British Columbia

Reports of RCMP snipers dispatched to Wet'suwet'en blockade 'concerning,' says Indigenous Services minister

The Indigenous Services minister is calling for a review of how RCMP resources are deployed in "sensitive" conflicts over Indigenous land, after a report surfaced saying police were prepared to use snipers on Wet'suwet'en Nation protesters blockading a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C.

U.K. news outlet suggests police were prepared to shoot protesters blockading pipeline

Members of the RCMP move in to enforce an injunction against Wet'suwet'en people and their supporters on a forest service road in the First Nation's traditional territory in northern B.C. on Jan. 7. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The Indigenous Services minister is calling for a review of how RCMP resources are deployed in "sensitive" conflicts over Indigenous land, after a report surfaced saying police were prepared to use snipers on Wet'suwet'en Nation protesters blockading a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C.

In late 2018, Wet'suwet'en members set up checkpoints on a remote stretch of forest service road and a bridge, preventing people working on a pipeline project from accessing their traditional territory, which sits about 300 kilometres west of Prince George, B.C. The nation had previously set up an earlier checkpoint at a different location on the territory in 2009.

More than a dozen people were arrested during the conflict on Jan. 7. 2019.

On Friday, the U.K. newspaper the Guardian published notes from what was described as an RCMP strategy session, stating that RCMP argued for "lethal overwatch" of the site and officers were instructed to use "as much violence toward the gate as you want" in order to remove a roadblock erected by protesters.

CBC News has not seen the documents referred to in the Guardian's report.

"There are a number of very deeply concerning words, phrases and terms used to a situation that is immensely delicate," Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Friday. "This is something that we need to revise as a government and take a look at that, because the terminology is entirely unacceptable."

A report from the Guardian suggests RCMP were prepared to use violence against the protesters. CBC News has not seen the documents cited in the report. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The RCMP falls under federal jurisdiction. Miller said police deployment tactics need to be reviewed "in these very, very sensitive situations."

Ron Mitchell, also known as Wet'suwet'an hereditary chief Hagwilnegh, says he was alarmed by the report. He recalls meeting with the RCMP's Indigenous liaison during the protests.

"I was shocked," he told CBC News. "[The RCMP] assured us that they were there to protect everyone, including us. That was the message we received from them."

Mitchell is calling on RCMP officials to address the matter directly with Wet'suwet'en members. 

"The question that comes to mind is, who are the RCMP working for?" he added. "They weren't nice to our people, especially the elders."

It's a sentiment echoed by Martin Peters, a lawyer representing protesters arrested at the blockade.

Peters said the RCMP acted as "security guards" for Coastal GasLink, the company behind the pipeline. 

"They seem to be acting at the beck and call of this private corporation," he said. 

However, Peters said officers "conducted themselves fairly admirably" during the arrests. 

"They had people screaming and yelling for hours and they did not rise to the bait," he said. "[They] maintained their composure and did their job."

Molly Wickham, a spokesperson for the protesters who was arrested at the site back in January, said in a written statement that the facts reported by the Guardian "reveal the reality of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples protecting our lands and RCMP."

"Here we are, nearly 2020 and we are still being threatened with violence, death, and the removal of our children for simply existing on our lands and following our laws," she wrote in part.

WATCH | RCMP make arrests at the camp:

RCMP make first arrests at Gidimt'en camp

4 years ago
Duration 1:43
RCMP officers climb over a barricade and start making arrests to enforce the Coastal GasLink injunction at the Gidimt'en camp in northern B.C. on Jan. 7, 2019.

Police denied documents

RCMP have not verified the documents that have been referred to in the Guardian report. A spokesperson said they were denied a request to review them.

"We have not had the opportunity to determine in what context any of the alleged statements may have been made or by whom," said RCMP Sgt. Janelle Shoihet in a statement.

"There are a number of terms referenced in the article that are not generally used by the RCMP during operational planning and others that may be used, but in our opinion have been taken out of context — both of which are concerning," she said.

In particular, police said "lethal overwatch" does not necessarily imply that police were prepared to use snipers on protesters, noting that the practice is often used at demonstrations or community parades to ensure public safety.

"Police officers who occupy the position of lethal overwatch are tasked with observing, while other police officers are engaged in other duties which occupy attention," said Shoihet.

Police were ordered to enforce the site after the B.C. Supreme Court issued an injunction order against people interfering with the pipeline.

B.C.'s public safety ministry would not comment on the incident.

Joseph Choken, right, one of the 14 people arrested on Jan. 7, stands with others alongside the forest service road. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

With files from Power and Politics, Anaïs Elboujdaïni and Dominique Arnoldi