The RCMP say “miscommunication” led to three people being turned away from a police checkpoint set up at a service road leading to a natural gas pipeline work site in northern B.C.
The checkpoint was set up Monday to “mitigate safety concerns” surrounding camps set up by hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their supporters in efforts to block construction of the pipeline project.
That same day, RCMP say three people were denied access through the checkpoint to the camps while frontline officers were “implementing the new access procedure on the first day.”
Of those three, one person did not give officers basic details like identification and purpose of travel, another faced a shift in weather conditions as nightfall approached and a third was refused access to transport food and supplies to the camps.
In that final case, RCMP say the officer at the checkpoint made arrangements for another person to take the supplies through the checkpoint, but both people decided not to proceed and left the area.
“The procedures have since been clarified and we have not had any reports of further issues and most individuals have been able to proceed,” Mounties said in a statement Wednesday.
RCMP added a review from the operations commander found officers are “acting professionally and in good faith,” and that any further complaints will see the full disclosure of information from those interactions, including police video.
Criticism has been mounting against the checkpoint since it was set up, marking the latest flashpoint in the longstanding dispute between the Wet’suwet’en chiefs, their supporters, and Coastal GasLink.
The $6.6 billion project is meant to feed the $40 billion LNG Canada export plant being built near Kitimat and is currently being constructed elsewhere along the 670-kilometre route from Dawson Creek.
But members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation oppose the project, saying it violates Indigenous law and does not have their consent.
The opponents argue only they can allow access through their ancestral lands and have set up the camps to block access to workers and prevent construction.
The RCMP have also launched a criminal investigation into felled trees and cans of gasoline that blocked the access road, which the Wet’suwet’en chiefs say was done to protect the safety of the camps.
Mounties say those items have not yet been removed, or have been replaced after being removed by officers.
A B.C. Supreme Court injunction issued late last month ordered that any and all obstacles to pipeline construction be removed, though it remains unclear when or if police will enforce it.
The RCMP argue the checkpoint is not an exclusion zone, which is created when police are enforcing an injunction.
In their statement, police say they are waiting to enforce the injunction to allow dialogue between the hereditary chiefs, the Wet’suwet’en elected councils that support the project Coastal GasLink and the provincial government.
Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer requested another meeting with the chiefs in a letter Tuesday. The chiefs say they aren’t interested in meeting with industry
representatives, only members of government.
‘Not an acceptable answer’
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is filing a legal complaint against the checkpoint on behalf of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), citing people who have been turned away.
At a news conference Wednesday, members of both groups — along with the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union and a law professor at the University of British Columbia — said the checkpoint was a violation of charter rights.
“‘Miscommunication’ is, frankly, just not an acceptable answer,” BCCLA executive director Harsha Walia said, adding the checkpoint should be removed as it has “no credible legal reason” to be enforced.
“For approximately three hours each, these people waited in -37 C to -40 C winter. And they stayed there because they were particularly worried about people at the camp … not having food or winter supplies they critically needed to have on-site.”
UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Philip said the group is “deeply concerned” about the safety of the Wet’suwet’en people.
“Everyone needs to rise above their ‘cowboys and Indians’ mentality that appears to motivate the tactics and strategy of the RCMP,” he said. “We offer our conditional support to the Wet’suwet’en people in this time of great peril.”
Philip said he feared RCMP will repeat their enforcement of a separate injunction last year, which saw 14 people arrested in an operation described a “raid” and which drew heavy criticism.
A December report in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian suggested RCMP discussed deploying snipers and putting children into social services during that action. Police have denied that report.
In their statement Wednesday, RCMP justified the checkpoint by saying several missing persons investigations were launched during last year’s enforcement for people who were lost or stranded in the area.
“We would like to prevent these situations from recurring, which is why we are asking for individuals passing through the checkpoint to identify themselves, provide information on where they are headed, and how long they anticipate being there,” the statement reads.
“Based on ongoing dialogue with all the stakeholders, the RCMP continues to monitor the situation with the hope of a peaceful and safe resolution to the current breach of the court injunction.”