RCMP spent more than $13M on policing Coastal GasLink conflict on Wet'suwet'en territory
Hereditary chief calls expenditures a 'tremendous waste of money'
The cost of policing the Coastal GasLink pipeline conflict in northern B.C. between January 2019 and March 2020 was more than $13 million, according to documents obtained by CBC News.
For almost two years the RCMP have maintained a near constant presence on the Morice Forest Service Road about 300 kilometres west of Prince George, B.C. — a remote logging road through the heart of the Wet'suwet'en Nation's traditional territory — to uphold a B.C. Supreme Court injunction first granted to Coastal GasLink in December 2018.
The 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline is part of an estimated $40 billion dollar natural gas project — touted as the largest private sector investment in Canadian history.
RCMP have completed two major enforcement operations against members of the Wet'suwet'en nation and their supporters after they refused to clear the road to allow the company through. The first enforcement operation happened in January 2019 after Coastal GasLink secured an interim injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court and the second took place in February 2020, weeks after a subsequent court ruling in which the company was granted an interlocutory injunction.
According to documents obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, the cost to the RCMP on the Coastal GasLink file for the last two fiscal years was $13.1 million: $3.6 million for the fiscal year 2018/2019 and $9.5 million in 2019/2020.
Dozens of people were arrested in the two operations, mainly for alleged injunction violations. No criminal charges were laid and Coastal GasLink dropped its pursuit of further civil contempt proceedings.
Hereditary chief says police response excessive
Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Na'moks said the police costs on the file were "a tremendous waste of money." He said he'd like someone to take responsibility for the amount of force the RCMP brought to the territory to enforce an injunction against unarmed people.
"I don't think people realize how intense it was up here," he said.
Prior to the enforcement operation in February 2020, RCMP said they were taking a measured approach to enforcement "that has included over five weeks of discussions with the affected parties," RCMP Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs wrote in a news release at the time.
He wrote that if people refused to abide by the injunction voluntarily, arrests would be made using minimal force. The RCMP said its response would be influenced by the remoteness of the location and hazards in the area.
The enforcement began with a pre-dawn raid at an encampment set up alongside the forest service road, to "remove those whose presence would interfere with the lawful execution of duties," said the RCMP on Feb. 6.
"It's a whole damn army up there," said Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Woos on the day of the first arrests.
"They've got guns on, they've got tactical gear on. They look like they're ready for war."
Enforcement actions continued for days as the RCMP moved down the road, kilometre-by-kilometre, dismantling fortified checkpoints and making arrests.
Na'moks said he thinks the RCMP "flexed their muscles when there was no need for it" and that the resources they brought to his territory were excessive.
Resources seen during enforcement actions included heavily armed tactical teams, division liaison personnel, regular uniformed officers, canine units, helicopters, drones and snowmobiles.
"I'm just amazed that that type of force can be shown. Look at Nova Scotia right now, where are the RCMP there? People's vehicles are being burned, factories are getting burnt, boats are being attacked, people are being attacked," said Na'moks in reference to recent incidents of violence experienced by Mi'kmaw fishermen over the Sipekne'katik First Nation's lobster fishery.
Outside of the major enforcement activities, RCMP have been operating a remote detachment on the forest service road, first established in early 2019 and remaining in place today.
A cost breakdown from the RCMP Coastal GasLink file for the 2019/2020 fiscal year shows personnel have accounted for the highest proportion of costs, followed by $2 million spent on rentals and $1.5 million spent on transportation and communications.
RCMP enforcement role written into court decisions
The RCMP were empowered to enforce the injunction based on enforcement orders written into the court decisions.
The injunction ordered the defendants to stop blocking access on the Morice Forest Service Road, saying the company had all the necessary permits and approvals to proceed with construction. It also noted disagreement within the Wet'suwet'en Nation about the pipeline and that 20 First Nations elected councils had signed benefit agreements with the company, including five of six bands within the Wet'suwet'en Nation.
Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs continued to assert Wet'suwet'en law, stating the company and its contractors lacked the consent from the hereditary chiefs to build a pipeline through their traditional territory. 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 Wet'suwet'en traditional territory, an area recognized as unceded by the Supreme Court of Canada in a 1997 decision.
The B.C. Supreme Court decision didn't make any decision with respect to the relevance of Wet'suwet'en law in the conflict.
"This is not the venue for that analysis and those are issues that must be determined at trial," wrote Justice Marguerite Church.
With enforcement orders in place, the B.C. government said it would be up to the RCMP to decide how and when to move forward with enforcement actions.
But the province does have to make sure police have enough resources "to maintain public safety, including enforcement of court orders," wrote a public affairs officer from the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety in a statement to CBC News.
That's part of B.C.'s Provincial Police Service Agreement, which enables the RCMP to ask for additional resources in urgent matters where local police don't have the capacity to fully respond.
Correspondence between B.C.'s then-Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and RCMP Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Strachan show in late January 2020 the province authorized a "redeployment of resources… to the extent necessary to maintain law and order, and to ensure the safety of persons, property, and communities in the area."
The province did not respond to a question from CBC News about whether a similar authorization was made with respect to the first enforcement operation.
The RCMP said it could not provide any further details related to costs and declined a request for an interview. A spokesperson said the RCMP plan to discuss concerns that have been raised directly with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs but that those plans have been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Na'moks also questions what other costs have been incurred through the conflict — the costs to democracy in Canada and Indigenous rights.
"They wanted to make us quiet, go sit in the corner, be quiet, because this [pipeline] is going to happen anyway," he said.
"No, those days are over."
Construction on the Coastal GasLink pipeline continues. Work related to a memorandum of understanding on title negotiations signed between the Wets'weut'en hereditary chiefs, Canada and B.C. is ongoing.
A judicial review decision is pending from the B.C. Supreme Court in which the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs applied to quash the renewal of Coastal GasLink's environmental assessment certificate.