Two people have filed legal complaints against the RCMP after they say Mounties blocked them from delivering crucial supplies to a First Nations territory.
The RCMP restricted access to Wet’suwet’en land Monday along a remote northern B.C. service road, escalating tensions in a long-standing battle over the proposed Coastal Gaslink pipeline. The complaints, filed with support from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), say winter gear, food and fuel weren’t allowed through the blockade amid an extreme cold weather warning, even though the RCMP had publicly promised anyone delivering supplies would be allowed into the territory.
“The whole experience was dehumanizing,” said Delee Alexis Nikal, one of the complainants, who is Wet’suwet’en from the Gidimt’en Clan.
“Stopping people from delivering winter gear... puts people in a really vulnerable position.”
Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation have set up three camps along the road in an attempt to halt Coastal Gaslink, a $6.6-billion pipeline slated to run through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory that has never been the subject of a treaty. Last January, the RCMP arrested 14 protesters at a checkpoint along the road, drawing coverage from international media.
In a press conference Wednesday, the BCCLA said the RCMP is violating Wet’suwet’en people’s charter rights by denying them access to their own territory. The complaints were filed to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, which is an independent agency that oversees the RCMP.
“We affirm that under the view of the BCCLA, the Wet'suwet'en Nation maintains continuous jurisdiction and rights on their land and territories, which has been upheld by several successive court cases,” said the organization’s executive director, Harsha Walia.
“We encourage the RCMP and (Coastal Gaslink) not to enforce the injunction at this time."
In a statement Wednesday, the RCMP said three people were turned away from its checkpoint, but the incidents were a “miscommunication” as it implemented new procedures. The Mounties previously said the blockade was in place for the sake of public safety, pointing to fallen trees along some portions of the road.
Walia said that wasn’t an acceptable answer: especially given a recent report in the Guardian that found the RCMP had been prepared to shoot Wet’suwet’en protesters last year, the RCMP’s actions “do not point toward good-faith negotiations,” she added. And if any neighbourhood was blocked off by police for several days due to fallen trees, that would be a problem, she said.
Cody Thomas Merriman, the second complainant, said officers told him at the checkpoint only hereditary chiefs would be allowed in. Merriman is Haida, resides in Wet’suwet’en territory and is part of the Wet’suwet’en community by marriage.
He said the officers allowed his wife, who is pregnant, through the blockade, but that she didn’t feel it was safe to travel the road alone. Instead, they had to wait until a hereditary chief could escort her in to deliver the supplies, while Merriman waited for an hour on the side of the road, idling his vehicle's engine to stay warm in the frigid temperatures.
“They’re just denying me access to my own residence, to people, to supplies that are just required,’ he said. “It’s intentional endangerment… I don’t even have words to properly express how angry it makes me.”
The RCMP said it had given the people who were denied access to Wet’suwet’en territory alternative options to get supplies into the camps.
Five elected Wet’suwet’en band councils, which have authority under the federal Indian Act, have given Coastal Gaslink’s owner, Calgary-based company TC Energy, the go-ahead. But in Wet’suwet’en law, the land is overseen by hereditary chiefs who largely oppose the project, raising questions about whether authority lies with colonial power structures or traditional ones.
On Dec. 31, a B.C Supreme Court judge extended an injunction to force out the Wet’suwet’en protesters at the camps and allow construction on the pipeline to continue. Days later, five hereditary chiefs sent TC Energy an eviction order, and the company halted construction.
The court injunction failed to account for Wet’suwet’en law, said Margot Young, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law, speaking at the BCCLA press conference. The federal and provincial governments must come to the table with the hereditary chiefs and Canada’s international obligations should also be taken into account, she added — last week, a United Nations committee aimed at tackling racism called for Coastal Gaslink to be halted.
“The world is watching,” Young said. “The pattern that we observe from the RCMP and its actions at the moment very much parallel global incidents where police end up in violent interactions with land defenders.”
B.C. Premier John Horgan has said the pipeline will be built. Two months ago, the province passed a bill to align its laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a landmark international document that, among other things, gives Indigenous people the right to be consulted over resource projects on their territories.