UPDATE: Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said RCMP have agreed to move away from the barricaded area in Wet’suwet’en territory
The commanding officer of the B.C. RCMP has opened the door to police leaving Wet’suwet’en territory in a “gesture of good faith” with hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink project.
In an internal letter to RCMP members obtained by Global News, Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Strachan says she sent a letter to the chiefs Wednesday telling them the need for a small detachment near Houston, B.C., would be “decreased” if the chiefs and their supporters continue to grant access to Coastal GasLink workers.
A B.C. RCMP spokesperson confirmed the existence of both the internal letter and the message sent to the hereditary chiefs.
But Chief Na’moks, one of the five hereditary chiefs opposed to the project, said he will not take any meeting with Strachan or anyone else from the RCMP, reiterating his request for a direct meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The hereditary chiefs have said they will not meet with Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett and her B.C. counterpart Scott Fraser until RCMP remove the Community Industry Safety Office (CISO) from their traditional lands.
Na’moks told Global News that condition now includes Coastal GasLink leaving the area as well.
The ministers have requested the meeting as weeks of rail blockades and protest marches have sent ripple effects through Canada’s economy, with freight train traffic stalled and ports seeing major backlogs. Commuter train service has also been impacted by the blockades.
Bennett wrote an open letter to the chiefs Wednesday stating she and Fraser would be available to meet in northern B.C. as early as Thursday, but acknowledged many of them won’t be there at that time. She added the pair would be willing to travel back once the chiefs are ready to meet.
The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have travelled to Ontario to meet with members of the Mohawk community in Tyendinaga and Kahnawake who are protesting in solidarity with them.
Na’moks, who did not travel to Ontario, said the chiefs aren’t concerned about missing a window of opportunity for dialogue with the federal government, adding the earliest they would be available to meet would be sometime next week.
“We’ve been here for thousands of years,” he said. “It’s their timeline, it’s not ours.”
The CISO is located off a forest service road where 28 people were arrested this month when RCMP enforced an injunction on behalf of Coastal GasLink, which is building a natural gas pipeline through the area.
In her letter, Strachan told members she was “extremely proud” of the work B.C. RCMP members have done in the wake of the enforcement, and said the decision to re-assess police presence in the area is “not an easy one to consider.”
“This is not about the successful enforcement that took place or our role in ensuring public safety in that area,” she wrote. “This is about acknowledging the request and the impact of our presence.
“By making this gesture in good faith, we are not only supporting efforts towards a peaceful and sustainable solution, but also facilitating them.”
The small, remote detachment was set up last January after RCMP enforced an earlier injunction against the camps blocking access to Coastal GasLink workers in the same area. Fourteen people were arrested in that operation.
The CISO has been in place every since, prompting regular complaints from the hereditary chiefs and their supporters as they set up new blockades against the pipeline’s construction throughout last year.
Previously, the RCMP have said that while their major operations in the region have concluded, the mobile unit would remain in place and they would continue “patrols of the corridor to ensure everyone’s safety.”
Although 20 elected First Nations councils along the 670-kilometre path of the Coastal GasLink pipeline have signed agreements with the company — including those of the Wet’suwet’en — the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say the project has no authority without their consent.
—With files from John Daly and the Canadian Press