POLITICS
03/06/2020 16:45 EST

Indigenous Youth Standing With Wet’suwet’en Arrested At B.C. Legislature: ‘It’s Not Over’

The group refused to leave a minister's office following a meeting.

VICTORIA — “We love you, we see you. We love you, we see you.”

The chant echoes in a video posted to social media as a row of police officers is seen creating a path in through dozens of supporters, as five Indigenous youth are carried from the B.C. legislature steps to a waiting police van just after 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning.

In the video, the crowd pounds drums and shouts messages of support. Many had been camped on the steps of the legislature for 17 days, demanding John Horgan’s government stop construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land in northern B.C. 

Ace Harry, an 18-year-old student at the nearby Pearson College, was one of seven Indigenous youth who had entered the legislature several hours earlier to meet with Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser to discuss the dispute over Wet’suwet’en territory. 

She was also one of the five figures carried out in handcuffs hours later.

“We want to make it very clear that we are willing to sacrifice a lot to hold the Canadian government accountable,” she told HuffPost Canada after her release. 

The five arrested youth were members of Indigenous Youth For Wet’suwet’en, a grassroots collective based in Victoria that has organized similar actions in recent weeks. 

Members were part of the multi-day occupation at the legislature that delayed the B.C. throne speech last month, and also helped mobilize nearly 1,000 demonstrators to picket government buildings on Feb. 14 as part of a “government shutdown.” 

Melanie Woods/HuffPost Canada
Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief supporters picket outside the B.C. Ministry of Environment building in Victoria on Feb. 14, 2020.

The group set up another occupation at the legislature a few weeks ago. 

“We set up a pyre on the legislature lawn that was very similar to the one set up in Wet’suwet’en, which was used to honour the missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Harry said. “We replicated that on the legislature lawn to draw attention to what’s actually going on — that we’re not there for our own reasons, we’re there in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en.”

This week, they also issued an ultimatum to the government.

“We set that up and we sat around it and we said we’re not moving for the next 24 hours and this is where this is, where the minister can decide to meet us or not to give us that voice,” she said.

WATCH: Wet’suwet’en supporters picket B.C. government buildings. Story continues below. 

The meeting did go ahead Wednesday in what Harry called a very “respectful” fashion. But she says talks broke down when the minister refused to commit to stopping the pipeline construction. 

When the group debriefed, she said they committed to staying for the long haul.

“We really talked about accountability and the lack of it in the Canadian government and what were we here to do if not hold the government as accountable as we possibly can,” she said. “So we looked at the crowd out the window and we decided that we were not moving until Coastal GasLink was removed or we were.”

The Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation did not respond to HuffPost Canada’s request for comment.

On Thursday, Fraser told reporters at the legislature he felt “betrayed” by the youth’s decision to not leave the office.

Harry said the youth sat on the ground in the office and waited for police to enter. They were handcuffed and detained in the legislature building for almost four hours with the curtains to the office closed.

“It was pretty intense,” Harry said. “They cuffed us, and they kind of dragged us out in the hallway and then we were separated into two groups.”

We looked at the crowd out the window and we decided that we were not moving until Coastal GasLink was removed or we were.Ace Harry

In a statement Thursday, Victoria Police confirmed that five people were arrested for mischief at the legislature.

“There were no injuries in the arrests. Protesters called for others to surround the Legislature building,” the statement read. “Protesters actively obstructed officers. With the large crowd, it took several hours for our officers to be able safely to transport the protesters to VicPD Headquarters.”

In a statement, legal observers on the ground refuted the police claims that the crowd impeded police work. 

Chad Hipolito/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Signs set up by Wet'suwet'en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue while protesting outside the B.C. legislature Feb. 27, 2020.

“Between 9:31 p.m. and 1:15 a.m. several people exited the B.C. legislature. Supporters who were gathered at entrances maintained a clear corridor,” the statement read.

Harry said she and the other youth had little idea what was going on during the hours they were detained. 

“We mostly just leaned on each other for support the whole time, just constantly checking on each other and asking for the handcuffs to be loosened and trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible,” she said. “We were very tense for probably about the first hour and then after that we had no idea when we were going to leave so we made ourselves comfortable.”

The five were released Thursday on condition of being banned from legislature property.  

Harry says she and the others who were arrested will be taking some time off of direct action, but that the fight is far from over.

“We are committed to holding the government to account,” she said. 

The arrests cap off the latest action in a series of demonstrations across Canada in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline. 

Earlier this week the federal and B.C. governments announced a tentative deal had been reached with the chiefs regarding Wet’suwet’en land title and the dozens of rail blockades that have popped up across Canada in support of the chiefs in recent weeks. 

Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Hereditary Chief Ronnie West from the Lake Babine First Nation, sings and beats a drum during a solidarity march in Smithers, B.C., on Jan. 16, 2019.

Chief Frank Alec, who goes by the hereditary name Woos, called the agreement “quite a milestone” Sunday. The text of the agreement has not yet been released, as members of the Wet’suwet’en must first approve the document.

But the youth arrested at the B.C. legislature say it isn’t enough. They say the agreement, while working to acknowledge Aboriginal title in the area, does not specifically address the pipeline at the centre of the controversy. 

Harry said the deal was essentially a rehashing of the Delgamuukw Decision, a landmark 1997 court case that established Wet’suwet’en land title in northern B.C. 

“Aboriginal title is already recognized in Indigenous law and Canadian law,” she said. “So that deal means next to nothing.” 

She said Indigenous Youth For Wet’suwet’en will continue actions in Victoria until the pipeline construction is stopped. 

During a press conference Thursday morning to mark the end of the occupation, Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en organizer Ta’kaiya Blaney, who was in the meeting Wednesday night but left to update supporters outside before the arrests, called on the government to take action. 

“Our movement isn’t about disrespect, it’s about the deep respect we have for the lands and waters that sustain all of us,” she said. “Our young people were arrested last night protecting your children.”

Construction on the Coastal GasLink pipeline resumed in full this week.

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