B.C. First Nation, RCMP spar over report ‘lethal overwatch’ ordered for northern pipeline arrests

Click to play video '‘I understand your frustration’: Justin Trudeau has fiery exchange over LNG pipeline protests' ‘I understand your frustration’: Justin Trudeau has fiery exchange over LNG pipeline protests
During a town hall in B.C. on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a fiery exchange with a First Nations woman frustrated with the federal government's handling of a protest in northern B.C. in response to a natural gas pipeline by Coastal GasLink – Jan 9, 2019

A report that the RCMP were prepared to use lethal force and employed snipers during their enforcement of an injunction at an Indigenous anti-pipeline camp in northern B.C. this year is sparking widespread criticism from the camp and on social media.

But the RCMP is pushing back against the report in the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper, which alleges to have gotten the information from documents the police force claims it hasn’t seen and argues may have been taken out of context.

According to the report, documents seen by the newspaper include notes on a strategy session ahead of the Jan. 7 operation at the Gidimt’en checkpoint, a camp set up last December to block the construction of the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline through ancestral Wet’suwet’en lands near Houston, B.C.

READ MORE: First Nations arrested at B.C. checkpoint accuse ‘over-equipped’ RCMP of excessive force

Story continues below advertisement

Fourteen people were arrested during the operation enforcing an interim injunction issued by the B.C. Supreme Court that same month preventing anyone from interfering with the gas company’s work.

Occupants of the camp who spoke to Global News shortly afterward said they saw officers dressed in military gear and carrying weapons, including assault rifles, enter the camp and “aggressively” place people under arrest and force them out.

The strategy session notes allegedly include an argument that “lethal overwatch is [required],” according to the article. Lethal overwatch is an RCMP term for deploying snipers.
Click to play video 'Premier John Horgan on the challenges of building a pipeline up north' Premier John Horgan on the challenges of building a pipeline up north
Premier John Horgan on the challenges of building a pipeline up north – Jan 9, 2019

The Guardian article goes on to say RCMP commanders instructed officers to “use as much violence towards the gate as you want” during the operation in one document, while another referenced potentially apprehending children at the camp by social services.

Story continues below advertisement

Another document referred to in the report mentions RCMP stashing carbine rifles on their approach to the roadblock “because the ‘optics’ of the weapons were ‘not good.'” Yet another document mentioned the establishment of a “media exclusion zone”, the article states.

In a statement released Friday soon after the Guardian article was published, Gidimt’en checkpoint spokesperson Molly Wickham said the details in the report “reveal the reality of the relationship between Indigenous peoples protecting our lands and the RCMP.”

READ MORE: Why did RCMP arrest 14 people at Wet’suwet’en Camp, and what happens next?

“With terminology like ‘lethal overwatch,’ ‘sterilize the site,’ and the threat of child welfare removing our children from their homes and territory, we see the extent to which the provincial and federal governments are willing to advance the destruction of our lands and families for profit,” Wickham said.

“We call on the general public, the politicians, the investors in this and other projects to put an end to the RCMP’s interference in this dispute over title to Wet’suwet’en lands.”

The article has also inspired a hashtag on social media, #WouldYouShootMeToo, that features several people — mostly Caucasian — holding signs with the phrase and tagging the RCMP and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Story continues below advertisement

Story continues below advertisement

The Gidimt’en is one of five clans of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, whose hereditary chiefs have never consented to the pipeline project that would connect the Peace region with a future LNG plant in Kitimat.

The Wet’suwet’en point to Supreme Court of Canada rulings in 1997 and 2011 that affirmed those chiefs also hold rights and title over their traditional territory, which have not been signed over to the federal or provincial governments.

RCMP respond

In a statement Saturday, RCMP said they requested to see the documents cited by the Guardian article, but were denied.

“As such, we cannot verify the validity of the statements made in the article or of the documents themselves,” a spokesperson said. “Similarly, we have not had the opportunity to determine in what context any of the alleged statements may have been made or by whom.”

Story continues below advertisement

The RCMP added several terms and comments mentioned in the article “are not generally used by the RCMP during operational planning” while others may have been used but taken out of context, “both of which are concerning.”

READ MORE: New First Nations camp planned to block natural gas pipeline in northern B.C.

But the force was especially keen to point out that the reference to “lethal overwatch,” or snipers, “relates to an observation position” taken by officers to ensure safety, and that those officers are only tasked with observing.

“This term does not infer action other than observation,” the RCMP said.

The RCMP also passed along its answers to questions sent by the Guardian, some of which the force could not answer as it did not have access to the documents.

The force did say the “media exclusion zone” also covered any other non-police personnel to ensure public safety, while references to removing children into social services care “had to be taken into account” during planning.

Click to play video 'RCMP update on what will happen going forward with pipeline protestors' RCMP update on what will happen going forward with pipeline protestors
RCMP update on what will happen going forward with pipeline protestors – Jan 14, 2019

The use of snipers, which RCMP say is a standard position held by Emergency Response Teams that were deployed to the site, was based on the “unpredictable nature” of what police could face in the “remote location” of the camp.

Story continues below advertisement

Since January, a temporary RCMP detachment known as the Community Industry Safety Office has been in place near the Gidimt’en checkpoint “to ensure safety and security” in the area.

The RCMP said the detachment will remain in place “as long as deemed necessary.”

The force said the officers at that detachment “have undergone cultural awareness training provided by elders including a clan chief on the Wet’suwet’en traditions,” along with “enhanced training in conflict resolution.”

READ MORE: B.C. First Nation fighting northern gas pipeline awaits court decision on continuing injunction

The Guardian’s questions about how many officers are deployed at the detachment could not be answered “for operational reasons.”

Wickham with the Gidimt’en said the detachment poses a “constant risk of violence” towards the Wet’suwet’en people.

She added it flies in the face of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which B.C. recently adopted ahead of any other Canadian province or territory.

“At a time when the province has introduced the UNDRIP in legislation, the RCMP are occupying our territory for the sole purpose of protecting industry and ensuring extractive projects proceed unhindered,” she said.

“We want to live free on our lands, without the constant threat of violence by [RCMP] who are illegally occupying Gidimt’en territory.”