RCMP have arrested six opponents of a contentious natural gas pipeline through northern B.C. after moving in and enforcing a court injunction around a key project worksite.
It comes a day after the RCMP held a press conference pledging that officers would take a light touch when enforcing the B.C. Supreme Court order requiring that Coastal GasLink workers be given access to the area near Houston, B.C.
RCMP’s confirmation of Thursday morning’s arrests came hours after the opponents took to social media calling attention to the enforcement at a checkpoint at the 39-kilometre mark on the Morice Forest Service Road.
The camp was set up beside the first of a number of trees that opponents allegedly felled across the road to impede access to the area.
“The camp was set more than 10 metres from the road, and the people there were simply to keep an eye on activity to ensure the safety of people out there. As far as I know they were not given the option to leave the area peacefully.”
Wet’suwet’en pipeline opponents and their supporters, who describe themselves as land defenders, say police have set up a new checkpoint at the four-kilometre mark and are excluding all access, including media.
The group also claims police entered the area with firearms drawn, and that officers smashed the window of one vehicle.
In their update later Thursday, police said the six people were arrested for obstruction after refusing to leave the area. One of those people also resisted arrest, but was ultimately taken into custody.
RCMP confirmed officers smashed the window of a vehicle after a protester locked herself inside that vehicle and removed her clothes. The woman was taken into custody without injury, police said. Another protester was arrested after fleeing from police and climbing a tree.
“Optically, due to the number of police officers deployed, our presence may appear imposing,” RCMP said in a statement. “In reality, a minimal amount of force was required to support the arrests or removal of individuals from within the exclusion zone.”
The six arrested were taken to the Houston RCMP detachment for processing. RCMP say they have all had access to legal counsel, and are expected to be released with an upcoming court date.
On social media, the opponents said they could see and hear heavy machinery arriving at the Gidimt’en Access Point at the 44-kilometre mark on the service road.
RCMP said Thursday morning that the “access control point” established on the road in January was now the start of a “full exclusion zone,” and that only Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and elected councillors — with police permission — would be permitted through.
They added later that there are “no restrictions” to media and protesters looking to return to the 27-kilometre point.
However, the arrival of heavy machinery to clear obstacles and begin pipeline construction — along with treacherous weather, road conditions and “other unforeseen circumstances” — means anyone travelling on the road could be stopped and restricted from the area at any time.
RCMP said the exclusion zone will be removed after Coastal GasLink completes its work at the site.
In an open letter posted Thursday, Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer confirmed police were enforcing the injunction.
Pfeiffer said he was disappointed that hereditary chiefs would not meet with the company, and that they had allegedly sought to have the project’s permits pulled as a condition of de-escalating the situation.
“This is not the outcome we wanted. We have made exceptional efforts to resolve this blockade through engagement and dialogue,” wrote Pfeiffer.
“Over the past month and over many years, we’ve reached out to the Hereditary Chiefs, over and over, but to no avail. It’s truly unfortunate that we were unable to find a path forward that allowed for the construction of Coastal GasLink with the support of all.”
B.C. Premier John Horgan said the outcome was not what the province had hoped for, and said Indigenous reconciliation minister Scott Fraser had spent the better part of a week in negotiations aimed at coming to a resolution.
“This is tough slogging, this is a divided community,” said Horgan.
“We were hopeful, we are continuing to be hopeful that there would be a peaceful outcome and our dialogue with the Wet’suet’en people will continue.”
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) accused police of “aggressively raiding” Wet’suwet’en territory in an act of “senseless violence.”
“We are in absolute outrage and a state of painful anguish as we witness the Wet’suwet’en people having their title and rights brutally trampled on and their right to self-determination denied,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in a statement.
“Forcing Indigenous peoples off their own territory is in complete and disgusting violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).”
The BC Civil Liberties Association said it “stands with the Wet’suwet’en Nation” and that it was concerned about overpolicing in the RCMP’s response.
“We strongly remind RCMP that blocking witnesses, media access, and coverage of the situation constitute violations of Charter-protected rights to freedom of the press,” said the group.
“The ability to witness and report on the ongoing situation are necessary for police accountability.”
Environmental group Greenpeace issued a statement condemning police action and calling on Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
“Greenpeace condemns the violation of human rights underway against the Wet’suwet’en camps and people, who are the rightful title holders over their lands and waters and who are peacefully exercising their Indigenous rights to resist the Coastal GasLink pipeline,” said the group.
“It is unacceptable for Canada to deploy militarized police against Indigenous land defenders and other peaceful protesters.”
Signs police action was imminent began to appear Tuesday night when talks broke off between Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the provincial government, and Coastal GasLink hinted that it was preparing to seek enforcement of the injunction.
On Wednesday afternoon, RCMP said there would be “a minimal use of force” from officers in the area, including offering people who refuse to leave the injunction area the opportunity to be voluntarily arrested without handcuffs.
Chief Woos, one of the hereditary chiefs opposing the project, told Global News Wednesday he didn’t believe RCMP when they said little to no force will be used during the enforcement.
“The buildup there is contrary to what they are saying,” he said, estimating 60 to 100 RCMP officers had gathered in neighbouring towns outside the camp.
“They go in there and they stride about the area, they threaten, they make slurring remarks and threaten people with arrests.”
On Thursday, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en Nation also announced plans to challenge the Coastal GasLink project’s environmental assessment certificate in court, arguing the company was in violation of its conditions and had failed to incorporate the findings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The $6.6-billion, 670-kilometre pipeline is intended to carry gas from northeastern B.C. to a massive LNG export plant being built near Kitimat, and would traverse unceded Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.
The company has signed agreements with all 20 elected Indigenous councils along the route.
But opponents argue that those councils only have authority over on-reserve matters, as artifacts of the colonial system under the Indian Act.
The Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed Indigenous rights and title over unceded land, territory that Wet’suwet’en opponents say only hereditary chiefs have authority over.