Last January, Saint was in Toronto when the RCMP enforced a court injunction, arresting 14 people on Wet’suwet’en territory who were blocking construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. She watched the events unfold online, and spurred activism from afar. She’s part of the Indigenous land defender collective Porcupine Warriors.
“It was hard seeing that raid on the computer screen. I felt helpless and defenceless. It was not a good feeling seeing your people dragged off their territory by gun point and violence,” she said.
After the British Columbia Supreme Court granted another injunction to Coastal GasLink Dec. 31, 2019, Saint decided she would accompany her father to the territory, and stay for as long as possible.
“We are just trying to keep this last bit of Indigenous sovereignty,” she said. “This is Indigenous genocide. If you take this away, you take away the last little bit of healing we can do.”
At the 44 mark, Saint said she and her fellow protesters reclaimed the land, and continued to hold their ground (sometimes in -40 C temperatures) even as they heard rumblings the RCMP were making arrests at points along Morice West Forest Service Road and were approaching quickly.
“The animals came back — the moose and wolves and wolverines. We had the stars at night, the snow glistening off the trees. It was just beautiful. We were living on the territory as it was meant to be lived on,” Saint said. “We belong to the land and the land belongs to us.”
Watch: RCMP arrests trigger solidarity protests across Canada. Story continues below.
The Friday standoff lasted for hours. As the RCMP closed in, Saint and her partner Shilo Hill sought shelter in a school bus. Anne Spice and Denzel Sutherland-Wilson filmed from a makeshift watchtower.
“We were so lucky we had live feeds and cameras,” Saint said. “If we did not have those things, we don’t want to imagine what they’d do to us.”
She said she heard one officer yell to another to be careful, they were being recorded.
RCMP arrested the 44 four — Saint and Hill from within the school bus — and escorted them to a vehicle.
“I held my feather up and cried because I was getting ripped off my territory and there was nothing I could do about it,” Saint said. “That’s the type of violence our people face. It’s embedded in my DNA and hit me in the heart. This is what my people have been going through since contact (with colonizers).”
Saint spent the weekend sitting on the cold cement benches of holding cells in Houston and Smithers, B.C. without soap or toothbrushes. She said she refused to sign a set of conditions, including not to go back to the Wet’suwet’en territory unless it’s for cultural reasons or ceremonies.
“It was a very disgusting and disturbing feeling because the RCMP has committed so many horrendous acts, and knowing that history and the way they look at you,” Saint said.
Saint pointed to the RCMP’s historical involvement in taking Indigenous children from their homes and putting them in residential schools, forcing Indigenous people onto reserves, failing to properly investigate and protect Indigenous women and girls from murder and violence, making racist remarks and suppressing Indigenous resistance.
She was charged with obstruction of justice, and released on bail on Monday.
The RCMP said in a statetment Wednesday that it has concluded its “major enforcement operations,” clearing the road of barricades, felled trees and gates, allowing Coastal GasLink employees full access. Officers have arrested 28 people on Wet’suwet’en territory, and will continue to patrol the corridor.
“The right to peaceful, safe and lawful protest, and freedom of expression, are important parts of Canada’s democracy,” the statement said. “However, blocking roadways is both dangerous and illegal. While we respect the right to demonstrate peacefully, police of local jurisdiction will enforce the law with sensitivity.”
In solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s hereditary chiefs, Canadians in almost every province have blocked rail lines and bridges, and occupied B.C. legislature, delaying the Tuesday throne speech. Trudeau signalled his support for the rights of demonstrators on Wednesday, but said they must respect the rule of law.
There are divisions within Wet’suwet’en. Coastal GasLink said it has signed agreements with elected councils of all 20 First Nations along the route. But the council of 13 hereditary chiefs, who say they have authority over the entire Wet’suwet’en territory, oppose the pipeline.
“Hereditary chiefs have been in place for thousands of years and they have a duty to take care of and protect the land,” Saint said.
She is continuing to raise awareness and said the support from Canadians is overwhelming.
“This is what we need for Indigenous people, to know they do have the power to stand up against the government that tries to silence us,” she said. “It is so heartwarming we are doing it in unity with our Indigenous and non-Indigenous relatives. We need everybody on board.
“The fight isn’t over.”