A natural gas company with a $6.6 billion plan to build a pipeline through northern British Columbia is continuing to clear forest and deliver pipe despite an Indigenous community’s calls to shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
This week pipeline opponents launched a letter-writing campaign aimed at suspending construction on Wet’suwet’en territory. “In addition to ongoing and unjustified infringements on protected Indigenous rights, the work now brings to Wet’suwet’en people an unacceptable heightened risk of COVID-19, as potentially infected outside workers are being permitted to come and go through the territory,” reads one letter circulated on social media.
The threat of COVID-19 spread has suspended all Wet’suwet’en meetings, including talks on a proposed deal between hereditary chiefs, B.C., and Canada.
“We are not doing any public meetings currently and do not have a date set when we will continue with our clan meetings,” Wet’suwet’en Chief Na’moks, who also goes by John Risdale, said in an email Monday. “We have to consider the safety of our people and all who reside on our territory.”
Demonstrations continued into early March, from the steps of the B.C. legislature to Quebec rail lines. Five more protesters who occupied a government office in Victoria were arrested on March 5. By the following week, when Canada’s chief medical officer advised against group gatherings, most blockades had come down.
Jennifer Wickham, who works as a media coordinator for Gidimt’en camp on Wet’suwet’en territory, said that RCMP have increased their presence near the work camps since the proposed deal was announced. She said that RCMP or private security have been following anyone who leaves the camps on the main service road.There’s Still No Deal in Wet’suwet’en But Pipeline Construction Is Ongoing By Sarah Berman, Vice.com, March 25, 2020
As the global coronavirus pandemic spreads into communities worldwide, there are those who are concerned that governments might take this opportunity to overextend their authority. National declarations of emergency are all well and good for moving funds to crisis response, but marginalized communities are well aware and vigilant about the potential for abuse of power.Pipeline Builders Exploit the Moment on Wet’suwet’en Frontlines by Erin Rubin, The Narwhal, March 19, 2020
In Canada, Wet’suwet’en First Nations communities have spent over a year opposing the construction of a gas pipeline through their ancestral lands. NPQ has been following the story, as the Canadian government backs TC Energy’s (formerly TransCanada’s) Coastal GasLink pipeline over the wishes of indigenous communities living on unceded sovereign land.
Hereditary chiefs have been meeting about a draft agreement reached last month between Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders, British Columbia provincial leaders, and the federal government to expedite the nation’s rights and title process. Concerns about coronavirus and its impact on vulnerable indigenous communities drove the community to move meetings online or push them back. One community member told The Narwhal, “I have no idea when we’re going to reschedule.”
That wouldn’t be an issue, except that TC Energy does not seem to share their health concerns. Work on the pipeline route continues, which means that workers who are not part of the community are being brought into the territory with limited screening or protection protocols in place. Coastal GasLink’s own website confirms that they had some protections in place for their workers, such as onside medics, but none for the communities those workers (illegally in this case) entered.
The Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property issued a public letter expressing respect and solidarity to the Wet’suwet’en people, “who, in conformity with their own laws and on their own land, express their right to protect the natural world and their cultural patrimony, which to them are inextricable.”
Health officials warned six years ago that thousands of workers brought to northern B.C. to build pipelines and dams and operate mines could overwhelm the region’s medical system.
Now the COVID-19 crisis has raised serious concerns about the increased risks of industry activity, especially from employees housed in work camps who frequently rotate in and out of the region.
The BC Building Trades Council has called on companies to scale down operations to reduce the number of workers housed in camps.
“We are calling for remote-camp megaprojects in B.C. to be tooled down to all but essential or critical-path work,” Andrew Mercier, executive director of the union umbrella organization, said last week. “We need to flatten the curve and alleviate pressure on the rural health care systems.”
The council, which represents 35,000 unionized construction workers including members at Site C and the LNG Canada project in Kitimat, said health and safety come first.
And on Monday, mayors in southeastern B.C. expressed concerns that mining giant Teck Resources’ operations — including a camp housing hundreds of workers — created a major risk that COVID-19 would spread in the region.
Northern Health’s response to Coastal GasLink’s 2014 project application warned the region’s “shadow population” of transient workers could easily overwhelm the local health care system.
Less clear is how the pandemic will impact construction on the TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline, opposed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Last month the RCMP arrested 28 people and removed camps on the Morice Forest Service Road that had prevented pipeline workers from entering the area.BC’s Work Camps Stay Open Despite Pandemic Risks. Workers spreading virus could swamp health system, say experts. ‘Tool down’ megaprojects, urges labour. by Amanda Follett Hosgood 24 Mar 2020 | TheTyee.ca
On its website, Coastal GasLink names construction as one of its “critical” operations that will continue along the route. The company says it will implement protocols to stem the spread of COVID-19, such as working primarily with local operators, enhanced health screening and restricting business travel. Regional offices will remain open, while urban offices will be closed, it says.
According to its website, 1,100 workers were on the job along the pipeline route at the end of February. The site said the number would be reduced “significantly” due to spring breakup, when construction and transport are more difficult.*