Wet’suwet’en leader charged with criminal contempt over Coastal GasLink pipeline blockade

Crown prosecutors have decided to pursue a criminal contempt charge against a key Indigenous leader of a movement to stop Coastal GasLink’s natural gas pipeline construction on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory in northern British Columbia. 

The decision to charge Sleydo’, also known as Molly Wickham, and three other protestors was made public virtually in the B.C. Supreme Court in Prince George on Thursday.

Sleydo’ — who is Wet’suwet’en —  lives with her family on traditional territory near the pipeline construction area of the 670 km Coastal GasLink pipeline, being built across northern B.C. to fuel an LNG export facility.

Although the company signed benefit agreements with 20 elected band councils along the project’s route in 2018, several Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders say band councils do not have authority over traditional territories beyond reserve boundaries.

Wet’suwet’en territory

Sleydo’ has been the public face of a high profile Indigenous land rights movement and a spokesperson for people who call themselves land defenders and water protectors. They are opposing construction of Coastal GasLink’s project on behalf of several Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who haven’t given consent for the pipeline to cross their territory, about 300 km northwest of Prince George, which is about 780 km northeast of Vancouver. 

Sleydo’ was one of more than two dozen people arrested in November 2021, during an RCMP crackdown to dismantle Wet’suwet’en blockades that Coastal GasLink said had stranded 500 workers in a pipeline camp. 

Wet’suwet’en members and supporters issued an enforcement notice for the ‘eviction’ of Coastal GasLink from traditional territories on Nov. 14, 2021. The RCMP arrested more than two dozen protesters later in the month. (Submitted by Layla Staats)

Last month, the Crown announced criminal contempt charges against 15 people, but said another month would be needed to decide if Sleydo’ and several others should also be prosecuted for defying the court order.

The Crown has now decided to prosecute a total of 19 people, including Sleydo’.

Among those now facing criminal contempt charges are Shaylynn Sampson, a Gitxsan woman with Wet’suwet’en family ties, and two prominent members of the Land Back movement, Skyler Williams and Corey Jocko. 

Williams, a well known Haudenosaunee spokesperson for the 1492 Land Back movement, travelled to Wet’suwet’en territory to support the hereditary chiefs along with a handful of other Haudenosaunee from Six Nations, near Hamilton, about 70 km southwest of Toronto, and Akwesasne, which sits on the Canada-U.S. border about 120 km west of Montreal.

Skyler Williams, spokesperson for the 1492 Land Back Lane camp, will be prosecuted for criminal contempt in B.C. after being arrested during an Indigenous land rights conflict with Coastal GasLink in 2021. He’s pictured here in 2020 — during the 1492 Land Back occupation of a proposed housing subdivision in Ontario. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Jocko, according to an RCMP court affidavit, is “believed to be a Mohawk member of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy from Ontario.” 

The court heard last year that Jocko’s fiancee, Jocelyn Alec, is the daughter of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Woos, the Gidimt’en Clan head chief who is also known as Frank Alec. The court also heard that Jocelyn Alec and Jocko lived in a cabin on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory and that Jocko identifies as Wetsuwet’en.

Jocelyn Alec was also arrested last year, but will not be criminally charged, according to the Crown.

Criminal charges

In April, Justice Marguerite Church invited the B.C. Prosecution Service to consider bringing criminal charges against the people arrested last year, after a series of blockades and protest actions damaged roads and bridges near the pipeline. Church noted that protests were “escalating.” 

Kevin O’Callaghan, Coastal GasLink’s lawyer, argued the protesters arrested in November had wilfully breached a court injunction to stay away from the pipeline construction zone, knowing their defiance would receive widespread public attention.

“There has been extensive use of mainstream media and social media to attract attention to the actions of the protesters,” Church noted.

A half dozen of those arrested last year will not be criminally charged, according to the B.C. Crown.

The Crown said there is insufficient evidence that the RCMP or Coastal GasLink security guards read them the full court injunction before they were arrested. 

In court today, Coastal GasLink asked for three weeks to decide if it will still proceed with civil contempt charges against those the Crown has declined to prosecute.

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