‘We are feeling strong’: B.C. pipeline opponents brace for more possible arrests

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SMITHERS, B.C. — Opponents of a natural gas pipeline said they were bracing for further police action Thursday following the arrest of six people near a work site in northern British Columbia.

Speaking from the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre near Houston, Wet’suwet’en member Karla Tait said an RCMP aircraft circled the area at least 10 times Thursday after the pre-dawn arrests were made at another camp up the road.

RCMP are enforcing an expanded injunction granted to Coastal GasLink on Dec. 31.

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Another Wet’suwet’en member reported that a convoy of about three dozen RCMP vehicles, an ambulance and heavy machinery was on the Morice West Forest Service Road heading toward the healing centre.

“It’s intimidating the level of force they’re bringing here to this remote location to face unarmed people who have stated time and time again we are peacefully living on our territory,” Tait said.

“But we are feeling strong, we’re feeling confident, we’re feeling resolute in our position.”

Tait said that when officers arrive, members at the healing centre are planning to uphold the eviction notice issued to the company by the First Nation’s hereditary chiefs who say they haven’t given free, prior or informed consent to the project and it violates Wet’suwet’en law.

RCMP said in a news release that officers entered the first camp just after 4 a.m. and told those present that the area is now part of an exclusion zone, then gave them the option to leave or be arrested for obstruction.

Six people refused to leave and were arrested, including one who also faces a charge of resisting arrest.

“Several individuals, including members of the media, were transferred out for safety reasons but not arrested,” the RCMP said.

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Wet’suwet’en member Jen Wickham, who has been in contact or seen video from people who were at the scene, said officers arrived shouting, “RCMP, stay calm, you have 10 minutes.”

An officer also smashed the window of a vehicle where a supporter was reporting what was happening via a radio inside, Wickham alleges.

Those at the camp were not expecting to be arrested because the site was set up off to the side of the road and was not obstructing road access in any way, Wickham said.

Opponents at a third camp, between the area where arrests occurred and the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, reported that RCMP were clearing obstructions on the road with chainsaws and other equipment Thursday afternoon. But Wickham said she did not receive further communication after they reported the road clearing had stopped.

RCMP said Wednesday that they had delayed enforcing the B.C. Supreme Court injunction for weeks to seek a peaceful resolution, but they had no choice but to follow the court’s orders.

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In an interview following Wednesday’s news conference, British Columbia’s commanding officer said Mounties did not anticipate violence from the pipeline opponents.

Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Strachan met with the hereditary chiefs in the weeks after the injunction was granted and said she believed there was still “good will” between them.

“I feel like the hereditary chiefs are really striving to ensure the safety of their citizens and equally of course ours. So, there’s no fear that there’s violence in front of us, but you go into any situation in a measured approach and you react based on the behaviour before you,” she said.

A “measured approach” is one where the frontline officers making arrest are unarmed but they are backed by armed officers who can intervene if necessary, she said.

Eric Stubbs, assistant commissioner, said the RCMP reviewed and made changes to its logistical procedures following media coverage of arrests related to the same dispute last year. But he said approaching the situation without arms was not one of them.

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“We are in a remote area and we have to make sure that we have the equipment we need to be successful,” Stubbs said.

Also Thursday, hereditary chiefs filed an application for a judicial review of a five-year extension of Coastal GasLink’s environmental assessment certificate, granted by the B.C. government.

Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer said in an open letter Thursday that the company is proud of its broad support from all 20 elected Indigenous governments along the pipeline path and is disappointed that it has not “found a way to work together for the benefit of the Wet’suwet’en people.”

“This is not the outcome we wanted,” Pfeiffer said of the police enforcement of the injunction.

He said the company will move forward with its construction schedule.

“We will continue to search for opportunities for dialogue with the hereditary chiefs and the Unist’ot’en, to search for common ground that accommodates their concerns and benefits the Wet’suwet’en people,” Pfeiffer said.

Enforcement began less than two days after the provincial government and First Nation failed to reach an agreement during talks intended to de-escalate the dispute.

Fourteen people were arrested as RCMP enforced a similar injunction on the forest service road in January 2019. Two people face criminal charges, while the other charges were dropped.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations issued a statement Thursday saying the organization supports the governance and decision-making process of the Wet’suwet’en leaders.

“The RCMP is sworn to uphold Canada’s law, but Canada must respect First Nations laws and Wet’suwet’en laws. Canada’s highest law — the Constitution — affirms in section 35 the inherent rights of First Nations and our right to self-determination.”

— By Amy Smart and Beth Leighton in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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