Gina Mowatt was “terrified” while being arrested in downtown Victoria in the early hours of Jan. 22.
She was one of the 12 young Indigenous people who were arrested – along with an elder in her 60s – for taking part in an 18-hour sit-in in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
Several days after the event at the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, Mowatt, a Gitxsan doctoral student at the University of Victoria, described the events in a calm voice while her face told another story.
She noted feeling distressed and upset – not just about the interactions with police, but about the way the group’s message was twisted afterwards. They took issue with being called anti-pipeline protesters because, Mowatt feels, it took away from the real reason for the sit-in.
“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.”
“It’s not about a pipeline, it’s not about politics – it’s about the survival of life on earth.”
She said the sit-in only began after the group’s demands were ignored.
When Mowatt and the others arrived at the Ministry office on Jan. 21, they had no idea things would escalate the way they did.
They wanted Minister Michelle Mungall to demand a meeting between Premier John Horgan and the Wet’sutwet’en hereditary chiefs who are opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
When it became clear that their demands would not be met, Mowatt and the others decided to hold their ground.
Despite feeling anxious when armed police officers arrived, Mowatt said the group stayed strong. They live-streamed from inside in an effort to keep themselves safe.
A liaison was present to facilitate communication with the police, Mowatt noted, emphasizing that the goal was never to be arrested but rather to wait until the demands were met.
After several hours, police indicated that arrests were imminent because the building owner had requested that the group be removed for trespassing.
They were given the chance to leave but Mowatt and 12 others chose to stay. In the early hours of the next morning, police began removing them from the building.
Mowatt said the group begged officers to disarm before coming into the small room to begin arrests, but officers geared up in front of them as part of what she felt was an intimidation tactic.
She remembered feeling afraid because she and her fellow land defenders were being separated and they didn’t know what would happen once they were alone.
“None of us felt safe with 12 police officers coming in and grabbing our bodies,” she said. “They were bullying us, they were mocking us the whole way through and so it wasn’t just about doing their jobs, they went beyond that.”
The Wet’suwet’en supporters were arrested individually and loaded into separate vans for the drive to the police station. Mowatt remembered having her hands bound behind her back while in the van so she couldn’t prevent her body from being thrown around as she was driven to the Victoria Police Department.
“As much as I was shocked, heartbroken and terrified by what was happening, I wasn’t surprised,” Mowatt said.
Since the arrests at the Ministry building, several complaints have been filed to the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner in relation to police conduct.
“We were violently ripped apart one-by-one, dragged across the floor [and] thrown into jail cells” for demonstrating collective support for Wet’suwet’en in an empty office building, she said.
While she feels it’s important to hold authorities accountable, Mowatt wants the focus to remain on the Wet’sutwet’en because their situation is dire.
“All eyes need to be on Wet’sutwet’en,” she said. “They need visibility to keep them safe.”
Mowatt 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.
Despite the toll it takes on them, Mowatt said young Indigenous people feel a responsibility to put their lives on hold, stand for Wet’suwet’en and take action that they normally wouldn’t take – peacefully, she emphasized.
“We’ve inherited an ugly, ugly legacy, but we’ve also inherited so much strength and so much love from our relatives that have fought this ugly battle for so long too. That keeps us strong.”