A dispute over energy projects and aboriginal rights is heating up at a pipeline protest camp in northern B.C. where First Nations leaders fear police are planning mass arrests.

Since 2009, Wet'suwet'en people, activists and environmentalists have been building a remote camp in northern B.C. to block several major pipeline projects. They include:

  • Chevron's Pacific Trail Pipeline.
  • Enbridge's Northern Gateway project.
  • Shell's TransCanada Coastal GasLink pipeline project.

Shell plans to build a 650-kilometre pipeline from B.C.'s gas-fracking region to a proposed LNG site in Kitimat.

Spokeswoman Shela Shapiro told CBC News the company supports the right to peaceful protest, but called the RCMP after Unist'ot'en protesters prevented workers from using a public road on Thursday.

The camp is about a two-hour drive southwest of Houston, B.C. on rough forest roads.

Shapiro said Unist'ot'en protesters have told TransCanada staff to leave the area "on a number of occasions." 

Yesterday afternoon, the Unist'ot'en Camp posted a message on its Facebook page.

"Coastal Gaslink crews showed up at Chisolm checkpoint. Threatened checkpoint crew that a police report will be filed as they do not have consent to enter the territory."

'Non-violent occupation'

Shapiro told CBC that TransCanada  is "absolutely willing" to work with camp leaders, saying the company has made more than 90 attempts to speak with the hereditary chief and Unist'ot'en spokesperson.  

The Unist'ot'en camp calls itself a "non-violent occupation" of traditional aboriginal land. Unist'ot'en camp protesters routinely stop traffic on remote forest service roads near the camp and turn back oil and gas crews.

Companies trying to use the area say they're trying to use public roads to access Crown land, and some have ferried their crews to nearby worksites by helicopter.

Now, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs says top RCMP officials have told them a major police crackdown is imminent.

Chiefs warned of mass arrests

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said RCMP told First Nations leaders earlier this week of plans for "a massive arrest procedure utilizing a very, very large force of RCMP officers."

He says the UBCIC leadership was outraged, telling police, "That would be an incredibly provocative idea."

Phillip said he doesn't know why RCMP want to act now. He said the camp has been operating for several years and that low oil and gas prices mean some of the energy projects proposed for the area might be shelved.

"What's the great urgency to mass the large force of RCMP to go in and take down the camp? he said. "I'm rather curious. Are they undertaking a test drive of Bill C-51 or exactly what's going on here?"

Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act enacted by the federal government in 2015, has been criticized by opponents for the expanded powers it gives the police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

In an email to CBC News, RCMP E-Division Cpl. Janelle Shoihet said RCMP do not provide details about the number of police required or deployed in operation. She said there has been "no police action to date," and that discussions between industry and the Wet'suwet'en are still possible.  

Shoihet said RCMP will continue to work "to maintain peace and keep everyone safe."

CBC News has learned of a larger RCMP  presence in Smithers, Burns Lake and Houston, the towns closest to the protest camp.