This story originally appeared in Richochet on May 2, 2023, and is shared with permission. This article is originally co-published with Indiginews Media, and can be read on their site as well.
I blew a tire on my Jeep driving the rough roads up to visit the Unis’tot’en Healing Centre in unceded Wet’suwet’en territory back in late March. With no cell service in the area, I was surrounded by forest and mountains a 45-minute drive away from any main roads.
I knew I wouldn’t be stranded there, thanks to the Coastal Gas Link security truck that had been following me ever since I left the main roads. Sure enough, a man wearing a balaclava and dressed in dark, navy-coloured clothing reading “security,” pulled up a few metres behind me. For a second I felt afraid — an Indigenous woman, alone, in a remote area parallel to the murderous Highway of Tears — anything could happen. This man had swerved dangerously towards me, almost running me off the road, about 15 minutes earlier when I attempted to pass his extremely slow-moving vehicle.
But I calmed myself when I thought of the near-constant industry traffic that travels these roads. No one could hurt me and attempt to hide it that fast, or so I prayed.
I got out of my Jeep to assess the damage and saw my tire deflated almost to the ground. The idea of asking the CGL security guard for help, who was staring me down from the inside of his truck, filled me with dread. But I gathered the nerve to approach him.
“Hi, look, I’ve got a flat. Can you please help?” I asked, looking into the two slits of eyes squinting at me through his mask. He was probably assessing who I was and what I was doing there — and if I was a protestor.
“I’m a journalist. And I’m headed up to Unis’tot’en,” I said.
He then nodded and rolled down his window.
“I’ll come take a look,” he said flatly, calling on his radio to a colleague.
CGL keeps tabs on everything that goes on in the area. After all, it’s the contentious territory where Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and land defenders have been opposing a multi-billion dollar liquified natural gas pipeline for the last several years — where multiple, violent police raids and arrests have made headlines in Canada and around the world. And, where the RCMP are continually patrolling to enforce a Supreme Court injunction obtained by CGL to stop anyone attempting to impede the pipeline’s construction.
His colleague soon pulled up, in another white pickup truck, CGL’s standard vehicles, and the two attempted to remove my tire and put on the spare. They didn’t have the right tools, so his colleague offered to drive me the rest of the way to Unis’tot’en.
Just then, another white pickup truck came around the corner. The driver started to slow down. I saw it was an RCMP officer — when the CGL security waved them off (signalling it was ok and I was not impeding anything) the cop waved back, grinning ear to ear. I thought it was strange the two had such a friendly rapport, but they are working together to keep order (and suppress dissent) along these isolated roads.
What made me shiver was the thought of these lands being unjustly controlled — it was just like the old days, when the colonizers first arrived. They showed up, herded our people onto tracks of land called reserves, then stole the land and did what they wanted with it. If any Indigenous person stood in their way, they were arrested and jailed.
I snapped back to the present day, but realized the forced, militarized colonization of Indigenous lands and people is still alive and well. And what a shuttering, sad situation, given we are supposedly in an era of reconciliation.
The security worker dropped me off at the end of the driveway and I walked to the Unis’tot’en Healing Centre. I was greeted with a smile and inquiry from Dr. Karla Tait, a Wet’suwet’en matriarch and program director at the centre. She’d been expecting me.
“Brandi, I was worried about you. Where is your car? What happened?”
I explained to her how I’d popped my tire and hitched a ride with CGL security. She asked a male supporter who lives at the centre to take a Unis’tot’en truck to put on my spare.
It was near dark by the time we returned. I was served steaming nettle tea, harvested from the yintah (Wet’suwet’en for land) — it’s loaded with iron, antioxidants and just overall good for you.
It was quiet at the centre as Tait’s nine-year-old daughter Oyate and Tait’s mother Helen Mitchell, who also lives there, were out visiting family in the Wiset reserve for the weekend. Freda Huson, another matriarch, and Tait’s aunt, who started the healing centre about a decade ago, was visiting her daughter and new twin grandchildren.
I asked Tait how she’s been doing since the drilling under Wedzin’ Kwa started.
Wedzin’ Kwa is the sacred river system parallel to the Unis’tot’en Healing Centre and the community’s sole source of drinking water. It’s the river the Unis’tot’en matriarchs and other land defenders have battled so hard to protect from the pipeline. Tait, her mother and Huson have all been arrested for standing in its way.
“Honestly,” she sighs, then adjusts her eyeglasses. “It’s really hard to confront that reality. And I think we’ve been focused on maintaining our space and trying to maintain our wellness and our health. And realizing the vision of this space and the work we want to do here. So, if anything, I’ve probably been trying to avoid a lot of updates [about the drilling] and following in depth because it’s distressing and hard to confront.”
Earlier that morning, Tait took me on a tour of the healing centre grounds. We walked a narrow path through the snow to the banks of Wedzin’ Kwa and drank the ice-cold fresh water. Tait, Freda and others believe the water has healing properties because it is uncontaminated and carries essential minerals from the glaciers.
While standing on the rocky shoreline, Tait fixed her gaze on a truck crossing a bridge that connects Unis’tot’en territory to Gidimt’en, another Wet’suwet’en clan. The truck stops alongside a CGL security truck that’s parked at the end of the bridge to the south, facing Unis’tot’en, 24/7. Tait looks annoyed.
“We deserve to exist here. We deserve to be undisturbed and at peace and to live as our ancestors did and to protect what’s left for future generations,” she said, while shaking her head in frustration.
“As Indigenous people, when our rights are eroded in this way, over what are our sacred responsibilities to protect and steward our territory, we need to stand together on those things and push for justice.”
She kneels on the rocky shoreline, cups her hand, and sips more from Wedzin’ Kwa. A peaceful expression appears across her face.
Tait usually spends her days applying for grants, developing Indigenous-based counselling, land therapy programs, and helps to keep the centre running. She wants more community members to come to Unis’tot’en to utilize the healing sessions, but she knows there are barriers.
“People are reluctant to send folks to our space on the land to heal when they know the police are going to come and harass and re-traumatize folks. That we’re going to be watched by CGL security, which is disgusting and abhorrent.”
The truck parked across the bridge is aimed toward the healing centre. It can be seen through a break in the trees. Several months ago the matriarchs put up a few tarps to block its view. Sometimes the wind blows them away.
“It’s a huge problem. And it doesn’t feel good for me knowing whenever my daughter goes outside to play, somebody’s probably watching, right? So, I keep very close tabs on her,” Tait said.
When young mothers with children fleeing domestic violence or individuals struggling with trauma come to stay at Unis’tot’en, the staff let them know they’re being surveilled.
“And there’s no one to hold them (CGL) accountable because the bodies that are supposed to protect us, we’re never designed to protect us in the first place,” said Tait, adding that in the past couple of months, they’ve noticed multiple drones in the sky surrounding the healing center at night.
Tait gifted Oyate a telescope on her ninth birthday recently.
“We’re trying to go stargazing at night and are surrounded by drones, so, It’s really sad and laughable in some ways. Like some nights we’ll go and see if it’s a good night to see the moon and it’s like, oh, well the brightest objects in the sky right now (are the drones).”
I asked to spend the night in the guest quarters of the healing center as I wanted to see the drones for myself. Around 9 p.m., Tait and I went outside.
It used to be pitch black out at night other than the stars and moon in the sky — now a massive dome of unnatural light illuminates the horizon. It’s from the drill zone.
“There’s constant noise (from the drill), there’s constant light,” shrugged Tait. “We used to have perfect starry lights out here with zero light pollution, now look at it. And we have security parked aiming their headlights at our center much of the time.”
This night was foggy but the moon and stars were still visible. Within 15 minutes Tait found a drone far off in the sky and then another not long afterward. I looked through the telescope and saw a small, multi-coloured object moving around.
“That’s it. That’s one of them,” said Tait.
Again, I was shocked. That this was happening in so-called Canada in 2023. That unarmed, peaceful Indigenous citizens were being stalked and surveilled in their own lands.
After leaving Unis’tot’en, I inquired with CGL as to if it was operating drones to spy on Unis’tot’en, which it denied. The RCMP did admit to using drones, but only during daylight hours and during active police enforcement.
Tait, meanwhile, is saddened her daughter is being raised under dystopian conditions, but believes Oyate will grow to be strong, understand her rights and powerfully fulfill her role as a future matriarch.
“It feels like a sacred and important responsibility (raising Oyate). But also, I’m glad that this veil of equality and justice and fairness in Canada has never been in front of her eyes, clouding her perceptions about the reality that we live in as Indigenous people,” she said.
“She’s so sharp and she sees it, right? And I think about the way that she’ll be able to walk and work to protect the land as she grows up, like with that clarity from the start. We’re going to continue and this is not going to shake us from our course.”