RCMP cited Standing Rock protests as 'evidence' to create controversial B.C. unit

RCMP used the anti-pipeline resistance at the Standing Rock reservation in 2016 to justify creating a unit in British Columbia to police similar opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, newly released documents show.

Internal documents shine new light on founding of Community-Industry Response Group

A water cannon sprays from an armoured vehicle in the darkness of night.
Police use a water cannon on protesters near Cannon Ball, N.D., in November 2016, during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. (Reuters)

RCMP used the anti-pipeline resistance at the Standing Rock reservation in 2016 to justify creating a unit in British Columbia to police similar opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, newly released documents show.

Internal files, recently released to CBC News through access to information laws, show the RCMP cited the Sioux-led opposition as "supporting evidence" when creating the force's Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG).

Six years later, C-IRG tactical operations on Wet'suwet'en territory in northern B.C. and at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island have sparked nearly 500 complaints and a systemic investigation by the force's civilian review agency.

Then-Insp. Chuck McDonald's proposal, called a "business case," offers the earliest look at why the B.C. RCMP felt it needed the new squad tasked specifically for the Trans Mountain project.

"A protracted and sometimes violent protest and police confrontation occurred in Standing Rock, North Dakota," wrote McDonald in a Jan. 17, 2017, proposal.

"Protesters attempted to physically stop construction; several Canadians attended that protest and have publicly vowed to bring that approach to the KM [Kinder Morgan] expansion."

The Trans Mountain pipeline was owned at the time by the Texas-based energy giant Kinder Morgan, who sold the project to the Canadian government for $4.7 billion in 2018. The expansion would twin an existing pipeline carrying oil from Calgary to Burnaby, B.C. Its estimated cost now tops $30 billion.

The RCMP's concerns about imported tactics from Standing Rock are troubling to one academic, who drew parallels between the documents and security threat assessments about terrorist actions.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that there's a very strong similarity of language there," said David Milward, a member of the Beardy's and Okemasis' Cree Nation and a professor of law with the University of Victoria.

"For the RCMP, it betrays that they view Indigenous people as a threat to be forcibly repressed."

Researcher draws link to Project Sitka

Milward reviewed the 178-page disclosure, which was heavily censored but provides a rough chronology of the unit's creation.

One May 2017 slide attributed to McDonald features pictures of prominent advocates and activists like David Suzuki, while listing "opposition" community groups and First Nations. 

The C-IRG's focus was to be solely the Trans Mountain pipeline, the slide says, before elaborating on the Mounties' approach to profiling the activists involved.

"No need to maintain information on demonstrators/organizers exercising their right to lawful advocacy, protest and dissent," it says, rather only those "who commit criminal acts and show ongoing propensity for criminal acts."

A collage of pictures of protests in black and white.
A May 2017 slide from a briefing on the Community-Industry Response Group discussing protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, features a photo of David Suzuki, left, speaking at a rally. (RCMP)

"I think it's actually a pretty scary development," Milward said of the focus on monitoring. 

"It goes hand in hand with the RCMP's Project Sitka."

In 2015, the RCMP intelligence project dubbed Sitka listed 89 Indigenous rights activists the police considered "a criminal threat to Aboriginal public order events." The project was updated before Trans Mountain's approval.

"They're being encouraged to take so-called preventive measures," Milward said of C-IRG and Sitka.

"It's a pretty scary dive off the slope to preventative repression, but it's targeted specifically towards Indigenous peoples."

Researchers Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan obtained the Sitka report under access to information law from CSIS, Canada's civilian spy agency, for their book Policing Indigenous Movements.

Monaghan said the databanking of information like this comes with risks to civil liberties.

"The risks are tremendous. The oversight is minimal," said Monaghan, an associate professor of criminology at Carleton University.

"No one is really going to find out if their Facebook information is collected."

'Temporary project team'

The C-IRG created operational and strategic policing plans for Trans Mountain later in 2017 and briefed governments in 2018, the files show.

"The C-IRG is a temporary project team that is to exist for the duration of the [Trans Mountain] construction," said a 2018 consultation document for the B.C. government. "Temporary project team" was underlined in the slide.

Activist camps along the route were "closely monitored by C-IRG," the document said. The squad also offered to work on "other, unrelated public order issues," namely "large-scale opposition to prospective LNG projects."

A May 2018 federal briefing where the Mounties outlined concerns about "resource protests" from the previous 25 years, along with the evolution of tactics, was included. Most of the incidents listed had an Indigenous rights element which the RCMP omitted to mention, Monaghan noted.

A slide from a PowerPoint presentation.
A May 3, 2018, briefing for the minister attributed to RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki included this slide on trends in resistance to resource development projects. (RCMP)

Monaghan said the slide could be seen as demonstrating political bias against Indigenous rights activists, particularly through the framing of the standoffs as resource protests rather than land disputes. 

"There is this real implicit valuation of the company's position and the pipelines and devaluation of the land claims," he said. 

"They're never mentioned."

Standing Rock a 'case study,' says RCMP

C-IRG's new commander Supt. Ken Floyd was not available for an interview.

Staff Sgt. Kris Clark, BC RCMP senior media relations officer, said in a statement that RCMP saw Standing Rock "as a case study on the current and evolving tactics used in similar civil disobedience events" that led them to adopt a "measured approach."

Clark said C-IRG officers, due to their training and experience, "quickly became the standard for such operations." 

But the unit's work sparked criticisms of its three main operations in the past six years, which have come with a $50-million cost — 10 times higher than first estimated.

The complaints prompted some, like Shiri Pasternak, associate professor of criminology at Toronto Metropolitan University, to call for the unit's suspension while the investigation and lawsuits play out. 

police officers climb a barricade
RCMP climb a gate at the Gidimt'en camp on Wet'suwet'en territory on Jan. 7, 2019. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

She said the shift from Trans Mountain to resource development in general demonstrates "serious mission drift" by the unit.

"When you have a hammer, all you see is a nail, right?" Pasternak said.

"When [the RCMP] see conflict emerging around these resource sites, the response is criminalization, whereas these are legitimate and significant Indigenous rights."

Asked for a response, Clark's statement said the RCMP takes member conduct seriously and welcomes the review agency's probe.

"We acknowledge that due to the nature of the conflict, with the goal of the protesters to stop continued work, civil litigation or other related tactics are almost inevitable."

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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.