Opponents of a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. are vowing to keep blocking construction of the project after RCMP arrested six protesters near a key worksite early Thursday morning.
Police moved into the Wet’suwet’en members’ checkpoint camp at the 39-kilometre mark on the Morice Forest Service Road to enforce a court injunction approved for Coastal GasLink, which plans to resume construction in the area.
But the opponents say those arrested are now on their way back to the camp to keep fighting the court order and protect their ancestral lands.
“They’re on their way back, and it’s a testament to the fact that we’re not going anywhere,” said Molly Wickham, a spokesperson for the Gidimt’en clan that is part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
“You can arrest us, you can try to remove us from the territory, you can remove us from the territory violently, and we will always come back.”
Wickham said none of those arrested have been charged and were released without conditions after being processed at the Houston RCMP detachment.
RCMP said Thursday they had made the arrests with “a minimal amount of force.” They confirmed an officer smashed the window of a vehicle to remove a woman who had locked herself inside, but the protester was not injured.
Police had said Wednesday that the opponents would have the choice to leave peacefully or to be arrested without handcuffs before any kind of force was used.
But Wickham says the officers who moved in, who the opponents say came with firearms and dogs, did not follow their promise.
“They didn’t give anyone the opportunity to have a peaceful arrest,” she said. “They came in, overwhelmed everybody that were inside tents, sleeping at three, four, five in the morning, and arrested everybody.”
Wet’suwet’en pipeline opponents and their supporters, who describe themselves as land defenders, said police set up a new checkpoint at the four-kilometre mark and were excluding all access, including media.
Media members were later allowed back into the camp at the 29-kilometre camp later Thursday, along with other Wet’suwet’en members.
But the exclusion zone is still being enforced, with RCMP screening anyone looking to access the area. The checkpoint is the subject of multiple legal challenges by the BC Civil Liberties Association.
Wickham says she anticipates more arrests in the coming days as construction resumes in the area, which includes the Unistot’en healing centre at the 44-kilometre mark.
But she says those remaining in the exclusion zone are ready for what comes next.
“People are not afraid of what’s coming, because they can’t get rid of us, ever,” she said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of other than going to jail.”
Coastal GasLink has confirmed work is starting to clear the service road of any obstructions, including a number of trees that opponents allegedly felled across the road to impede access to the area.
Heavy machinery was brought into the territory behind the RCMP units enforcing the injunction, which was issued by B.C. Supreme Court on Dec. 31.
Enforcement of the injunction was held to allow dialogue between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Coastal GasLink, RCMP and the B.C. government in hopes of dissolving the dispute.
A planned week of talks between the province and the chiefs broke off Tuesday after two days of discussions, with the Wet’suwet’en saying no deal could be reached unless the province pulled its permits for the project.
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.
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.
—With files from Sarah MacDonald