B.C. RCMP say they are ready to enforce an injunction against a group of Indigenous pipeline opponents “in the near future.”
The police force says those blocking construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. should leave the area peacefully, or face arrest — while assuring those arrests will come with the least amount of force possible.
“If there are arrests to be made, there are peaceful options that will require a minimal use of force,” Asst. Comm. Eric Stubbs said.
Those options include either a voluntary, peaceful arrest without the use of force or handcuffs, or an arrest “with very little force being applied” to those who refuse to move, Stubbs said.
The announcement came after the Office of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation confirmed that talks regarding the pipeline were no longer active.
Coastal GasLink, which is building the $6.6-billion, 670-kilometre pipeline, had agreed not to seek enforcement of a court injunction ordering access to a key worksite during the seven days of scheduled talks.
In a statement posted to social media Tuesday, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en Nation wrote that the gas company “declined to see this discussion resulting in progress.”
Chief Woos, one of the hereditary chiefs opposing the project, says he doesn’t believe RCMP when they say little to no force will be used during the enforcement.
“The build-up up there is contrary to what they are saying,” he said while estimating 60 and 100 RCMP officers have gathered in neighbouring towns outside the camp, with some venturing in to harass the opponents.
“They go in there and they stride about the area, they threaten, they make slurring remarks and threaten people with arrests,” he said. “They’re intimidating them by going close to the tent and attempting to go into the tents. So the provocation method is there.”
Woos added it feels like police could move into the camp as early as Thursday.
Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser said the two sides had developed a “good working relationship” during two days of talks, but admitted police action was likely imminent.
“We did not achieve an access protocol for the company, which is what the intent of the court order was, so there may well be police action in the very near future,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure that’s done as safely as possible.”
Fraser pushed back on the Wet’suwet’en’s claim that talks had broken down, saying the province was committed to continuing negotiations and was waiting for the chiefs to make themselves available.
He said he stayed in Smithers Tuesday night in case the chiefs wanted to continue meeting, but has yet to hear back from them.
RCMP also said they are continuing to speak with the hereditary chiefs opposing the pipeline project and their supporters to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
“The dialogue will go on,” Stubbs said. “It doesn’t end today, it doesn’t end tomorrow, it doesn’t end the next day.
“We are continually talking to people and trying to engage them. There’s a process we go through before we try to arrest them. We’re hopeful people will have second thoughts about doing anything but being peaceful.”
Stubbs added officers enforcing the injunction will be wearing body cameras to film the police action, which will also be filmed with handheld cameras and from the air.
The enforcement of a similar injunction last January, which saw 14 people arrested, was also filmed. That action came under heavy criticism from pipeline opponents and their supporters, who described it as a “raid” and accused police of using excessive force.
Stubbs said “numerous changes have been incorporated” into the planning of this year’s enforcement, based on multiple recommendations made in a review of the previous year’s action.
“Orders and injunctions from the Supreme Court of British Columbia are not optional invitations or suggestions for the parties and the police,” Stubbs said while quoting the report released from that review.
“Instead, they are mandatory directions from the court. Police are not at liberty to choose which law to follow.”
The B.C. Supreme Court issued a injunction against the opponents on Dec. 31. Shortly afterwards, the injunction was posted at the blockade on the Morice River Road near Houston, B.C. with a 72-hour deadline to clear the camp. That deadline came and went with both sides refusing to budge.
RCMP have since maintained a checkpoint on Morice River Road for weeks outside of an area that includes Coastal GasLink’s worksite, along with several camps operated by the Wet’suwet’en and supporters as well as the Unist’ot’en healing village.
The checkpoint is the subject of legal challenges and a complaint to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP. The BC Civil Liberties Association, which filed the complaints, says the checkpoint violates First Nations’ rights to access their land.
Twenty elected Indigenous councils along the pipeline route have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink.
But members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation argue those councils only have authority over on-reserve affairs and that only hereditary chiefs have authority over Indigenous rights and title covering their traditional territory, which have been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada.
On its own website, Coastal GasLink hinted that enforcement of the injunction could be imminent.
“We are disappointed that discussions have ended without a resolution that would prevent the enforcement of the interlocutory injunction,” the company wrote.
“Coastal GasLink needs to quickly resume construction activities in the area to meet our commitments to LNG Canada, the province of British Columbia, our Indigenous partners, local communities and the many workers who depend on the opportunities our project provides.”
The company, which already has more than 1,000 people working on the pipeline, says it will resume construction in the Morice River area “in the coming days.”