Indigenous

Watchdog 'exploring options' to address systemic issues raised about RCMP unit in B.C.

The RCMP’s watchdog says it's weighing options after receiving nearly hundreds of complaints about a unit tasked with policing resistance to British Columbia’s major resource extraction projects.

Complaints commission says it’s aware the filing of hundreds of grievances raises questions

RCMP officers deployed by the Community-Industry Response Group enforce an injunction in Wet'suwet'en territory in 2019. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The RCMP's federal watchdog agency is weighing its options after receiving nearly 500 formal complaints about a unit tasked with policing resistance to major resource extraction projects in British Columbia.

More than 100 grievances accepted for investigation contain allegations of excessive force, illegal tactics, unprofessional behaviour, racism, discrimination and charter violations by the force's Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG).

The complaints contain unproven allegations and were released by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) with names, genders and identifying information censored following an access-to-information request by CBC News.

"The CRCC is aware of the systemic issues raised by many of these complaints and is exploring options to determine how best to address these issues within our mandate," said CRCC communications director Kate McDerby in a statement last week.

Michelaine Lahaie sits and speaks as part of a roundtable  discussion.
Michelaine Lahaie, chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, in Dartmouth, N.S. on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The CRCC is mandated by Parliament to ensure fair and impartial handling of public grievances against the RCMP.

The watchdog receives complaints, refers them to the Mounties for investigation, then reviews those investigations if complainants aren't satisfied.

It's an independent agency that can, if it's in the public interest, initiate systemic investigations into RCMP activities to ensure they obey the law, regulation, ministerial direction or RCMP policy and procedure.

The CRCC offered the statement in response to a comment from Chief Supt. John Brewer, the Mountie in charge of the C-IRG, who told CBC News the watchdog is happy with how his unit investigates complaints.

"I'm satisfied, certainly, when there's allegations against members, that they are fulsomely investigated," Brewer said. 

Statistics provided by the CRCC show the commission so far issued one satisfied report in a review of a complaint investigation and is waiting for the RCMP to probe a backlog of 79 outstanding complaints relating to the C-IRG. 

'I was in extreme pain'

Brewer was responding to an internal accounting obtained by CBC News showing his unit spent nearly $50 million on its operations in its five-year existence. 

He suggested the misconduct allegations often come from activists upset about being arrested or citizens who find the use of force, authorized by court-ordered injunctions, unpleasant.

"I'm aware of allegations made against C-IRG of breaking legs, breaking bones, and when we do the follow up on that, it turns out to be false," Brewer said.

One complainant alleges Mounties, with their name tags and regimental numbers removed, broke their thumb during an arrest at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island on Sept. 9, 2021.

"He twisted and I felt the bones snap. I was in extreme pain," wrote the complainant, saying they later visited a hospital for X-rays, which were emailed to the CRCC but redacted for privacy reasons. 

"I was told I had an extreme fracture of the bones in between my thumb knuckles. The bone was broken into three wedge-shaped pieces."

Brewer's C-IRG deployed to Fairy Creek in 2021 to enforce an injunction prohibiting protesters from blockading old-growth logging operations. 

Complaint calls pepper spraying 'absolute misconduct'

Most of the complaints stem from this operation, with allegations about exclusion zones, unsafe protester extractions, arbitrary detention, excessive force, intrusive searches, aggression, destruction of property, dishonesty, neglect of duty and more.

"Witnessing the blatant abuse of power was shocking and disgusting. I'm not sure if I can ever trust police again," reads one complaint.

In most complaints, the officers were rendered anonymous by the removal of name tags, which Brewer said he ordered because Mounties were being harassed online. 

Several Fairy Creek complaints mention an incident where a C-IRG unit pepper-sprayed a group of protesters who adopted a "blob" formation to block a road. Video shows Mounties pulling COVID-19 masks off protesters' faces while pepper spray is being used.

"I believe using pepper spray on a crowd of peaceful citizens is absolute misconduct. It is violent abuse," reads one complaint about the incident.

"It is the brutalization of people exercising their right to peaceful protest under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom."

The complaints continue in this manner for more than 800 pages.

Responding to accusations of bad behaviour at Fairy Creek, Brewer defended the team and its members. He said the operation, one of the most complex and largest he ever commanded, was a success

"We only engage with protesters and make arrests when protests are not lawful, peaceful and safe," Brewer said.

"We made over 1,200 arrests at Fairy Creek without a serious injury to any protesters. I'm actually proud of that."

The C-IRG was founded in 2017 and tasked with countering protests tied to construction of the Trans Mountain expansion and Coastal GasLink pipeline projects.

The multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects have provincial and federal government authorizations and signed benefit agreements with elected First Nations councils.

But both projects face resistance from some First Nations hereditary leaders and activists who dispute the elected councils' jurisdiction over unceded territory.

Those two operations sparked complaints against Brewer's unit, too, raising allegations of intrusive surveillance and improper arrest.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

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