Imagine if RCMP blocked off the entrance to your neighbourhood.
They set up a checkpoint, citing concerns about public safety. It goes on for weeks. Police officers bar people from entering the neighbourhood — journalists, people who live there, people bringing essential supplies, their lawyers — using rules that seem to change from day to day.
That’s the situation Wet’suwet’en people have been in since the RCMP set up a checkpoint along the forest service road that leads to their northern British Columbia territory, said Harsha Walia, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). The police blockade, set up on January 13, is the latest re-escalation of a long-standing battle over the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which would run through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory over the objections of the nation’s hereditary chiefs.
“The Wet’suwet’en understandably feel under siege,” Walia said at a press conference Thursday, calling for a public interest investigation into the RCMP’s conduct.
In a letter dated Wednesday, the BCCLA, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs asked the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission — an independent arm’s-length agency that investigates complaints against the RCMP — to open a special investigation into the mounties’ conduct on Wet’suwet’en territory. The chair of the commission, Michelaine Lahaie, can decide to open such a probe at her discretion rather than investigating a citizen complaint through the commission’s usual process.
The BCCLA said the RCMP’s blockade is both arbitrary and illegal, citing sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protect freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and Indigenous land rights. The checkpoint is also a violation of Inuk Nu'at'en (Wet’suwet’en law), the letter says. The RCMP initially said the roadblock was meant to monitor who was going in and out of the remote area for safety reasons, citing fallen trees and harsh weather.
“Our freedom is restricted,” said Dini’ze Na’moks, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief of the Tsayu Clan who is also known as John Ridsdale. “That is unlawful, it’s uncalled for … it’s well-documented.”
The situation made international headlines last year when heavily armed RCMP officers stormed a Wet’suwet’en checkpoint along the road and violently arrested 14 people. Police had been prepared to use lethal force in “sterilizing the site” and instructed officers to “use as much violence… as you want,” the Guardian reported in early January.
Concerned about safety in the aftermath of the raid, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs agreed to let Coastal GasLink onto the land. But tensions simmered and began rising again on Dec. 31, when a B.C Supreme Court judge extended an injunction to force out Wet’suwet’en people living at three camps there and to allow construction on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to continue. The company that owns the project, TC Energy (formerly known as TransCanada), halted its work a few days later when Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs sent them an “eviction notice.”
The RCMP have said the checkpoint is an attempt to protect public safety, citing fallen trees along the road and difficult weather conditions, but have also said the blockade does not amount to an “exclusion zone” where entry would be restricted. The mounties also say they aren’t yet enforcing the injunction.
Imagine that the police are blocking the entrance to your neighbourhood. That’s the situation Wet’suwet’en people have been in since the RCMP set up a ‘checkpoint’ along the road leading to their territory in northern B.C., said the @bccla. #bcpoli
The BCCLA, however, said the RCMP don’t have the authority to operate the checkpoint, even with the powers granted by the injunction.
The checkpoint is essentially acting as an exclusion zone, the group said: it has documented eight cases where people who should have been allowed into Wet’suwet’en lands according to the RCMP’s public criteria were denied entry. In one case, the BCCLA alleged, an RCMP officer even told someone they weren’t allowed in because “this is an exclusion zone.”
The eight cases include the accounts of two people who already filed individual complaints against the RCMP earlier this month (at the time, the RCMP said the pair were denied entry due to a miscommunication).
The complaints commission confirmed Thursday that Lahaie is reviewing the BCCLA’s letter and is aware of the Wet’suwet’en people's situation. The commission usually responds directly to the complainant in such cases, but will issue a public statement if Lahaie opens a public interest investigation.
The commission last opened a special investigation in 2018 to probe the RCMP’s handling of the death of Coulten Boushie, a 22-year-old man from Cree Red Pheasant First Nation who was shot on a rural Saskatchewan farm in 2016.
Today, we're calling for a policy complaint and public interest investigation regarding the improper and unlawful actions of RCMP in implementing and enforcing a checkpoint and exclusion zone in #wetsuweten territory.— BC Civil Liberties (@bccla) January 30, 2020
Read the complaint here: https://t.co/8sikgnp528 #bcpoli
Tensions ‘serious’ and ‘volatile’
The case of the Wet’suwet’en and Coastal GasLink exposes divide between the traditional Wet’suwet’en legal system, Canada’s legal system, land defenders and those who want to see the pipeline built.
Under Wet’suwet’en law, authority over the nation’s 22,000 square kilometres of unceded territory lies with hereditary chiefs from five clans, who oppose the pipeline. But TC Energy got approval to build the pipeline from some elected band councils created by Canada’s colonial Indian Act, which have jurisdiction over reserve lands but not the territory in question.
A 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision affirmed that the provincial government can’t extinguish the hereditary chiefs’ right to their land. However, the court also sent the case back from a second trial that hasn’t yet happened, leaving key questions unresolved.
Right now, the Wet’suwet’en and the RCMP are at a stalemate. As the Wet’suwet’en bring in legal observers — people trained to be witnesses — to prepare for a possible enforcement of the injunction, the RCMP have been flying surveillance planes over the area. The Mounties initially denied they were doing so, but admitted it to a Vice reporter after photo evidence surfaced online.
After Coastal GasLink’s injunction was granted, the hereditary chiefs asked B.C. Premier John Horgan to meet. Horgan declined, saying construction pipeline would go ahead, but offered to send his Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser. The hereditary chiefs declined.
“I would like to publicly call on Premier John Horgan to get off his colonial high horse,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, who described the situation as “serious” and “volatile.”
“(Horgan) has absolutely refused. I believe that’s highly irresponsible.”
In the meantime, anti-Coastal GasLink protests have ramped up. Several youth who were arrested and released last week after occupying the Victoria offices of British Columbia's energy ministry filed complaints against the RCMP this week for allegedly causing multiple injuries during the incident. One person may need surgery, the complaint said. Victoria police have denied anyone was hurt.
Earlier this week, 600 high school and post-secondary students in the Metro Vancouver area walked out of classes to protest the pipeline and support the Wet’suwet’en.
‘You’re at the mercy of the luck of the draw’
The RCMP denied several journalists access to Wet’suwet’en territory on Jan. 13, when police first set up the checkpoint.
In the time since, the RCMP have also denied access to Wet’suwet’en community members, a lawyer whose client is behind the blockade and people carrying necessary supplies, the BCCLA said.
At Thursday’s press conference, Irina Ceric — a faculty member at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and non-practicing lawyer who has been helping train legal observers for the Wet’suwet’en — said she was denied access to the area on Jan. 24.
Ceric described an “ever-shifting” set of rules used by RCMP officers to decide who would be allowed through the checkpoint.
“You’re at the mercy of the luck of the draw with which police officer you get, which policies they decide to enforce that day,” she said.
Ceric said she and lawyer Noah Ross, who has a client behind the checkpoint, were told they’d be allowed through, but they’d have to leave behind a legal observer who was with them. Moments later, a different officer blocked them from going through because they didn’t have tire chains and a two-way radio — items that aren’t normally required to travel the road, Ceric said.
The road was clear and the weather was pleasant, Ceric said, adding that Ross had already been through the checkpoint in the same vehicle on another day.
The group came back the next day with the tire chains and radio and were allowed through without question, Ceric said. No one asked whether they had the chains or radio.
It’s “unclear” how the checkpoint is related to public safety, Walia said.
“What we’re suggesting now is this is a very overbroad, discretionary and punitive policy implemented by the RCMP,” she added.
“We’re arguing now that this is a structural issue.”