By Aaron Hemens
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Eight land defenders who are facing jail time for opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project (TMX) in unceded Secwepemc homelands are receiving support from allies in “Vancouver.”
Gathering at a community hall in Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territories, Indigenous leaders, artists and Youth took part in a fundraiser event to help with legal fees for two ongoing court cases stemming from arrests in October 2020.
The total money raised during the Secwepemc Sovereignty Fundraiser on Jan. 19 is still being tallied, but organizers estimate about $5,000 is being added to an existing fund to support land defenders during sentencing _ scheduled to take place in the Tk’emlups (Kamloops) court from Feb. 21 to 24.
Rueben George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who has spent years fighting TMX in his community’s own unceded homelands, expressed his gratitude for his fellow land defenders standing up against colonial forces.
“I’m proud of you,” he said, adding that the land defenders are putting their own freedom on the line to try to make things better for others.
“It’s the elements that we’re fighting for, the water, the earth, the land and everything that exists that carries a spirit,” he said.
“That’s what we know and understand. But they don’t. And we’ll teach them.”
The event included performances by Indigenous Youth and artists including Manuel Axel Strain, who is Musqueam, Simpcw and syilx, and Kwiis Hamilton of the Nuu-chah-nulth and Sto:lo First Nations.
Following the performances, the eight land defenders took to the stage to express their gratitude for the support from the crowd that packed the hall’s main space.
During their nearly three years in court, the land defenders have been self-represented. But some are now planning to hire lawyers for the sentencing and appeal processes, with the intention of also completing a Gladue report, said Secwepemc Hereditary Matriarch Miranda Dick.
“The impacts that we’re facing are just so detrimental to our salmon and our way of life,” said Dick.
“The way that we look at it, everything floats down river, meaning that we’re protectors of our sacred waters and our headways of the salmon.”
In November 2022, during a talk at UBC Okanagan, Dick highlighted “Canada’s” colonial infringement of breaking ancient Secwepemc law by building the pipeline that would cross 518 km of the nation’s homelands.
“When we say that they have no jurisdiction, you look at Canada as wanting to impose law onto us,” she said.
“We never signed, ceded or surrendered our territories.”
Dick, along with her father, Hereditary Chief Saw-ses, are each looking at one to three months of jail time. Land defenders such as Secwepemc Matriarch April Thomas and Red Deer Billie Pierre of Nlaka’pamux Nation are looking at three to six months.
Despite the sentence that she’s facing, Pierre said that she was thankful to be a part of the salmon, water and land ceremonies that ultimately led to her arrest.
“One day, I’m sure all of our descendants are going to be thankful for what we’ve all done,” said Pierre.
“Whatever or however we slowed this down, how much extra we’ve made this project cost, all our work has been a labour of love.”
For Thomas, she said that it means a lot to her to see the support from so many people from different walks of life.
“It shows that I’m not alone. As long as one of us has that spirit inside of us, they can’t ever kill our people,” said Thomas.
“And they won’t, because our next generation’s coming up.”
Thomas outlined a number of different ways that allies can continue to support land defenders and contribute to the cause:
preparing meals, collecting medicines, fundraising, assembling legal strategy, and more.
“If we all just put our minds together and put our ideas out there and contribute, I know we can shut this pipeline down,” she said.
Aaron Hemens is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE DISCOURSE. The LJI program is federally funded.