The Witsuwit’en Language and Culture Society (WLCS) supports the Witsuwit’en Hereditary Chiefs, Houses and Clans (as represented by the Office of the Wet’suwet’en) as they exercise their responsibility to protect Witsuwit’en Yin Tah (territory) at the Gidimt’en check-point and Unistot’en (C’ilhts’ëkhyu) house territories in response to the court injunction that was handed down by the Supreme Court of British Columbia in December 2018 in favour of TransCanada’s proposed Coastal Gaslink pipeline to be constructed through Witsuwit’en Territory. The WLCS is a nation and clan-based, non-profit organisation whose mandate is as follows:
To ensure Witsuwit’en peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop our cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of our sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. We also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop our intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.
To support the integration, implementation, and understanding of Witsuwit’en language and culture within the Witsuwit’en traditional territories and amongst the non-Witsuwit’en population that lives within and visits the territories.
To be representative of all five clans of the Witsuwit’en peoples.
To support and implement Witsuwit’en Hereditary law, customs, and beliefs into all programs and services.
The revitalisation of the Witsuwit’en language is intrinsically tied to the land. As the late Wigidimsts’ol Dan Michell once said, “I don’t think we can forget our past, our ways. But God created us as we are and our boundaries. Otherwise, we would all speak the same language. These are not man-made boundaries…We didn’t create our language. It was given to us by our Creator.” The Witsuwit’en cin k’ikh (oral histories) stem back to last ice age. The history of the Unistot’en, a term applied to the C’ilhts’ëkhyu from the Widzin Kwah (Bulkley River) headwaters, and those of other Witsuwit’en clans are well-know, elaborate testimonies to their continued occupation, use and protection of their house territories. The Witsuwit’en Hereditary system emerged from the land and the Witsuwit’en language defined the boundaries and laws that direct Witsuwit’en governance and spirituality through the balhats (feast).
Though the forces of colonisation have tried to erode this relationship, it lives on and is constantly under threat, as is the Witsuwit’en language. Only 3 percent of Witsuwit’en people speak their language fluently because of being forcefully removed from traditional territories during the settlement period, the effects of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop and the impacts of on-going colonisation. It is impossible to separate the language, the people and the land. Witsuwit’en Yin Tah (territory) has been gradually degraded by industrial development and the cumulative impacts are threatening not just the land, but the survival of Witsuwit’en people and language.
If British Columbia and Canada truly want reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, they must once and for all recognise the rights and title of Witsuwit’en Hereditary Chiefs, Houses and Clans, as asserted by the Delgamuukw and Gisday Wa (1997) and Kelah (Canadian Forest Products Inc. v. Sam, 2011) decisions. Civil law suits against individuals do not demonstrate good faith. The Witsuwit’en have a legitimate right and responsibility to protect their territories and by extension their culture and language.
During the early colonial era, Witsuwit’en people actively resisted forceful removal from their house territories, the potlatch ban and the removal of their children and were jailed for doing so. The actions of Witsuwit’en houses and clans in current times is an extension of their ongoing struggle to be recognised and respected. All those historical wrongs were supported by laws, which are now generally considered ethically and morally reprehensible. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which Canada “commits” to implementing, stipulates in Article 8 that:
1. Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.
2. States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:
(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural
values or ethnic identities;
(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;
(c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;
The UNDRIP explicitly stipulates that free, prior, inform consent be obtained in decisions that will have major impacts on the lives of Indigenous peoples. This is not was is happening here in Witsuwit’en Yin Tah (territory). Despite, this Canadian government’s commitment to the UNDRIP, the historical pattern of state oppression and use of force was evident yesterday with the number of RCMP deployed to arrest a small group peaceful Gidimt’en people and their supporters. It is time to end the colonisation of the Witsuwit’en and other Indigenous peoples in Canada. Human Rights violations can no longer be tolerated. The WLCS calls on governments and the public to educate themselves and respect the rights of the Witsuwit’en Hereditary Chiefs, Clans and Houses to determine their future within their Yin Tah.
Wiggus (with respect),
Mélanie Morin, WLCS Program Coordinator