A “Wet’suwet’en Strong” banner was hung up over the Orange Bridge in Port Alberni on Sunday, March 1 as supporters of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs held a demonstration on Tseshaht First Nation land.
The small demonstration began in the parking lot of the Tseshaht First Nation Administration Building. Supporters moved to the side of Highway 4 beside the Orange Bridge, where they sang, danced and passed out informative pamphlets to passing motorists.
Blockades, protests and demonstrations have been taking place across the province for the past few months, opposing the development of a Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en traditional territory. Although the elected councils of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation agreed to a deal that would allow construction of the project, the deal has faced opposition from five of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, whose governance system predates colonization and the Indian Act.
Demonstrators on Sunday stood in support of hereditary Indigenous laws and rights.
“[We] believe there is value in breathing life back into our hereditary governance system,” read a pamphlet that was passed out to motorists along Highway 4. “Our ancestry, as well as our present challenges and our future, are connected to our land, language and culture.”
John Rampanen (naas-a-thluk), a member of Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations who lives in Port Alberni, said that the issue impacts those living in the Alberni Valley because the Nuu-chah-nulth people have “very similar” systems of hereditary governance.
“The effort here today is just really to make sure that our presence as Indigenous people is known,” he explained.
The demonstration on Sunday followed the news that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and government ministers had reached a tentative agreement over Indigenous rights and land titles, although discussions about Coastal GasLink were set to resume on Monday. Work on the pipeline was also to resume Monday. Details of the agreement between the hereditary chiefs and government ministers have not yet been made public.
Rampanen said that this agreement is something that should have been worked out years ago.
Although Sunday’s demonstration was always intended to be peaceful—with no road blocks—posts on social media were met by people threatening to run over supporters.
“It was always intended to be a very peaceful action, to hand out information to the general public,” said Rampanen. “But when we put the information out there, we were somewhat surprised by the amount of racial backlash that we ended up receiving. Unfortunately, a lot of community members decided not to come today because of a lot of those comments.”
But he added that he was heartened by the amount of support the demonstration received from passing motorists.
“There [were] a lot of people who were honking, smiling, waving, stopping by to get that information and find out more,” he said. “The threats to run through Indigenous people whenever they make a stand like this, or whenever their presence is felt, is really disconcerting.”
The demonstration was a multigenerational one, he added, with elders, adults and children participating. Rampanen said that it was “great to see” non-Indigenous supporters in attendance, too.
“This is really just a part of being who we are and feeling proud of being Indigenous people,” he said. “And not being guided by the fear that’s out there.”