Johnny Morris, of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, emerges from a sweat lodge at the Unist’ot’en camp near Houston, B.C., on Thursday January 17, 2019. Morris said he’s almost three months sober for the first time in years and he attributes it to his time spent on the land focusing on daily activities like trapping and ceremonial sweats. The camp is widely known for its role blocking a natural gas company from accessing a work site four kilometres beyond it, but the healing centre at the camp is what’s significant to Morris and some others. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

More than a ‘protest camp’: Unist’ot’en camp residents on life on the land

Many flocked to the area after RCMP enforced a court injunction and arrested 14 people at a site down a gravel road from the camp

Staring into a fire outside a sweat lodge at the Unist’ot’en camp, Johnny Morris passes a ball of snow between his hands until it melts.

The 31-year-old Wet’suwet’en man said he’s almost three months sober for the first time in years and he attributes it to his time spent on the land focusing on daily activities like trapping and ceremonial sweats.

The camp is known as the place where protesters blocked a natural gas company from accessing a nearby work site, but the healing centre is what’s significant to Morris and some others.

“Coming back to the roots of our ancestors, having access to the land, I’m able to trap, to go hunting, to harvest what’s out on the land, reconnect with my culture,” Morris said. “It truly is a medicine for my spirit, for my soul.”

Weeks earlier, emotions at the camp were at a fever pitch as residents and supporters prepared for what they believed would be a police raid on the camp. Many flocked to the area after RCMP enforced a court injunction, dismantling a blockade and arresting 14 people at a site down a gravel road from the camp.

READ MORE: Unist’ot’en demand work stoppage of Coastal GasLink pipeline project

The conflict surrounds Coastal GasLink’s plans to build a pipeline from northeastern British Columbia to LNG Canada’s export terminal in Kitimat on the coast. While the company said it has agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline’s path, including some Wet’suwet’en bands, the nation’s five hereditary clan chiefs say it’s illegitimate without their consent too.

The clan chiefs ultimately reached an agreement with RCMP allowing pipeline workers down a road that cuts through the camp, aligning with the interim injunction granted by the B.C. Supreme Court.

The truce has failed to calm concerns at the camp. Members have complained the company began construction work without an archeological assessment and bulldozed through their traplines.

“Them coming into the territory, it’s making a big impact. I’m doing my best to better myself, and to see them coming in, bullying their way in, it triggers me,” Morris said.

The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission and the Environmental Assessment Office are investigating the complaints, while Coastal GasLink said its actions have been lawful.

Several images repeat in Morris’s head from his life before arriving at the camp: The arrest of his father for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Waking up in a trauma room to deafening silence with his mother and aunt on either side after nine viles of Narcan reversed his fentanyl overdose. Walking without shoes down a road in the dead of winter after a night of drinking.

Morris arrived at the camp with his wife, Jessica Wilson-Morris, after she had her own wake up call in a hospital bed. The doctor told her he’d never had to tell a 25-year-old that she would die if she didn’t stop drinking.

Wilson-Morris said she and Morris have supported one another through trauma after trauma, including the deaths of their fathers and her five-week-old niece. When she told him she was getting sober, he said he would too.

“He’s the glue that keeps my broken pieces together,” she said.

Wilson-Morris said she’s tried rehab before but it never stuck.

“I went to a treatment centre and they wouldn’t even listen to me,” she said.

The Unist’ot’en camp is different, she said. She’s begun sharing her story with residents and supporters, many of whom didn’t realize she was there for recovery.

“They listen here,” she said. “And we’re isolated in a good way here, we’re not half an hour away from the liquor store.”

Freda Huson, who is named in the court injunction, said she moved onto the land at the camp 10 years ago after the Supreme Court of Canada’s Delgamuukw ruling in 1997 recognizing the existence of Aboriginal title.

The case was fought by the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan First Nations and paved the way for later rulings.

“My dad told me that the only way to truly protect our land was to occupy it, so that’s what I did,” Huson said.

Today, the largest building at the Unist’ot’en camp is the three-storey healing centre topped with solar panels. It has sleeping quarters, plumbing, a dining hall downstairs and a room upstairs for storage alongside foosball and pool tables.

Further down the path there’s a cabin and across the road is a bunkhouse with a mural of past Unist’ot’en leaders painted on its side. Three dogs roam the grounds and one roles over regularly for belly rubs.

Members of the camp conduct “protocol” at the entrance of the bridge into camp and towards Coastal GasLink’s planned work site. Visitors and workers are asked questions like who they are, how long they plan to stay and whether they’re doing work for government or industry that will destroy the land.

“We’ve let (logging company) Canfor in, we’ve let tree planters in, we didn’t block all industry,” Huson said.

The camp began as tents, but has grown with help from supporters who raised money and volunteered their time in construction.

Huson’s sister Brenda Michell said the Wet’suwet’en used the lands southwest of Houston long before the Unist’ot’en camp was established.

“My uncle used to come here as a boy, trapping before the bridge came in,” she said, looking across the Morice River, which is home to steelhead trout and five salmon species, and is so clean that residents drink straight from the waterway.

Members of the First Nation like her grandmother set up seasonal camps on the land while the men went trapping, with the idea that they would move regularly so as not to deplete moose populations or other resources, she said.

Lht’at’en said her grandmother, who was born in 1867, warned her descendants never to sell the land, which they refer to as the yintah.

“She always told us, ‘Don’t sell our yintah. Your ancestors, your great uncles, they lived off the land and made it very clear for us to continue using the land,’ ” said Lht’at’en, who is Huson and Michell’s aunt.

Despite the role of the camp in resisting the pipeline, she said it’s been misrepresented.

“They call our camp a protest camp, it is how people look at us. But the reason why the barriers were up is (because) we’ve been victims,” she said.

About three years ago, she said shots were fired from across the bridge and racists slurs were shouted, but no one was every charged.

It was Michell’s daughter, Karla Tait, who had the idea for a healing centre at the camp.

Tait, who holds a PhD in clinical psychology, said she was starting to recognize a disconnect in her work life, where non-Indigenous clinicians often had trouble understanding the impact of generational trauma and colonization on their Indigenous clients.

The idea was to integrate wellness treatments within the Wet’suwet’en cultural context and territory. Since then, Tait has hosted workshops focused on women or youth that incorporate traditions like berry picking and traditional art practices.

Tait said the pipeline conflict has triggered many members of the community.

“One of the really difficult things about this particular conflict is that it resurfaces and triggers all of the historical intergenerational trauma our people have experienced since contact in different ways on a daily basis,” Tait said, giving the arrests of Indigenous women and the encroachment on land as examples.

Tait has been unable to visit the camp recently, but said she’s been curious to hear of the progress of clients like Morris and Wilson-Morris without a more formal treatment plan. She attributes it to Huson’s compassion, and the value of reconnecting Indigenous people to the land in a way that instills a sense of pride and feeling valued.

“Behind (those cultural practices), the healing just occurs naturally and doesn’t require a lot of interference,” she said.

Wilson-Morris said she and Morris plan to stay until the snow melts, or for as long as it takes for them to feel strong enough to leave.

“It’s really good healing, seeing nature and stuff, listening to the river, the dogs. This place has helped me — it’s a life changer,” Wilson-Morris said.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press


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