Indigenous

No criminal charges for people arrested during injunction enforcement on Wet'suwet'en territory

The B.C. Prosecution Service has announced it will not be laying criminal charges against any of the people arrested by the RCMP during enforcement of the Coastal GasLink injunction in northern B.C. in February. 

Crown Counsel announces it will not pursue criminal contempt charges

Sabina Dennis is arrested by RCMP during the first wave of arrests in the February enforcement of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline injunction. (Jesse Winter/VICE)

The B.C. Prosecution Service has announced it will not be laying criminal charges against any of the people arrested by the RCMP during enforcement of the Coastal GasLink injunction in northern B.C. in February. 

In announcing that Crown was not moving forward with criminal contempt charges, Coastal GasLink lawyer Carrie Kaukinen told the court her client would follow the Crown's lead and end its civil contempt proceedings.

Justice Marguerite Church said Friday's case conference would mark the end of contempt proceedings. 

"I am of the view that in light of the submissions I've heard today that the public interest does not lend itself to further contempt proceedings," she said. 

At the same time, she noted the seriousness of the matters they were discussing. 

"Court orders, particularly such as the one in this case, uphold the rule of law and allegations with respect to breach of those court orders are serious matters," she said. 

The injunction arrests in Wet'suwet'en territory happened over a span of five days, sparking protests and blockades across the country by those who were showing solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Nation who continue to oppose the pipeline project. 

The court granted Coastal GasLink an injunction on Dec. 31, 2019 and instructed named defendants and others they could not block or impede the roadway or prevent the company and contractors from doing work in the area. 

RCMP made arrests at four different sites along the Morice Forest Service Road, ending at the Unist'ot'en Healing Centre at the road's 66 kilometre mark.

A total of 28 people were arrested but only 22 had files sent to Crown Counsel for criminal contempt consideration, according to Crown Prosecutor Trevor Shaw. 

RCMP are seen pulling an arrestee out of the warming centre area on Saturday, Feb. 8. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

The Unist'ot'en Camp posted a statement on social media expressing relief.

Wets'uwet'en hereditary chiefs oppose the pipeline being built through the Nation's traditional territory and have stated that entering the territory without their consent is a violation of Wet'suwet'en trespass law. 

"Protecting my territory is not criminal," Freda Huson, Chief Howilhkat of Unist'ot'en, was quoted in the statement.

She was among those arrested outside the healing centre on the last day of the RCMP's enforcement operation.

"Industry and government is criminal for breaking all the environmental laws. They're the ones that should be charged."

The Unist'ot'en Camp statement said there are many other people who were arrested at solidarity actions across the country who still face charges that aren't related to the Coastal GasLink injunction. More than 100 people were arrested at blockades and other sites of protest across Canada. 

"We are forever grateful for the solidarity and support from our relatives and allies," the post stated. 

Factors in not laying charges

Shaw said factors that went into the B.C. Prosecution Service making the decision not to proceed with criminal contempt charges included no further breaches of the injunction being reported to police since February and "the absence of violence when the individuals were arrested."

The B.C. Prosecution Service also factored in the memorandum of understanding agreed to by Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, the province of B.C. and Canada. 

Shaw said there was no evidence found by police that linked those who were arrested with the damage to a bridge on the Morice Forest Service Road or the "dangerous devices placed in the area." 

However, in its filing to the court, the B.C. Prosecution Service wrote "should further evidence come forward about dangerous conduct, potential liability under s. 247 (traps likely to cause bodily harm) or other provisions of the Criminal Code could be considered." 

Chief Madeek (Jeff Brown), front left, hereditary leader of the Gidimt'en clan, and Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Namoks (John Ridsdale), front right, carry a flag while leading a solidarity march after Indigenous nations and supporters gathered for a meeting to show support for the Wet'suwet'en Nation, in Smithers, B.C., on Wednesday January 16, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Martin Peters, the lawyer for 27 of the people arrested, said he was pleased by the outcome from the case conference on Friday.

He said one of the important pieces touched upon in court was the ongoing process between Canada, B.C. and the Wet'suwet'en regarding the Nation's rights and title. 

"I have to believe that this will add to reconciliation and hopefully a negotiated result all around, including the matter of the pipeline," he said.  

While contempt proceedings have now concluded, the Coastal GasLink injunction remains in place and construction of the natural gas pipeline is ongoing.

Peters said the opposition of his clients to that construction remains.

"As to the manner of which that opposition goes forward, is really in their hands."

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