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Supporters of an Indigenous camp blocking access to a planned pipeline in northern British Columbia say they are anticipating RCMP action over an injunction filed against them.
Jennifer Wickham, a member of the Gidimt'en clan of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, said on Sunday that police have gathered in Smithers and Houston, B.C., which are the closest towns to the Gidimt'en checkpoint.
"They have a charter bus, RV, and what seems to be a tactical vehicle," she said.
TransCanada has said it has signed agreements with all First Nations along its Coastal GasLink pipeline route to LNG Canada's $40 billion liquefied natural gas project in Kitimat, B.C.
But Wickham says the company does not have the authority to build through Wet'suwet'en territory because the house chiefs, who are hereditary chiefs rather than elected band council leaders, have not given consent.
"Our traditional governance system is separate, and that is who has jurisdiction over the house territories and clan territories," she said.
RCMP said in a statement Sunday morning that while it is responsible for enforcing the injunction order, its top priority is safety.
"In planning for the enforcement of this injunction, police are taking the remote location of the Morice River Bridge into account and will be ensuring that enough police officers will be present in the area to keep the peace and ensure everyone’s safety," the force said.
"The primary concerns of the police are public safety, police officer safety, and preservation of the right to peaceful, lawful and safe protest, within the terms set by the Supreme Court in the injunction."
On Dec. 14, the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs issued a statement saying they were deeply concerned by the National Energy Board's decision denying their request to participate in a jurisdictional challenge to the permits issued to TransCanada's Coastal GasLink pipeline project, which would cross Wet'suwet'en territories.
While members of another Wet'suwet'en house, the Unist'ot'en of the Gilseyhu clan, erected a camp and checkpoint in the area of the planned pipeline years ago, the Gidimt'en gate was erected 20 kilometres away in December.
"We wanted to show that even though the Unist'ot'en and Gidimt'en are from separate clans, all the chiefs have been opposed to pipelines in our territories for years and years and years," Wickham said.
"Unist'ot'en has been holding that responsibility all by themselves, so the (Gidimt'en) chief decided it was time for all of us to physically show our support."
In an amended injunction order filed Friday, a B.C. Supreme Court justice said the defendants — which include anyone "occupying, obstructing, blocking, physically impeding or delaying access" in the area — have until Jan. 31 to file a response to Coastal GasLink's injunction application.
In the meantime, the order says they are prohibited from physically interfering with or impeding any person or vehicle trying to access the area or carrying on pipeline business, including pre-construction and construction activities. The defendants are also prohibited from threatening, intimidating or getting within 10 metres of anyone actively working on the project.
TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said on Sunday the company is not asking for the camp to be dismantled, only for access to the construction area.
"The camp established next to the bridge will remain as is. In fact, we see no reason why the camp cannot continue with its activities. We simply need to use the public bridge to access our pipeline right of way," Cunha said in an email.
When the company announced the agreements with First Nations elected councils in September, it also said it would continue holding discussions with some hereditary governance groups.
LNG Canada announced on Oct. 2 that its joint venture participants had taken a positive investment decision to construct the Kitimat export facility.
B.C. Premier John Horgan said LNG Canada's decision ranked on the historic scale of a "moon landing," emphasizing just how much the project means to an economically deprived region of the province — an estimated $23 billion in provincial revenue.
In a notice of civil claim filed Nov. 23, Coastal GasLink says construction on the pipeline is scheduled to begin this month for completion in 2021.
"Coastal GasLink has project agreements with all 20 elected Indigenous bands along the length of the project in British Columbia," the company said in the court document.
The company has tried to begin work in an area only accessible by the Morice Forest Service Road, but has been prevented from doing so by the demonstrators, it said.
"A small delay in completing the work could contribute to a significant overall delay for the project," it says.
Around 2012, the Unist'ot'en camp set up a blockade by constructing a gate and other obstacles to the area, and a second gate has been constructed recently at the Morice River Bridge, it said. Coastal GasLink was most recently prevented from accessing the area on Nov. 20, it said.
In a statement posted on its website, the Unist'ot'en camp issued an international call to action for the Gidimt'en access checkpoint and at least 17 events had been organized by Sunday afternoon.
The statement describes potential RCMP action as "an act of war," pointing to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which says Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their territories.
"We are now preparing for a protracted struggle. The hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en and the land defenders holding the front lines have no intention of allowing Wet'suwet'en sovereignty to be violated," it said.
A statement issued by the RCMP detailed that the conflict among oil and gas industries, Indigenous communities, and governments across the province has been ongoing for years now — but that this issue is not a police issue.
“In fact, the BC RCMP is impartial and we respect the rights of individuals to peaceful, lawful and safe protest,” stated in the release.
However, they later go on to confirm that “The RCMP will be enforcing the injunction today, January 7, 2019.”
The tweet below shows the RCMP behind the gates that anti-LNG Canada protesters have set up in the Wet'suwet'en First Nation.
RCMP have arrived pic.twitter.com/wi9e6XKdLq— ChantelleBellrichard (@pieglue) January 7, 2019
NDP Member of Parliament for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, Nathan Cullen, tweeted that he will be traveling to the blockade to “support the chiefs message of peaceful dialogue & respect for the land.” With a formal statement to be issued afterwords.
National Observer has reached out for an interview from Cullen and Wet'suwet'en Nation, but have not received any response at the time of publication.
According to Justin Brake, the RCMP are actively preventing media from gathering and reporting on the situation in the injunction zone.
.@rcmpgrcpolice is actively blocking media from engaging in news gathering in order to report on the federal police's raid of the #Unistoten and Gidumt'en camps in Wet'suwet'en territory. See @katmarte's feed for more pics and info. @APTNNews https://t.co/XyyVxE8qQD— Justin Brake (@JustinBrakeNews) January 7, 2019
The news release issued by the RCMP stated that temporary exclusion zones and road closures will be established for police and public safety. The exclusion zones “will be clearly marked and media/public are welcome to stand at the perimeter, but no one will be allowed to enter the exclusion zones.”
In an email exchange with RCMP Media Relations Officer Sergeant Janelle Shoihet, she described how exclusion zones under civil injunctions “are similar to criminal search warrants, where the police do not allow access to anyone who is not part of the enforcement team.”
Shoihet continued to state that as the operation moves forward, the RCMP will use their discretion to allow members of the public and media to re-enter the exclusion zones “where peaceful, lawful, and safe protest can resume.”
With files from Michael Ruffolo