Tensions between RCMP and Indigenous pipeline opponents in northern B.C. are boiling over as police enforcement of a court injunction entered its third day Saturday.
RCMP have confirmed 11 people were arrested at the former access control checkpoint 27 kilometres down the road, where opponents have previously been allowed to gather. The checkpoint has since been set back by 23 kilometres due to safety concerns.
Ten other arrests have been made since Thursday morning, when RCMP moved into a camp blockading the Morice West Forest Service Road near Houston, B.C.
The opponents, who call themselves land defenders, are accusing RCMP of using “distraction tactics” to further clear the area.
The group took to social media to say RCMP promised a meeting with the hereditary chiefs at 10 a.m., while later giving those at the 27-kilometre mark until 11 a.m. to leave.
According to the opponents, however, that meeting never happened. Instead, a convoy of RCMP vehicles “surrounded” those at the 27-kilometre mark and allegedly threatened them with arrest while blocking them from leaving.
“They have not given anyone the opportunity to leave, and they have gone against every single thing they said to the hereditary chiefs,” said Molly Wickham, a spokesperson for the Gidimt’en clan that is part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, in a Facebook video Saturday.
“This is all the RCMP tactics. This is how they do their business, by saying they’re going to meet with us while at the same time going in with guns blazing.”
Wet’suwet’en members and supporters can be seen in the video confronting RCMP officers at the four-kilometre mark, who say they are unaware of plans for a meeting with the chiefs or of any actions at the 27-kilometre mark.
“You’re lying to us,” an opponent can be heard saying to police at one point.
RCMP confirmed they made the arrests after opponents refused to leave the 27-kilometre mark camp as requested. They added the police vehicles sent to the area were for transporting opponents peacefully to the four-kilometre mark.
According to police, those who refused to leave peacefully barricaded themselves inside a warming centre at the so-called “protest site,” with some using chains. Those people were arrested for violating the injunction order.
Police said officers attempted to facilitate conversation with people who have refused to leave the main Unist’ot’en camp at the 66-kilometre mark, but left after an hour when the opponents refused to engage.
Wet’suwet’en matriarchs were seen burning a copy of the court injunction in protest during a traditional ceremony.
In a statement late Friday, RCMP said they have moved the access control checkpoint from 27 kilometres to the four-kilometre mark after finding metal spikes on the service road, which police say “were placed solely to cause damage to traveling vehicles.”
Photos provided by RCMP show the metal spikes embedded in what they say are police vehicles that have travelled the site.
Police say hereditary chiefs and the media still have access to the 27-kilometre mark, but must be accompanied by officers when entering and exiting the area.
RCMP said Friday they have also opened a criminal investigation into the alleged cutting of support beams on the Lamprey Creek Bridge at the 66-kilometre mark near the main protest camp, making it unsafe for all foot and vehicle traffic.
However, the opponents said on social media that the bridge was damaged after RCMP used vehicles to take down a metal gate that was secured to the support beams.
“It is our firm belief that RCMP actions are directly responsible for any damage to the bridge,” they said.
Police said Saturday that they travelled to the main camp at the 66-kilometre mark “by alternate means of travel” due to “mischief” at the bridge.
Photos taken by the opponents and posted to social media show a helicopter landed at the camp, which is behind a gate that reads “Reconciliation.”
The injunction being enforced was issued by B.C. Supreme Court on Dec. 31 in order for Coastal GasLink to resume construction at the site near the Unist’ot’en camp.
Police set up a checkpoint at the 27-kilometre mark of the road in January, describing it as a safety measure after a number of trees were felled and flammable items were allegedly found on the route.
The checkpoint is facing legal challenges from the BC Civil Liberties Association and Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
By Friday, the trees allegedly felled by the opponents in order to block the access road were cleared, allowing construction of the pipeline to resume in earnest.
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 say only hereditary chiefs have authority over unceded territory to which they retain rights and title.