For her fearless dedication to reclaiming her people’s culture and defending their land against disastrous pipeline projects.
Freda Huson is a female chief (Dzeke ze’) from the Wet’suwet’en people in Canada. She has been a leading advocate for Indigenous communities reconnecting with their land and reclaiming control, including deciding over construction projects such as pipelines running through their territories.
Realising the importance of living on ancestral land, in 2010 Huson moved into a log cabin on her people’s territory in Talbeetskwa, along the Morice River in British Columbia. Since then, she has been the coordinator of the Unist’ot’en camp that now includes a centre for people seeking to reconnect with the land and heal from colonial trauma.
The Unist’ot’en camp also emerged as the main gathering place for people opposing the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which would transport shale gas across British Columbia. In 2020 Canadian authorities carried out a raid on an established checkpoint leading to the camp, which set off nationwide protests. While Huson’s actions have set the pipeline project back by years, it still remains under construction.
Huson’s holistic approach to reclaiming Indigenous culture, land and rights stands in stark contrast to the horrendous crimes committed against Indigenous people in Canada, which have increasingly come to light in recent years. Huson has brought cultural renewal by leading Indigenous people back to their land.
Freda Huson of the Wet’suwet’en people in Canada advocates for Indigenous communities reclaiming their heritage and reconnecting with their land. The quest to reclaim and protect her culture and ancestral territory has led her to become a leader in the opposition against the construction of pipelines. Even in the face of overwhelming force by Canadian authorities, she remains on her ancestral land to protect it. Huson has demonstrated that the Indigenous struggle for environmental protection and land rights revolve around a much more profound battle for culture and a way of life.
Photo: Freda Huson, credit: No One Is Illegal Vancouver
Indigenous peoples in Canada have been subjected to horrendous violence and exploitation for centuries. Details of these crimes have increasingly come to light in recent years, rocking the North American nation. In 2019, a leaked government report titled Reclaiming Power and Place investigating the disappearance and murder of thousands of indigenous women and girls over the past decades concluded that these systemic violations amounted to a “Canadian genocide.” The report noted that the “state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies” were key driving forces behind these violations. In 2021, numerous unmarked graves of indigenous children were found connected to state and Catholic-run residential schools. This was part of a process of forced assimilation of Indigenous children kidnapped from their communities.
Additionally, the exploitation and abuse of indigenous lands have also contributed to the intensifying climate crisis. Despite its climate-friendly rhetoric, the Canadian government has been a significant supporter of the country’s fossil fuel industry. Each year, it pumps billions of Canadian dollars of subsidies into the exploitation and transport of oil sands, oil and liquefied natural gas. Thus, the fight to protect ancestral territories from extractive industries, pipelines and pollution is intrinsically tied to the global effort to mitigate the impact of climate change.
Huson, who received the title of Chief Howilhkat in 2019, is widely recognized as a prominent leader of the Wet’suwet’en cultural renewal and a defender of her people’s ancestral land.
Wet’suwet’en territory, located within the boundary of British Columbia, was never formally ceded by its Indigenous residents. In 1997, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their Gitxsan neighbours fought for the land in a case that was eventually brought before the Supreme Court of Canada. The Court recognized the existence of Aboriginal title as an exclusive and ancestral right to the land, but the ruling fell short of recognizing the boundaries of the territory to which their title applies. To date, these issues remain unresolved.
Opposing pipelines, reconnecting with the land
Huson has emerged as a leader of the resistance to pipeline projects, including the ongoing Coastal GasLink pipeline construction, which would traverse Wet’suwet’en ancestral lands to transport shale gas from fracking sites inland to refineries on the Pacific coast. In response to the proposed pipeline–and plans for two others that have since been abandoned–Huson and fellow Unist’ot’en hereditary chiefs established the Unist'ot'en homestead in 2010 to reassert their traditional authority over their land.
Leaving behind a life of modern comforts, Huson led a small group of people into the forest of her people’s traditional territory to establish modest living quarters, setting up a log cabin in the path of the proposed pipelines. Despite the territory being located far north where winters are severe, the group has flourished. They notably operate under a traditional matriarchal governance system, where women pass on house and clan membership to their children.
In 2015, they released a statement saying, “The Unistʼotʼen settlement camp is not a protest or a demonstration. Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries. Our free, prior, and informed consent protocol is in place at the entrance of our territory as an expression of our jurisdiction and our inherent right to both give and refuse consent and entry into our territory.” A checkpoint was subsequently constructed some 20 kilometres from the camp, to enforce the principle of prior consent to enter the territory, in turn barring construction workers and equipment.
In February 2020, heavily armed tactical units of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided the camp to enforce a court injunction to clear a road for the Coastal GasLink pipeline construction. Huson was arrested, along with several other land defenders including Unist'ot'en Dzeke Ze' Geltiy Brenda Michell and Huson's niece Dr Karla Tait, charged with violating the injunction and taken to jail. They were released several hours later. The overwhelming show of force the authorities displayed against Huson and her community shocked the Canadian public.
One of the main symbols of the disappeared and murdered Indigenous women has been red dresses, which had been prominently displayed at the checkpoint to Huson’s camp. During the raid, corporate security officers tore down the dresses.
These actions by Canadian authorities have only served to further highlight the staggering inequality of state and corporate power in relation to Indigenous peoples. As a result of the heavy-handed raid, widespread protests and solidarity actions broke out across Canada and, to a lesser degree, also in the United States. They continued throughout February and March 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The protests involved railway blockades that garnered significant media attention.
As of July 2021, the Coastal GasLink pipeline continued to be under construction. However, the project has been set back several years due to the courageous opposition demonstrated by Huson and her community.
Renewal of Indigenous culture and land protection
The establishment of the Unist'ot'en homestead in 2010, which Huson has coordinated ever since, marked a significant shift in her thinking in regard to reconnecting with Indigenous culture. She realised that reclaiming her roots and healing from the centuries of trauma inflicted on her people was deeply tied to living in ancestral territories.
The homestead has hosted “Action Camps” for eight consecutive years to teach people to minimise their footprint on the land. Huson has also established a healing centre, featuring permanent structures built with grassroots donations and volunteer labour between 2015-2019. The centre aims to help Indigenous people heal from trauma by reconnecting with the land and their heritage. Visitors are invited to participate in cultural activities such as trapping, hunting, berry picking, medicine harvesting, traditional sweats, drumming and singing while also learning about decolonisation.
“The residential schools tried to remove the Indian from the child and we want to put the Indian back in our children and people,” Huson has said. “We are trying to bring back our cultural identity and practices – if we heal our people, we will heal our lands.”