The RCMP is defending the actions of a member seen on video pointing a firearm at Indigenous opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline during police enforcement in northern B.C. this month.
But a woman who says she was one of the people being aimed at by the Emergency Response Team (ERT) member says the RCMP’s explanations are “absurd and ridiculous,” adding she and others felt they could be shot at any moment.
The video posted to the social media account of the Gidimt’en clan — one of five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation whose hereditary chiefs oppose the pipeline — shows police moving into the clan’s camp at the 39-kilometre mark on the Morice West Forest Service Road near Houston, B.C., on Feb. 7.
The camp sits on unceded ancestral Wet’suwet’en territory where the 670-kilometre pipeline is set to travel through.
In the video, which was shot by Denzel Sutherland-Wilson from a tower atop a bus parked at the camp, several RCMP and ERT members can be seen carrying firearms and surrounding the tower.
One member is repeatedly shown aiming what looks like a sniper rifle directly at Sutherland-Wilson from behind a truck that has been turned onto its side.
“He’s pointing his gun at me!” Sutherland-Wilson can be heard yelling. “Take your gun off of me!
“I have nothing! Please, take down your weapon!” he continues at another part of the video.
Anne Spice, a member of the Tlingit First Nation who was on the tower along with Sutherland-Wilson, says up to 60 armed officers and canine units had descended on the camp and surrounded the tower that day, which she called “surreal.”
The ERT member seen in the video was the only officer who she, Sutherland-Wilson and two others inside the bus, could see pointing a gun, but she says others were “likely” doing the same from the trees.
“I felt anger and fear that they would shoot me or my friend,” Spice said. “I actually had a moment in my body where I thought, ‘This is what Canada thinks of us as Indigenous people.'”
RCMP defend use of rifle for ‘observation’
In a statement, the RCMP confirmed the video showed recent actions taken during enforcement of a court injunction against Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters who were blocking construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in the area.
According to RCMP, the ERT member was only using the scope of the rifle “as a magnified observation device in a manner consistent with police training,” despite being issued binoculars.
“Due to a rapidly evolving situation, a scope on a rifle affords safety and efficiency to the police officer,” RCMP said, adding police had been informed prior to the operation that there were hunting rifles at the camp.
Spice says those rifles, which she likens to tools, were nowhere near her group at the time of the enforcement. She added the RCMP’s explanation only proves how those at the camp were “immediately treated as threats” despite evidence to the contrary.
“This is like someone going into a restaurant and pointing a gun at the chef for the knives he’s wielding,” she said. “Intent of the officer doesn’t matter. The act itself was aggressive and violent.
“You can’t use a scope without pointing the rifle,” she added. “They were clearly most concerned about their own safety and showed no concern about ours.”
The RCMP say despite the video appearing to show otherwise, the ERT member “did not point the firearm at any protester during the operation.”
“The rifle scope has a large objective lens which allows the viewer to observe people or objects without pointing a rifle at anyone,” the statement reads.
Spice says that explanation is “completely ridiculous.”
“What we saw was a gun pointing in our direction,” she said. “They don’t think they were being aggressive, but we felt that we were under siege. This was a powerful and violent response to a group that had no intention of hurting or killing anyone.”
A broken promise?
Spice, who was ultimately arrested along with her three companions that day, says the video is proof that RCMP were not honest when they told the public they planned to use “the least amount of force possible.”
Asst. Comm. Eric Stubbs said the day before RCMP first moved into the area on Feb. 6 that police had learned lessons from the last time they enforced an injunction there in 2019, which was criticized for using excessive force.
A December 2019 Guardian article cited training documents that allegedly included directions for “lethal overwatch” — a term for snipers — and using “as much violence towards the gate as you want.”
RCMP have denied the article’s allegations, but say they adopted recommendations from a review of that operation into planning for this year’s enforcement.
Spice says what she witnessed on that tower shows RCMP have learned nothing from 2019.
“This felt like an expansion of the powers we saw last year,” she said. “They seem to be more concerned about optics than their operations, and how they will impact us.
“The same kind of violence was faced by my ancestors, by my parents, and now again by us. It doesn’t matter what RCMP or the politicians say. We’re having conversations at the barrel of a gun.”
With work now underway at the Coastal GasLink site, opponents to the project are now returning to the nearby camps that were cleared during the enforcement. Spice says she wants to return too but is wary of what could come next.
“That’s my home. I would love to return there without constant RCMP overwatch and enforcement, but I don’t know when that’s going to be possible,” she said.
RCMP said they expect their actions during the days-long enforcement that saw 28 arrests to be assessed independently, but expressed hope those actions will be not taken out of context.
“We hope that our actions will be assessed in their entirety and the need for future enforcement is not necessary as all parties work to support efforts that reduce tensions and ensure a peaceful resolution,” they said.
The $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink project is meant to carry natural gas from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat.
The company has signed benefits agreements with all 20 elected Indigenous councils along the route.
But hereditary chiefs who oppose the project say elected councils only have jurisdiction over First Nations reserves. The hereditary chiefs claim authority over rights and title to land that was never covered by treaty.