Members of an Indigenous youth-led occupation of a B.C. minister’s office last week have filed a complaint with a provincial watchdog over the Victoria Police Department’s handling of the incident.
Police arrested 12 adults on the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 22, following a 15-hour occupation.
Protesters took over the office in support of Wet’suwet’en First Nation members who are fighting the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in northern B.C.
In a media release following the arrests, police said “officers facilitated access to medicine, food, and water,” and that police used a “minimum of force” while removing the occupiers.
Police also said a protester outside was arrested after demonstrators surrounded officers and began pushing and shoving.
On Wednesday, members of the group that occupied the building laid out their own version of events, and said they had filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC).
“The misinformation from the Victoria Police Department is disheartening and it’s very concerning,” said Don Tom, Chief of the Tsarlip First Nation and Vice-President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC).
“The UBCIC stands and supports our youth and the peaceful actions they are taking to uphold and fight for the rights of the Wet’suwet’en people.”
Demonstrators drew on the account of a Alexia Manchon, a University of Victoria law student who said she acted as a legal observer during the occupation.
“I have heard from multiple witnesses that a protester outside was physically assaulted by police and sustained injuries that may require surgery,” Manchon told reporters Wednesday.
Manchon alleged that police refused to allow food into the building for 45 minutes. She also said that someone inside the building who requested medical attention had to wait 30 minutes to see a paramedic, after police offered a police medic, who was armed, as a faster alternative.
Victoria police say they were directed to remove protesters by the building’s owner — in this case, the Crown — under the Trespass Act.
Demonstrators Wednesday said that action was in direct opposition to the government’s stated goal of reconciliation.
“Police went beyond their duty that night, treated us with hatred and racism when we were peacefully occupying the Ministry of Energy and Mines demanding that Wet’suwet’en law be upheld,” claimed Ta’Kaiya Blaney, an Indigenous activist who was the last to be arrested.
“We’ve been called protesters, anti-pipeline protesters, when in fact we are land defenders. We are Indigenous youth doing what is necessary to defend our future and the future of our traditional territories from destruction.”
Victoria Police Chief Const. Del Manak said he’s hopeful the investigation will address “misinformation” that has spread about the arrests and establish a basic set of facts.
“The Victoria Police Department and the officers that were acting at the time when they made the arrests, were acting in a lawful execution of their duty,” he said.
Manek said the protesters were given “every opportunity to leave peacefully” and that officers told people they wouldn’t be arrested if they didn’t want to be, with a majority then complying.
“It was only those individuals who wanted to be arrested and wanted to have a confrontation were the ones that remained,” he said.
Manek added the average age of those who were arrested was 30 years old, with the youngest being 18 and the oldest 66.
The OPCC confirmed that it had received several complaints about the arrests, most dealing with police use of force and conduct.
It said it was in the process of reviewing the information and speaking with complainants, but had not, as of yet, ordered an investigation.