By Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Secwepemc leaders and allies who have been standing trial now face potential jail time related to their opposition of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project (TMX) in the nation’s unceded homelands.
But hereditary chiefs and matriarchs remain unwavering in their commitment to protecting their territories, saying they won’t back down to “Canada” and its illegal jurisdiction under Secwepemc laws.
During two instances in October of 2020, a total of eight Indigenous and non-Indigenous land defenders were arrested for defying a TMX injunction order- both times, leaders had been holding ceremonies related to the water and land near the pipeline company’s construction sites.
Last week, four of the land defenders were found guilty of criminal contempt for breaching an injunction. Four others, facing the same charges, are scheduled to appear in a Tk’emlups (Kamloops) court this week.
Secwepemc Matriarch April Thomas, Hereditary Chief Saw-ses, Billie Pierre of Nlaka’pamux Nation and Romilly Cavanaugh are set to be sentenced in February.
Thomas said she’s expecting to serve at least 20 days in jail, but isn’t feeling demoralized. In fact, she said she’s feeling energetic, noting that this is just the beginning.
“They know that all the people trust me and stand with me, so they’re going to do everything they can to destroy me. I guess jail is the next level,” she told IndigiNews.
“I’m not worried about it because the Creator put me here and the Creator has always had my back.”
Thomas said while in court, there was no acknowledgement of Secwepemc law or sovereignty. All the land defenders are self-represented in court, refusing to have a lawyer who has sworn allegiance to the Crown.
“(Justice Shelley Fitzpatrick) would just speak to us like we’re children, that we’re to obey her,” she said. “Just giving no acknowledgement that the court’s being held within our territory.”
`They have no jurisdiction’
It was Oct. 15, 2020, when a group had been holding a water ceremony at Sqeq’petsin (the Thompson River).
“Despite having no clear jurisdiction in Secwepemc Nation, RCMP immediately began threatening arrest without making any attendees aware of the injunction,” says a statement from land defenders.
“Hereditary Chief Saw-ses attempted to exit the arrest zone and was forced by RCMP officers to stay. He was arrested despite his Elder Hereditary status and heart condition, denied medication and released without notification to his family late at night in downtown Kamloops.”
Hereditary Matriarch Miranda Dick, the daughter of Chief Saw-ses, said she is worried about her father now potentially having to face jail time. The Elder, who is also a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS), is nearing 72-years-old.
Compounding those concerns, Dick is facing her own trial beginning on Monday along with three settler allies who were all arrested on Oct. 17, 2020- two days after Saw-ses and the others.
Dick had knelt by the construction site at sunrise, and had much of her long black hair cut off in ceremony by her sister in grief over the destruction of her homelands and waters by TMX- now owned by “Canada.”
That same day, Dick was arrested along with Heather Lamoureux, Susan Bibbings and Laura Zadorozny.
During a talk at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus on Nov. 24, Dick spoke about how “Canada” is breaking ancient Secwepemc law- not the other way around- by building a pipeline through the nation’s homelands.
During the talk, Dick outlined her nation’s history of opposition against the TMX project.
“When we say that they have no jurisdiction, you look at Canada as wanting to impose law onto us,” Dick said. Also in attendance was Chief Saw-ses and fellow land defender Anushka Azadi.
She detailed the Secwepemc Nation’s sovereignty and the colonial infringement on the nation’s land and hereditary laws which led her and other leaders getting arrested by RCMP after conducting ceremonies on their own lands.
“We never signed, ceded or surrendered our territories,” Dick said.
`Canada is based on a legal fiction’
She said Secwepemc hereditary leaders and matriarchs have been rejecting the expansion project since 2009. The project, which was purchased by the federal government for $4.5 billion in 2018, is a twinning of the existing 1,150 km pipeline- approximately 980 km of new pipeline is being built, which would cross 518 km of unceded Secwepemc homelands over 70,000 salmon-bearing creeks and streams.
Secwepemc land defenders and others have called the federal government’s ownership of the pipeline a conflict of interest.
“We have a hereditary structure; our Hereditary Chief, Matriarchs, Elders and Youth. We already have a structure that if we broke a natural law, we would be ceded under that,” said Dick.
She touched on the Shuswap-Okanagan Confederacy, the oldest standing alliance between the two Nations that predates any “Canadian” law. The agreement upholds the nations’ responsibilities to protect the land. The construction of the pipeline violates that oath.
“It stated that we cannot sign, sell or cede our territories- that it belongs to the future,” she said.
Sovereignty, she continued, means being able to hunt, fish, collect wood and live as a being on the land.
“Now, if I’m arrested in any of those processes, then that’s when Canada’s imposing their assumed jurisdiction onto me,” she said.
Azadi shared how when she was working as a defence lawyer while attending the University of Victoria’s school of law, she realized that all of Canadian law “is garbage” and is rooted in violence.
“When you go to law school they will tell you that Canada is based on a legal fiction,” said Azadi, who is from Gujarat, India.
“They’re full-on aware that this country is based on the legal fiction that no one existed here when they showed up, that no laws existed here, no humans lived here and this land wasn’t being used.”
She highlighted that the TMX project is just the latest in a long list of violent, environmentally destroying encroachments in Secwepemc Nation.
“The things we’re suffering right now as a whole ? they’re all stemming from illegal jurisdiction, from the encroachments of pipelines, from all of these issues,” she said. “From just not obeying- not even knowing- what natural law is. And we’re all suffering as a result.”
Azadi added that Secwepemc land defenders are being charged for simply existing.
“Canada can’t exist at the same time that Indigenous nations still exist,” she said.
“There is no self-determination here. If Canada takes any steps to give self-determination to Native nations, the country will dissolve because it’s based on nothing.”
Dick also explained the difference between grassroots movements against TMX and band council support for the project.
“The reserve is a small portion and outside is our territory- they can only sign to the reserve land, and the remainder belongs to the nation,” she said.
Passing the torch to Youth
In terms of what happens next for the Secwepemc land defenders, Dick said that the trials are just a portion of more work ahead for the group.
She said that they plan on pushing for policy changes at the United Nations (UN) level, where they hope to make formal inquiries into Canada’s ownership of the pipeline, as well as the police’s violent approach to Indigenous Peoples defending the land.
In the midst of all of this work, Dick said that land defenders still make time for the Youth- consistently hosting pipe and water ceremonies, feasts, offerings and more. Throughout all of their activities- from singing and drumming, to ceremonies and rejecting the pipeline- the Youth are present, Dick said, because they need to learn Secwepemc ways.
“I’m not always going to be here. Same with my dad- he thinks the same way; that it’s going to be left up to the kids at some point in time,” she said.
Aaron Hemens is a Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE DISCOURSE. The LJI is a federally funded program.