VICTORIA — Morgan Mowatt is fed up with people feeling “inconvenienced” by demonstrations in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
“There seems to be this assumption that people haven’t taken every other route,” said Mowatt, a PhD student at the University of Victoria and a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, as we stood off to the side of a picket line at the office of the Public Safety and Solicitor General, Justice Services.
“It’s not that people haven’t tried to influence policy or go through the courts. You know, these are still peaceful actions, like, that’s the bare minimum of trying to get our voices heard.”
Today’s action, where I met Mowatt, is bigger than many. Hundreds of supporters of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ land claim against the $6.6-million Coastal GasLink pipeline have taken to the streets of Victoria for what organizers are calling a “peaceful government shutdown.”
Behind us, chants of “The people. United. Will never be defeated” and “Land back” echoed from this demonstration and a similar one at the Attorney General and Minister of Justice’s office across the street.
Dozens of people mill about the picket lines with “Wet’suwet’en Strong” signs, strategically blocking entrances to the government buildings as they pass around boxes of Timbits and compare homemade signs. City buses and passing cars share honks and drivers raise their fists in solidarity as they pass by, each met with an enthusiastic “woo” from the assembled demonstrators.
The mood is lively. Passersby are asked “are you part of this or are you going to work?” The former are welcomed with open arms, the latter are still welcomed, but also with pamphlets of information on the ongoing land dispute in northern B.C.
It’s just after 9 a.m. on Valentine’s Day morning, and hundreds of picketers have been on the streets for almost two hours.
These picket lines are just two of dozens that were set up at entrances to around 20 government buildings in Victoria Friday morning. They’re the latest in a series of actions in the B.C. capital and across the country calling on John Horgan’s B.C. government and Justin Trudeau’s federal government to step in and affirm the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ claim to the land.
Mowatt says actions like today’s and those by other organizations from allies across Canada are directed straight at Horgan and Trudeau.
“It sends a really big message to people in power that it’s not just some rogue small group that’s upset about these violations. It’s a huge group of people and their supporters,” she said.
Two hours earlier, just before 7 a.m., a crowd had begun to form at downtown Victoria’s Centennial Square.
Supporters trickle in on foot and by bike, many with dogs in tow. A bus coming down from nearby University of Victoria unloaded a few dozen students into the growing mass of people. As the sun started to creep above the eastern horizon, people began handing out spray-painted signs and banners. There are people of all ages in the group , but most appear university-aged.
“Who wants a big banner for the front entrance?” asks a man who’s helping organize the picket at the Ministry of Health asks a section of the assembled crowd.
A young woman enthusiastically agrees, bundling the pile of canvas into her arms.
This gathering is one of several happening simultaneously across the city. Picketers split off into predetermined groups and marched through the streets to block entrances to ministries and other government buildings through downtown Victoria with signs bearing slogans like “Respect Indigenous Law.”
It’s a more muted action than earlier in the week, when hundreds of supporters physically blockaded the legislature. After six days occupying the steps of the legislature building, demonstrators linked arms and barred access to to the building Tuesday, prompting the cancellation of the morning sitting and forcing the lieutenant-governor to enter through an underground tunnel for the throne speech.
Tensions flared in what Premier John Horgan the next day called an “unacceptable” level of protest.
“Peaceful demonstration is fundamental to our success as a democracy, but to have a group of people say to others you are illegitimate, you are not allowed in here and you are somehow a sellout to the values of Canadians is just plain wrong,” Horgan said during a press conference Wednesday.
WATCH: B.C. premier says legislature protests ‘unacceptable.’
During Tuesday’s occupation, demonstrators shouted “shame” at politicians, media and staffers attempting to enter the building. Reports have come out that several unidentified government staff were injured during the blockade.
“People who merely wanted to access their place of work and provide service to the public of British Columbia were subjected to physical and emotional intimidation, physical blocking of access, and in some instances physical and emotional abuse,” Don Wright, deputy minister to the premier and head of the province’s public service, wrote in an email sent to workers Wednesday.
“I find this treatment of those serving the public to be reprehensible and unacceptable.”
Participants in the occupation dispute that anyone was injured by picketers. University of Victoria graduate student Georgia King was picketing during Friday’s event. She said she was at the legislature and experienced hostility from the other side.
King pointed out bruises on her arms she said she obtained after a member of the legislative press gallery allegedly shoved past her trying to enter the building.
“At the occupation we had about 30 legal observers, and multiple videos of police shoving people and legislative workers shoving people and zero of picketers,” she said.
A Twitter account attributed to the legal observers — volunteers trained to monitor legal rights during interactions between activists and police — shared a detailed account of Tuesday’s action on Thursday afternoon denying any violence by demonstrators.
Still, reception of Tuesday’s action prompted House Speaker Darryl Plecas to apply for a court injunction to allow security to arrest and detain activists barring entrances and roads on legislative and ministerial grounds. The injunction was granted Thursday, prompting organizers of Friday’s pickets to shift from a blockade of government buildings to the soft picket with the information pamphlets.
“There is a clear ban on blocking entrances,” organizers posted onlinethe night before. “With that in mind, we want to make sure that folks are clear that we are PICKETING - aka urging employees not to cross the picket line - but NOT BLOCKING anyone’s entrance.”
On Thursday, emails were reportedly sent to various ministerial workers encouraging them to stay home or work from home. The union representing B.C.’s public service employees said it would not force employees to cross the picket line.
“At the occupation we had about 30 legal observers, and multiple videos of police shoving people and legislative workers shoving people and zero of picketers.”
“What’s of most importance to us is their safety,” union president Stephanie Smith told Ricochet media. “And should they choose to, that they exercise their rights … when it comes to safe work. Our advice to members is that it is a [picket] line until they hear differently.”
However, despite calls from the Indigenous and environmental groups for public service workers to join them on the picket line, the union did not come out in support of it.
Rather, as a result of the injunction and advanced warning of the action, few public service workers showed up at all to work Friday.
Organizers at the Ministry of Health demonstration estimated around 20 people passed through the line to enter the building. Many kept their heads down, while others took the opportunity to talk back.
When I met King at around 8:45 a.m., she said she personally hadn’t spoken to any government staff trying to enter the Government Communications and Public Relations Building yet, and speculated that many had intentionally stayed home. But she was surprised at how much support for the action there was from passersby.
“I personally have been really surprised with the positive reactions we’ve been getting from the people out here, because the internet is often an echo chamber of negativity,” she said. “So once you’re on the ground and actually interacting with people, I received a lot more support than I expected.”
By 11:30 a.m. the picket lines had started to disperse, as participants packed up their signs and boarded their bikes.
It likely won’t be the last action though.
I asked Mowatt about a letter from Horgan this week calling for the end of the rail blockades in northern B.C. and a return to the negotiation table with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, something many outsiders heralded as a step in the right direction for resolving the conflict.
But Mowatt says it’s not enough to meet the hereditary chiefs’ request for acknowledgement of their title to the land.
“So until their needs are met, we’re not going to stop putting on pressure.”
WATCH: Tensions rise over B.C. pipeline.