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B.C. hereditary chief gets house arrest for pipeline blockade

July 3, 2024

Chief invoked Wet’suwet’en law for protecting land and water against Coastal GasLink 

A man with grey hair, a beard and a parka looks at the camera with an intense gaze.
Wet’suwet’en Chief Dtsa’hyl was sentenced in the B.C. Supreme Court in Smithers, B.C. (Gidimt’en Checkpoint/Facebook )

CBC News: A Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief will serve a 60-day jail sentence under house arrest for disrupting pipeline construction through Wet’suwet’en traditional territory in northern British Columbia in October 2021.

“A jail sentence is required in this case,” said Justice Michael Tammen as he passed sentence Wednesday afternoon in the B.C. Supreme Court in Smithers.

“He caused a significant degree of disruption for the workers and the pipeline construction.” 

Chief Dtsa’hyl, also known as Adam Gagnon, was convicted of criminal contempt for publicly and willfully defying a court order to stay away from Coastal GasLink’s pipeline construction.

During the trial, the court heard that the chief and his supporters seized multiple pieces of heavy equipment and machinery and disabled them by cutting wires and removing batteries. 

A yellow piece of heavy equipment moves along a road through forest and snow towards work trucks in the distance in this file photo from 2020.
Construction work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline along the Morice Forest Service Road near Smithers, B.C., as shown in this file photo from 2020. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The chief and his supporters also blockaded a road to a pipeline work camp for two days. The court heard that several hundred pipeline workers were living at the camp and relied on the access road for food, water, fuel, and waste disposal. 

According to the judgment, Chief Dtsa’hyl appeared in social media videos and called the court injunction obtained by Coastal GasLink “bogus as hell” because the Wet’suwet’en owned and had jurisdiction over the territory through which the pipeline was being built. 

Chief Dtsa’hyl testified that as a leader, he had a duty to protect Wet’suwet’en land, water, burial sites, and historic trails from the degradation of pipeline construction. He said his actions against Coastal GasLink upheld the traditional Wet’suwet’en law of trespass. 

During the sentencing hearing this week, defence lawyer Rebecca McConchie said the chief’s actions needed to be understood in the context of “the oppression of Wet’suwet’en people in colonial history and the ongoing issues with unceded land.” 

The defence said the criminal contempt case punished the chief  “for upholding Indigenous law because doing so breached a colonial court order.” 

The judge acknowledged that questions around the rights and title of unceded Indigenous territory, as well as how industrial projects consult with First Nations, remain unresolved. 

“The [prime minister] said these protests require a political solution,” the judge wrote in his decision.

The court heard that Chief Dtsa’hyl is 68 years old and has recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma. 

Character references submitted to the court describe him as a loving, supportive, compassionate and courageous man.

The judge said that in his entire career, he had never seen as “impressive a collection” of reference letters. He said the people described the chief as a bridge-builder whose actions embodied the principles of reconciliation and revitalized his culture.

Chief Dtsa’hyl will serve house arrest at his home in Witset, a Wet’suwet’en community of about 600 people. He will be allowed to leave home to go swimming, which eases his cancer symptoms. 

Heavy equipment and a construction worker are visible along pipes that are being lowered into the ground, with a snow capped mountain in the distance
Coastal GasLink installs pipe along its 670-kilometre route from northeastern B.C.’s gas fields to an LNG export terminal in Kitimat, B.C., in this undated file photo. (Coastal GasLink)

Crown lawyers had called for a jail sentence of 60 to 90 days to be served in a custodial facility.

They argued that the accused’s actions were premeditated, that he used his authority as a hereditary chief to counsel others to defy the court and that he showed no remorse.

The Crown referred to case law in previous criminal contempt prosecutions of striking nurses, anti-abortion activists, Trans Mountain Pipeline opponents and protesters at Fairy Creek, 

Quoting those judgments, it said “anarchical holidays” can’t be permitted, “no matter the righteousness of a cause.”

“If all groups broke the laws to enforce their beliefs, our democratic society would fail.” 

A brown sign outside a provincial courthouse in Smithers B.C.
The courthouse in Smithers. (Submitted by Jim Oud)

The lawyers suggested Chief Dtsa’hyl could have used other means to protect the land under Wet’suwet’en law rather than breaching the court order.

As Chief Dtsa’hyl prepares to serve his sentence, the Coastal GasLink pipeline he tried to stop has already been completed.

The 670-kilometre pipeline was built to carry natural gas fracked in northeastern B.C. to an LNG export facility in Kitimat, on B.C.’s North Coast.

Coastal GasLink signed benefit agreements with 20 band councils along the project’s route.

But Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership, which opposed the project, said elected band councils did not have authority over land beyond reserve boundaries.

The hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the Coastal GasLink project garnered international attention and drew protesters from across Canada to a remote section of the pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory.

Black spray paint reads "RCMP off Wet'suwet'en Yintah" on a green electrical box.
Graffiti spray-painted on an electrical box near Prince George city hall in support of Wet’suwet’en opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

A 2019 court injunction obtained by Coastal GasLink barred protesters from preventing, impeding or restricting the pipeline construction. 

Since it was issued, pipeline opponents, who called themselves land defenders and water protectors, attempted to blockade construction several times and were subject to high-profile RCMP crackdowns.


Betsy Trumpener, Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.’s energy industry and the Paralympics.