RCMP arrested seven people at an Indigenous-led camp blockading work on a contentious natural gas pipeline through northern B.C. on Monday.
The arrests came on the fifth day of police enforcing a B.C. Supreme Court injunction, requiring Coastal GasLink work crews be given unimpeded access to a key worksite for the $6.6-billion project.
Following Monday’s events, the route to the worksite is essentially cleared.
Monday’s police action came at the Unist’ot’en Healing Camp at the 66-kilometre mark of the Morice West Forest Service Road, the oldest of the Wet’suwet’en camps in the area and the closest to Coastal GasLink’s worksite.
Wet’suwet’en pipeline opponents and their supporters say the seven arrests include several Unist’ot’en matriarchs.
Police read the injunction multiple times over loudspeakers before officers and Coastal GasLink crews moved in to dismantle the blockade, including red dresses project opponents had hung from a bridge in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“We’re very happy that things are going very smoothly, we’re taking our time, this is a slow, measured approach,” said RCMP Cpl. Chris Manseau.
But Wet’suwet’en opponents to the project were anything but pleased with how police handled the issue.
“They’re working for an industry that is hurting people. And they tell everyone that they’re here to protect and all they’ve done is perpetuate the pain of our people,” said Sabina Dennis of the Dakelh Cariboo Clan.
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The camp issued a formal statement midday, calling RCMP’s actions a violation of Indigenous law and the spirit of reconciliation.
“Unist’ot’en condemns these violent, colonial arrests and stark violations of Wet’suwet’en law, Canadian law and of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People,” said the group in a statement posted to social media.
“We, as Wet’suwet’en, have never ceded our sovereign title and rights over the 22,000 square kilometres of our land, waters and resources.”
According to the group, their longtime spokesperson and one of the named defendants in the Coastal GasLink injunction, Freda Huson, was among those arrested.
Over the weekend, RCMP arrested 15 people at the Gidimt’en camp at the 44-kilometre mark who were scheduled to appear in court Monday for violating the court injunction.
Another six people were arrested Thursday at the 39-kilometre mark and released without charge.
“It’s illegal what they’re doing,” hereditary chief Na’moks (John Risdale) told Global News.
“Everyone they arrested and removed from our territory were never charged. It’s just harassment, and they were not impeding any access at all, they were in the homes.”
But other Wet’suwet’en members say opposition to the project is not as monolithic as the hereditary chiefs and their supporters suggest.
Bonnie George, who worked with Coastal GasLink on its work in the area, said many members support the project but are afraid to speak out over fear of being ostracized.
“There’s been a lot of division in our community because of this, and its been building up, building up more so in this last year. People are scared and are feeling that they can’t speak,” said George.
“It’s disheartening to see the division happening in our people, in our nation. It’s our family, it’s our relatives, its our clan members.”
George said the project would bring much-needed economic benefits to the Wet’suwet’en people, help fund off-reserve services and reduce the nation’s reliance on federal funding.
She said it would also have social benefits for her people.
“The benefits of our people working out there — they have gainful employment and they can provide for their families and not depend on the systems to provide,” she said.
“I’m not saying all of our people are dependent on the system, but it also gives our people courage that they can go out and get meaningful employment.”
While the 20 elected Indigenous councils along the pipeline route have signed benefits agreements with Coastal GasLink, they face opposition from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
Project opponents maintain that elected councils’ authority stems from the Indian Act and applies only to on-reserve matters, while hereditary chiefs retain authority over unceded land.