RCMP arrest 14, clear road on Wet'suwet'en territory in ongoing dispute over land rights, pipeline
Hereditary chief issues 11th-hour call for talks around title and rights with prime minister and B.C. premier
The RCMP says it arrested 14 people and cleared a forest service road in northern British Columbia that was barricaded by a crushed van and another vehicle that was set on fire by Wet'suwet'en and Haudenosaunee members opposing construction of a multi-billion dollar natural gas pipeline.
The remote logging road begins just west of Houston, 1,000 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, and is an old battleground.
Thursday's move by the RCMP marks the third time it has launched operations on this road against barricades erected by supporters of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. They say the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline does not have consent to cross Wet'suwet'en territory. The RCMP raided here in 2019 and 2020.
One resistance camp — dubbed Coyote camp — still remains, occupying a site slated to be used by CGL crews to drill the pipeline beneath the Wedzin Kwa river.
The RCMP said in a statement the 14 individuals were arrested for breaching an injunction in place since 2019 preventing any obstruction on the road. They are being held overnight and are scheduled to appear in court Friday morning, the statement said.
No names were released.
Camp remains to protect river
The RCMP statement characterizes the operation as a rescue effort for 500 workers in two CGL camps.
CGL and the RCMP said the barricades severed the only ground supply route for the work camps who were forced to ration water.
"It was no longer possible to delay our efforts to rescue the workers," Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs said in the statement.
"As such, our enforcement operation had to proceed immediately."
The pipeline resistance made its move to block the road this past weekend, demanding CGL leave the territory and dropping a crushed van across the entrance to a key bridge.
The RCMP statement said a bulldozer was buried in a trench on the other side of the bridge. Two disabled escavators and a flaming vehicle were also cleared off the road, the statement said.
Molly Wickham, also known as Sleydo', a Gidimt'en Clan member, told CBC News in a phone interview that police arrested 15 people, including two Wet'suwet'en elders, three legal observers and a journalist.
Wickham also said the RCMP brought a canine team to the raid.
The RCMP statement said police encountered two elderly people with medical concerns related to heart conditions and they were treated on site and transported out as a precaution. The statement said police did have a canine unit on site.
Wickham told CBC News that Coyote Camp, which is on the occupied drill pad site, still stands and the remaining group plans to stay and protect the river from drilling work.
"Drilling under the headwaters would be disastrous for our drinking water. We currently drink right out of the river," said Wickham. "Protecting the river is critical to our livelihood."
She said the waters are also spawning grounds for salmon.
"It is definitely a vulnerable position considering how many RCMP there are," said Wickham.
"They came with intent and the ability to kill people and seriously harm people. There is a huge level of risk and not knowing what is going to happen.… It will be interesting to see how the rest of so-called Canada reacts to this kind of invasion, once again."
'Need to make these stands'
The current events were set in motion in September when Gidimt'en Hereditary Chief Dini ze' Woos led an occupation of the CGL drill pad site. A cabin, tents and fortifications went up on the site and red Mohawk warrior flags were hung from the heavy machinery.
"They didn't consult with us. They said they were going to drill under this river," said Woos, according to a video from a ceremony at the site provided to CBC News.
"That is not going to happen."
CGL said in a statement at 3:15 p.m. PT on Thursday that the RCMP had cleared the main forestry road of barricades.
One of the individuals arrested was Skyler Williams, from Six Nations, according to Wickham.
Williams, who had been in Wet'suwet'en for about two weeks, is a spokesperson for the 1492 Land Back Lane movement, which weathered an Ontario Provincial Police raid and forced the cancellation of a housing development in Caledonia, Ont., this year.
"There is nothing that these courts and cops with injunctions can do to deter, to slow the amount of strength that is behind our people when it comes to the connection with these lands, these waters and most certainly to each other," Williams told CBC News, early Wednesday, before his arrest.
The RCMP flew in an unknown number of officers to nearby Smithers on a charter Wednesday. Early Thursday morning, police moved onto the road accompanied by heavy machinery to take back the road, clear camps and an occupied drill pad site.
'We are open to a dialogue'
In a video statement issued Wednesday, Gidimt'en Hereditary Chief Dini ze' Woos called for a meeting of hereditary chiefs, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan.
"We are open to a dialogue," said Woos.
The Wet'suwet'en lines this time were bolstered by several Haudenosaunee members from Six Nations territory, which sits near Hamilton, and Akwesasne, which straddles the Canada-U.S. border about 120 kilometres west of Montreal.
The $6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline — which is owned by TC Energy — is a key piece of a $40-billion liquified natural gas export terminal project — which is said to be the largest private-sector investment in Canadian history.
The pipeline would feed natural gas from the area of Dawson Creek, B.C., to a liquified natural gas terminal in Kitimat, along the B.C. coast on Haisla Nation territory for export through the Douglas Channel to Asian markets.
The terminal is a joint venture called LNG Canada involving Royal Dutch Shell, Mitsubishi Corp., Petronas, PetroChina Co. and Korean Gas Corp.
Coastal GasLink has signed deals with 20 First Nation elected band councils along the pipeline route, including from Wet'suwet'en territory.
Band council condemns pipeline resistance
One of those band councils, from Wet'suwet'en First Nation, issued a statement Wednesday condemning the ongoing pipeline resistance.
The statement said Wet'suwet'en communities are mourning the deaths of a number of elders from COVID-19. It said community members are also grappling with the fallout from the devastation wrought by landslides and flooding in large swaths of the interior and southern parts of the province.
"The actions of a few members of the Gidimt'en Clan who claim to evict Coastal GasLink and the RCMP from the headwaters of the Morice River (Wedzin Kwa in our language) do not represent the collective views of the clan or of most Wet'suwet;en people," said the statement from Chief Maureen Luggi and councillors Karen Ogen and Heather Nooski.
"Even though we are also members of the Gidimt'en Clan, the protesters … have never consulted us about their actions and cannot claim to represent us or any members of the First Nation."
However, the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs say those band councils are only responsible for the territory within their individual reserves because their authority comes only from the Indian Act.
The hereditary chiefs — who are the leaders of the nation's governance system in place before the imposition of the Indian Act — assert authority over 22,000 square kilometres of the nation's traditional territory, an area recognized as unceded by the Supreme Court of Canada in a 1997 decision.
The 2019 and 2020 actions and ongoing operations to March 2021 have cost the B.C. government about $20 million, according to records.
The RCMP spent about $13 million in 2019 and 2020, according to records obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.
RCMP use helicopter, drone
The Mounties have since spent an additional $5.8 million up to March 2021, according to records first obtained by the Tyee online news organization.
RCMP body cam video, helicopter footage and notes from the 2019 first raid obtained by CBC News reveal the scope, scale and intensity of operations against fortified Wet'suwet'en positions along the forestry road.
In 2019, the RCMP deployed about 51 members, including an emergency response team (ERT) unit, 20 vehicles, a helicopter and drone, according to police notes.
The use of "lethal overwatch" during the operation is mentioned twice in notes and reports obtained by CBC News.
The RCMP has said the use of lethal overwatch, or "sniper observers," which are part of the ERT units, are used as lookouts, "while other police officers are engaged in other duties which occupy attention." The RCMP has said it does not imply plans to use snipers to shoot anyone.
The notes also show the RCMP has dogs and pepper spray in its arsenal for potential use, both of which were considered during the 2019 raid.
RCMP helicopter footage shows the vastness of the terrain, framed by heavy bush, that police need to secure. The helicopter circled several kilometres of road, capturing images of demonstrators felling trees to impede travel and setting fires along the forestry road.
The 2020 raid triggered waves of protest across the country, including on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory, where community members blocked a key rail link between Montreal and Toronto for several weeks.
The federal and B.C. governments then agreed to enter into discussions with hereditary chiefs on the unresolved issues around title and rights on their territory. But those talks have yet to come to any solid solutions.
This time, Molly Wickham said the opposition won't back down on the ground.
"Our ancestors have died for hundreds of years since contact, and thousands of years before that, to defend our land," she said.
"And that's a responsibility from our ancestors that we carry with us."