Wet’suwet’en members and their supporters say a police watchdog has confirmed their allegations that RCMP overstepped their powers while enforcing an injunction in northern B.C. earlier this month.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs filed a complaint with the federal Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP (CRCC) in January, raising concerns about a police road check and exclusion zone.
The CRCC declined to open an investigation, and did not make any conclusions about the specific issues the groups had raised — but not because they weren’t in the public interest, it said.
Rather, the watchdog said it had already compiled a report touching on many of the same issues in reference to RCMP actions while policing anti-shale gas protests in Kent County, N.B., in 2013.
That report has not been publicly released. It was sent to the RCMP last year, and the CRCC said it was still waiting for the force’s commissioner to respond.
On Thursday, the CRCC released a summary of its findings in the 2013 matter.
The CRCC found that in the 2013 case, the RCMP had exceeded its powers by setting up checkpoints where it demanded people’s identification and recorded that information.
It also found that searching protesters and their vehicles was a violation of people’s Charter rights.
The CRCC found that exclusion zones were permissible, but only under limited, “objectively reasonable” circumstances, “for example, a buffer zone that is as limited in size as possible and an exclusion that is as short in duration as possible.”
And it found that some arrests during the 2013 protests were based on “an apparent misinterpretation of the conditions” of an injunction.
BCCLA executive director Harsha Walia called the report “disturbing.”
“The RCMP has granted itself unlawful, discretionary and unjustified powers to set up and expand an exclusion zone, to arrest people in the exclusion zone who are not actually in breach of the injunction, and they have unreasonably stopped and checked passengers and searched vehicles,” said Walia.
“There is absolutely no legal precedent or established legal authority for such an over-broad policing power. Simply put, RCMP operations in Wet’suwet’en territory have been unlawful.”
Walia said it was unacceptable that the RCMP has had the CRCC’s report for nearly a year without responding, and said it was concerning that the force had apparently used the very same techniques in its approach to the Wet’suwet’en blockades that had been criticized by the watchdog.
The RCMP said it would be inappropriate to comment on the commission’s letter summarizing the report.
In regards to the report over the 2013 incident, the RCMP acknowledged there had been a delay, but said it was still working through “the large volume of data,” and could not provide a timeline for the commissioner’s response.
“Any recommendation regarding the operation or administration of the RCMP can have far-reaching and significant impacts to the organization and the public,” said an CMP spokesperson by email.
“As a result, there are many factors that need to be considered in preparing a response. These include existing case law, our legal authorities, our budget, and potential impacts on our service to the public.”
Delee Alexis Nikal, one of the Wet’suwet’en complainants, said police had prevented her from passing through their checkpoint in January, at a time when temperatures were -38 C.
“They held us there and didn’t allow us to bring out food and the supplies such as hand warmers, foot warmers, winter gear,” she said.
“They’re human rights violations that are occurring. And the excessive force used by the police in last year’s raid has really put a lot of fear into Wet’suwet’en community members.”
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, said the RCMP’s actions in Wet’suwet’en take on added consequence because of the force’s history with policing Indigenous communities.
“Including back to that time of residential schools when the police were used to forcibly remove children from their families, and in many instances charge and punish parents from standing up and trying to stop that,” she said.
Turpel-Lafond said the fact that the CRCC had taken the unusual step of releasing a summary of the findings from a not-yet-released report was significant.
The comments come as Canada’s Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the RCMP had agreed to remove a mobile detachment that’s been in place on a forest service road in Wet’suwet’en territory for more than a year.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have said they will not meet with provincial and federal leaders until the RCMP was off their traditional lands.
However, Hereditary Chief Na’moks told Global News Wednesday that the condition to meet now also includes the removal of Coastal GasLink crews from the territory.