Gina Mowatt says she was “terrified” when police told her to leave an 18-hour demonstration in support of the Indigenous fight against the Coastal GasLink pipeline, but her beliefs made her stay.
Several days after the Jan. 22 sit-in at the offices of the Ministry of Energy in Victoria, the Gitxsan doctoral student at the University of Victoria described the events in a calm voice, though her face told another story.
Mowatt said she felt distressed and upset – not just about the interactions with police, but about how the demonstrators were portrayed as “pipeline protesters.”
“We were there in peace, we were there in prayer, we were there in solidarity for the Wet’suwet’en,” Mowatt said. “We’re not protesters. We’re land protectors.”
Living by Indigenous law means having a “respectful, reciprocal relationship with the land” and protecting it at all costs, she said. “It’s not about a pipeline, it’s not about politics – it’s about the survival of life on Earth.”
Mowatt said the sit-in began after Michelle Mungall, then the energy ministry, did not comply with their request to ask Premier John Horgan to meet with the Wet’sutwet’en hereditary chiefs over the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
After several hours, police told them to leave or be arrested, Mowatt said. She said she and 12 others stayed.
Early the next morning, after hours of negotiation, police began removing the demonstrators from the building. They were arrested, loaded into vans and driven to the Victoria Police Department.
Mowatt said the arrests were carried out in an excessive manner, saying she felt bullied, “shocked, heartbroken and terrified.”
In a video statement later, VicPD Chief Del Manak addressed the “misinformation being shared” about the event. Police “were acting in the lawful execution of their duties,” he said, and officers had been pushed, kicked and targeted with racial slurs.
Manak spoke of “active resistance” from the group and others. “I’m quite proud of the officers [for] maintaining a very high level of professionalism and restraint in carrying out duties in very difficult circumstances.”
Following the arrests, several complaints were filed to the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner and Manak said VicPD will “fully cooperate” should there be an investigation.
While it’s important to follow through with the complaints, “all eyes need to be on Wet’sutwet’en,” Mowatt said. She encourages people to learn not only about what’s happening on Wet’suwet’en territory, but what’s happened to Indigenous people throughout Canada’s history.