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Using an ever-changing set of rules, RCMP in British Columbia arrested 11 opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline Saturday, the third day of raids on Wet’suwet’en Nation territory.
RCMP also continued to obstruct journalists on the remote forest road in northern B.C. where the conflict is playing out, drawing international criticism. A spokesperson for one of the nation’s five clans, Molly Wickham of Gidimt’en, said the police broke a promise not to make more arrests until after a meeting with the nation’s hereditary chiefs.
“The RCMP have come in with their guns,” said Wickham, also known as Sleydo. “They’re doing this all while we are waiting… to talk to the RCMP.”
Police are enforcing a court injunction to force the Wet’suwet’en and their supporters out of the path of the pipeline, which is planned to run through the nation’s unceded territory even though Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs haven’t consented. The tiny community has built four camps along the Morice West Forest Service Road, about 1,200 kilometres from Vancouver, as they reoccupy their unceded territory and oppose Coastal GasLink.
The raids began Thursday. With Saturday’s total included, police have made 21 arrests over three days, also temporarily detaining two journalists on Thursday and one journalist on Friday.
Saturday’s raid happened at the first camp along the road, a gathering place for supporters which is located at the 27-kilometre mark of the snowy road.
Originally, the RCMP said people were welcome to gather there, as it was outside the zone affected by the court injunction. But police extended the restricted area — known as an exclusion zone — to include the 27-kilometre camp late Friday. It happened after Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters used their vehicles to block RCMP officers from leaving the area to process four pipeline opponents who were arrested that day.
In a statement, the RCMP said commanders decided to expand the exclusion zone because metal spikes on the road made several police vehicles “inoperative.”
Police were eventually able to clear the vehicles and asked everyone at the 27-kilometre camp to leave. “People can’t leave because police towed their vehicles away,” said a statement from Unist’ot’en Camp, the settlement furthest along the forest road.
Eventually, Sleydo said in a live video posted to Facebook, police agreed to meet with the hereditary chiefs at 10 a.m. and not arrest anyone at the camp until 11 a.m. But the RCMP didn’t show — instead, she added, officers surrounded the camps and made arrests at about 1:30 p.m. and blocked the chiefs from going past the four-kilometre checkpoint.
RCMP arrested 11 people as the conflict over the Coastal GasLink pipeline stretched into its third day. Meanwhile, the RCMP drew international condemnation for repeatedly violating freedom of the press. #bcpoli
In the live video, two RCMP officers from a specialized liaison team can be seen approaching a vehicle where hereditary chiefs and Wet’suwet’en supporters are assembled.
“We’re supposed to be meeting before anything happens at 27,” Sleydo says to a male officer.
“People there have been asked to leave,” says the officer, adding that he needs to get up to the camp.
“Why?” asks Sleydo. The officer walks away without answering the question, and both liaison officers hop into an RCMP truck and drive away.
Several people were also allowed to leave the camp voluntarily. They declined rides from police, choosing to walk to the four-kilometre checkpoint. Others were arrested after they barricaded themselves inside a cabin.
Earlier in the day, at about 11:20 a.m. Pacific time, officers used helicopters to get over Wet’suwet’en barriers and approach the gates of Unist’ot’en Camp. Unist’ot’en is the largest and oldest camp, home to a $2-million healing centre.
“Unist’ot’en matriarchs and indigenous supporters went into ceremony and refused to speak to police,” read a statement from the camp. As they burned the injunction, a traditional funeral pyre was lit with a homemade flag on top reading, ‘Reconciliation is Dead.’”
The RCMP left the area in their helicopters just after noon, Unist’ot’en reported.
Feb 8, 2020, RCMP officers landed at @UnistotenCamp by helicopter. Chiefs, house members called on ancestors & held cremation ceremony for Canadian/Indigenous #reconciliation. Copy of CGL injunction burned. After 30 mins, RCMP left. #wetsuwetenstrong pic.twitter.com/Fp9WlsnRgb— Unist'ot'en Camp (@UnistotenCamp) February 9, 2020
RCMP under fire for blocking freedom of the press
RCMP temporarily blocked reporters from getting through the four-kilometre mark, despite a statement to the contrary on Friday night. After waiting for an hour and a half, CBC reporter Chantelle Bellrichard said on Twitter that she had been allowed in, only to have RCMP hold her back and block her view of arrests at 27-kilometre.
“Increasingly frustrating to do our job on the ground and have never had to argue for press freedoms so strenuously,” Bellrichard tweeted.
RCMP have repeatedly impeded reporters on the road. In a statement Saturday, the online media outlet Ricochet said its journalist on the ground, Jerome Turner, was “continuously” detained during an RCMP raid on the Gidimt’en Checkpoint Friday, at the 44-kilometre mark of the road.
Police detained Turner in a ditch 60 feet from where officers were arresting people, Ricochet said.
“This ditch was in a location where Turner could not connect to the internet, and he was not allowed to get to a location where he could get a signal and send updates to his editors,” the statement said.
“As a result, he was out of contact for eight hours yesterday, with his editors unsure of his status or safety.”
Later, Turner agreed to leave. But RCMP detained him again and prevented him from going to the blockade at the 27-kilometre camp, only releasing him after the vehicles in the road had been towed.
Earlier, on Thursday, journalists were told they'd be arrested if they recorded tactical officers holding guns or officers smashing a truck window to make an arrest, tweeted Jesse Winter, a reporter on assignment for Vice.
The continuous infringements on press freedom have been condemned by the international Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Canadian Association of Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and Amnesty International.
The RCMP have declined to provide a map showing what’s inside the exclusion zone. Though the RCMP previously said any journalists in the area would be arrested, the force walked that statement back Friday following condemnation from the Canadian Association of Journalists and others.
Coastal GasLink, explained
The controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline is owned by TC Energy, a Calgary-based energy company formerly known as TransCanada Corp. If built, the 670-kilometre pipeline would cut through Wet’suwet’en territory to bring natural gas from northeastern B.C. to the proposed LNG Canada facility in Kitimat, B.C., for processing and export.
Under Wet’suwet’en law, hereditary chiefs from five clans have authority over the nation’s 22,000 square kilometres of unceded territory. The hereditary chiefs have repeatedly opposed Coastal GasLink.
But TC Energy touts agreements it’s made with elected Wet’suwet’en band councils, which were created under Canada’s colonial Indian Act. The elected councils have jurisdiction over reserve lands but not the area adjacent to the pipeline.
The hereditary chiefs’ land claim is backed by a 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision. But a second trial ordered by the court hasn’t yet happened and many aspects of the dispute are still unresolved.
Last year, RCMP enforcing an earlier court injunction violently arrested 14 people at the Gidimt’en Checkpoint. Documents later revealed by the Guardian showed that officers had been prepared to use lethal force.
In the aftermath of that raid, the hereditary chiefs said they were concerned about safety and agreed to allow GasLInk in for pre-construction work on the pipeline. But the hereditary chiefs evicted the company shortly after a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted Coastal GasLink the second injunction on Dec. 31.
The RCMP began steadily increasing police presence on Wet’suwet’en territory on Jan. 13, putting up a blockade at the 27-kilometre mark of the road. Officers poured into the surrounding towns as they prepared to enforce the second injunction.
Though the hereditary chiefs and the province agreed last week to seven days of talks to de-escalate the situation, the discussions broke down Tuesday night. The next day, the RCMP warned they would begin enforcing the injunction imminently.
The first round of raids began hours before dawn Thursday. Officers with the court injunction in hand stormed a media camp and supply post at the 39-kilometre mark of the road, arresting four.
Officers arrested six more during Friday’s raid on the Gidimt’en Checkpoint, the result of a seven-hour standoff that left the camp still standing.
Police had also tried to get people barricaded inside a trapping cabin off the road near Gidimt’en Checkpoint to leave Friday. “Heavily armed” officers tried again Saturday, but Unist’ot’en said the people inside that cabin remained inside.
The six people arrested Thursday were released without charges, while the four arrested Friday will have their first court appearance Monday in the nearby town of Smithers, B.C., Unist’ot’en Camp said.
The situation has been condemned by the B.C. Human Rights Commission, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Meanwhile, solidarity demonstrations have played out across the country since Thursday, with Wet’suwet’en supporters blocking highways and major rail lines — including the VIA Rail route between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.