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Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation allege RCMP officers threatened to arrest them Friday, hours after police publicly pledged to stand down amid tension over the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
The RCMP denied the report, saying it has “made significant efforts to document and record all decisions and interactions,” but declining to provide that evidence to National Observer at this time. The Wet’suwet’en say they have video of their own and are planning to make it public.
“They've ramped up their harassment and surveillance and intimidation tactics,” said Molly Wickham, also known as Sleydo, a spokeswoman for the Gidimt'en Clan of the Wet'suwet'en Nation.
“They're saying one thing and doing the exact opposite on the ground."
The hereditary chiefs of the remote northern B.C. First Nation, who have not consented to the pipeline running through their unceded territory, agreed Thursday to sit down with provincial officials to try to de-escalate the ongoing conflict.
The discussions — which will be known as “wiggus,” the Wet’suwet’en word for respect — will last seven days, during which time the RCMP said it would not take any action against the Wet’suwet’en.
But before the chiefs agreed to meet with the province, police had been pouring into the area, preparing to enforce a Dec. 31 court injunction to remove Wet’suwet’en from several camps in the territory, the RCMP confirmed Thursday night.
In an interview, Wickham said RCMP officers tried to enter tents and buildings at two camps earlier Friday, something they haven’t done before.
“They said if anyone impeded them from doing so, they would be arrested,” she added. “They're trying to provoke a reaction. They're trying to be intimidating so people will leave.”
Wickham said officers weren’t allowed into the tents and buildings, and the officers left without arresting anyone.
In a statement late Friday, RCMP spokeswoman Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said it is “not the case” that officers threatened to arrest anyone. Shoihet said people at one of the camps asked the RCMP to come, and once there, “they talked about RCMP patrols, activities and protocols.”
Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation allege RCMP officers threatened to arrest them hours after police publicly pledged to stand down amid tension over the Coastal GasLink pipeline. #bcpoli
Wickham said the Wet’suwet’en have been clear the RCMP is not welcome on their territory in any of the camps, and officers were not invited: “People told them that they were violating them and their safety and their privacy and that they were trespassing,” she said.
Shoihet said in an email the RCMP “documented and captured” all interactions with the Wet’suwet’en, and “a review has confirmed (the) same.”
“The RCMP continues to fully support the discussion table referred to by the Wet'suwet'en as ‘wiggus,’” read the statement, which referred to the camps as “obstructions.”
“We have not and will not take action to enforce the B.C. Supreme Court-ordered injunction.”
Shoihet declined to elaborate on how exactly the interaction was recorded, but said the RCMP is “fully prepared to participate in any public complaint process that may arise from our actions.”
Wickham said the Wet’suwet’en took a video of each interaction as well.
“They say they have evidence, but they will never ever show that evidence to anybody,” she said. "We know that they'll lie about absolutely everything... We know from experience that we have to document every interaction."
The RCMP previously denied reports it was running surveillance flights over Wet’suwet’en territory — until photo evidence surfaced earlier this month, as first reported by Vice.
“'They expect that people are going to believe them,” Wickham said.
“I hope that the public can see through that because they've proven they're untrustworthy."
‘The hereditary chiefs maintain their commitment to peace’
Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation have set up several camps along the Morice West Forest Service Road, about 1,200 kilometres away from Vancouver, in an attempt to halt Coastal GasLink. The $6.6-billion pipeline project, owned by TC Energy (formerly TransCanada), would run through Wet’suwet’en territory to a shipping terminal on the northern coast of B.C.
Last January, heavily armed RCMP officers violently arrested 14 protesters at a checkpoint along the road, drawing international attention — documents show that, at the time, 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 of this year.
Concerned about safety after the raid, the hereditary chiefs struck a deal to temporarily allow Coastal GasLink to access the territory.
But tensions simmered in the year that followed, and began rising again on Dec. 31 when a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted Coastal GasLink the injunction. The RCMP set up a blockade along the forest road on Jan. 13 and have restricted access to the area ever since, prompting complaints from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
If the RCMP does enforce the injunction, many in the community fear it will again result in violence.
The case of the Wet’suwet’en and Coastal GasLink exposes a stark divide between the traditional Wet’suwet’en legal system and Canada’s colonial legal system. 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 received 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 for a second trial that hasn’t yet happened, leaving key questions unresolved.
The Wet’suwet’en meetings with provincial officials come after weeks of requests for a sit-down with B.C. Premier John Horgan. Horgan declined, saying construction of the pipeline would go ahead, but offered to send Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser in his place, an offer the hereditary chiefs declined.
In a press release Thursday, eight hereditary chiefs said they remain dedicated to preserving their culture, territory and traditions.
“The hereditary chiefs maintain their commitment to peace and will pursue all avenues available to achieve a peaceful resolution,” the statement read.