British Columbia

Contempt charges dropped against 14 protesters blocking B.C. pipeline project

Contempt charges against 14 people arrested for blocking a pipeline project in northern B.C. have been dropped.

Crown and Coastal GasLink agree not to proceed, but 1 person charged with assault

Tensions over a proposed pipeline on disputed Indigenous land in northern British Columbia led to 14 arrests in January. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

All contempt charges have been dropped against 14 people who were arrested at a blockade in northern British Columbia in January for barring access to a pipeline company.

"I felt like there was a little bit of justice today," said Molly Wickham, one of the 14, outside the Prince George, B.C., courthouse Monday. "Relief, huge, huge relief." 

"They have wisely decided not to proceed," said lawyer Martin Peters, who was acting for Wickham and several others. "I'm delighted … they saw the wisdom of stepping aside." 

Those arrested feared fines or jail time

Wickham said she had been worried about facing fines or jail time.

"Those are things we should not have to experience as Indigenous people holding up our own laws on our own territories." 

The arrest of Wickham and 13 others by heavily armed RCMP officers sparked protests in cities across Canada and made international headlines.

These women drummed outside the Prince George courthouse, as contempt proceedings were set to begin at the Supreme Court of British Columbia. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

The RCMP moved in to enforce a court injunction giving Coastal GasLink access to a pipeline route on contested land. 

Unist'ot'en clan oppose pipeline 

Coastal GasLink has signed agreements with numerous Indigenous communities. But the Unist'ot'en Clan of the Wet'suwet'en Nation oppose the pipeline project through their traditional territories.  

RCMP officers massed on a remote road in northern B.C. before arrests at the Gidimt'en camp on Jan. 7. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

A large portion of the proposed 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline is slated to go through the Wet'suwet'en Nation's traditional territory — a route rejected by most of the nation's hereditary chiefs.

Insufficient evidence

Those arrested near the Unist'ot'en camp were all facing civil contempt proceedings, for disobeying a court order by blocking or interfering with Coastal GasLink's pipeline work.

But on Monday morning, Crown lawyer Trevor Shaw of the BC Prosecution Service told the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Prince George that after a "detailed review of the evidence"  there wasn't sufficient evidence for convictions on criminal contempt charges. 

Coastal GasLink lawyer Carrie Kaukinen then told the court she would follow the Crown's lead and that her company would not proceed with civil contempt proceedings.

Unist'ot'en supporters welcomed the decision outside the Prince George courthouse Monday. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Justice Marguerite Church agreed to vacate the contempt order.

"There is high public interest, but it is not appropriate to proceed," Church told the court. "I accept that Coastal GasLink does not wish to proceed." 

Although the contempt proceedings have ended, the B.C. Crown did approve one charge stemming from the Jan. 7 arrests.  A Crown spokesperson said Anton William Bueckert is charged with one count of assaulting a police officer with a weapon near the Unist'ot'en camp. 

A different matter 'if they continue to disobey'

Church reminded those in the courtroom that the injunction is still in force, requiring pipeline opponents to stay away and let the company do its work.

"If they continue to disobey, it might be quite a different matter." 

Outside the courthouse, Wickham declined to comment on whether she would honour the injunction.

We're still protecting our territories. This isn't over by a long shot.- Wet'suwet'en hereditary Chief Madeek, also known as Jeff Brown

Wet'suwet'en hereditary Chief Madeek, also known as Jeff Brown, said the struggle continued.

"We're still protecting our territories," he said. "This isn't over by a long shot." 

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener is an award-winning journalist and author. She's been covering the news in central and northern British Columbia for more than 15 years.