Original Published 09:44 May 18, 2022
By Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In late April, RCMP officers walked into the Gidimt’en Camp near the confluence of Ts’elkay Kwe (Lamprey Creek) and Wedzin Kwa (Morice River). Their visits on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in northwest B.C. had been a daily occurrence, with members of the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group showing up at all hours, including in the middle of the night according to locals.
Sleydo’ Molly Wickham drummed and sang while approaching the police, her young daughter at her heels, according to videos shared to social media. The officers retreated to their vehicles outside the camp, where Coastal GasLink private security maintains an around-the-clock presence.
The RCMP told The Narwhal the purpose of these visits is related to a February incident, during which unidentified individuals chased off Coastal GasLink security workers and vandalized equipment.
“After the violent confrontation against employees of Coastal GasLink on the Marten Forest Service Road on Feb. 17, the RCMP has been concerned for the safety of those in the area and has increased our presence patrolling around the industry camps and other camps along the route, and interacting with people in the area,” Madonna Saunderson, with the RCMP’s media relations team, wrote in an emailed statement.
Wickham is a wing chief in Cas Yikh House of the Gidimt’en Clan and spokesperson for the Gidimt’en checkpoint, which monitors activity on clan territory. She lives on the territory with her family, and on April 22 when she drove home down a dirt and gravel forest service road she said she was followed by RCMP. The next day, she said officers returned to her house and issued her four tickets, including one for having illegible licence plates. Her plates, she explained, were covered in mud from her regular use of the backroads.
While some elected chiefs and councils and Wet’suwet’en members support the Coastal GasLink project, Wickham, other land defenders and their allies say the escalating police activity is a sign of how a private corporation has been able to get RCMP officers to handle its own security needs. Internal correspondence and emails obtained by The Narwhal also show how pipeline company TC Energy provided instructions to the RCMP that made their way to the force’s headquarters in Ottawa.
“It indicates the relationship between the RCMP — C-IRG specifically — and TC Energy, Coastal GasLink employees,” Wickham told The Narwhal in an interview. “On multiple occasions, I have witnessed the RCMP on the ground take direction from Coastal GasLink workers. Their relationship is so close and intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish roles.”
When asked about that relationship, RCMP denied it gives preference to industry.
“The RCMP, including Chief Superintendent Brewer, meet with all stakeholders as and when necessary,” the police force’s media relations team wrote in an email to The Narwhal. “These stakeholders include elected chiefs and council, hereditary leaders, industry stakeholders and all levels of government. No one stakeholder is given preference. Meetings may occur in person, or over the phone or virtually based on availability.”
When asked about the traffic tickets, the RCMP referred The Narwhal to a website that lists traffic violations. But the alleged offences were not immediately posted.
Mark Ruffalo characterized RCMP conduct as ‘psychological terror and warfare’
On April 29, 2022, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued Canada a reprimand for escalating the use of “force, surveillance and criminalization of land defenders.” This is the third time the committee has sent a letter calling out Canada for its complicity in supporting industrial development despite the pleas of First Nations directly impacted by that activity. The committee noted that “numerous Secwepemc and Wet’suwet’en peaceful land defenders have been victims of violent evictions and arbitrary detentions by the RCMP, the [Community-Industry Response Group] and private security personnel” since it flagged its concerns in late 2020.
At a press conference on May 11, 2022, Dinï ze’ (Hereditary Chief) Woos, whose house territory sits at the centre of where RCMP has been patrolling, didn’t mince words when discussing the United Nations rebuke.
“The government of Canada, right now as it stands, is at its highest in hypocrisy,” he said. “They do this and do that for the international stage and yet behind closed doors, in their own backyard, so to speak — our backyard — they continue to push us around, to be ignorant toward our culture. It’s horrendous.”
The international spotlight has led to support from a cadre of concerned celebrities. Actor and activist Mark Ruffalo is leading a charge of prominent Hollywood figures calling on Royal Bank of Canada and its subsidiaries to divest from fossil fuel projects, including the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
Ruffalo and Wickham collaborated on a piece recently published in Rolling Stone that was widely shared on social media platforms and Ruffalo’s tweets about the situation regularly receive thousands of shares. Critics of the celebrity support have called out Ruffalo and others for speaking about an issue they don’t fully understand. For Ruffalo, it’s about human rights.
“What’s happening is very disturbing. We are witnessing the occupation of a people,” he wrote in an email to The Narwhal. “This is a form of psychological terror and warfare. The RCMP in conjunction with the political machine of British Columbia, Coastal GasLink pipeline and Royal Bank of Canada are criminalizing and occupying the lives of this sovereign First Nation.”
“If this was, let’s say, the community in North Vancouver, we would be seeing a very different tactic,” he added. “The only reason this is happening and is allowed to happen is because these people are First Nations people and North America has become inured to these racist policies.”
RCMP maintain that entering the camps is within its jurisdiction.
“These officers are patrolling on public lands to ensure that no one is setting up structures or to impede access through these public lands,” Saunderson wrote. “This is not private property, officers do not enter into structures or tents during the course of these patrols. This is exercising common law authorities to enter public land.”
Prior to raids, TC Energy and LNG Canada urged RCMP to enforce injunction
But in some cases, RCMP action appears to coincide with lobbying by private industry stakeholders such as TC Energy, which is building the pipeline, and LNG Canada, which needs the pipeline built to ensure that a new fossil fuel export facility in Kitimat is profitable.
The multibillion dollar Coastal GasLink project has been mired in delays with both companies locked in a dispute over who will pay for significant cost overruns.
Both companies sent separate letters to senior RCMP officials in early November, according to private correspondence obtained by The Narwhal through freedom of information legislation.
TC Energy’s Kent Wilfur, a vice president of Coastal GasLink, wrote to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki and RCMP Chief Superintendent John Brewer on Nov. 2. Brewer is the gold commander of a special RCMP unit that was created in 2017, the Community-Industry Response Group, to support resource companies.
In the letter, Wilfur said the police force was “not enforcing the injunction” and stated that lack of action is “contrary to upholding the rule of law.”
The injunction he referred to was issued by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church in December, 2019, which replaced a temporary injunction first issued in late 2018. It prohibits anyone blocking or impeding work on the 670-kilometre pipeline, which would connect fracked gas sources in northeast B.C. to the LNG Canada liquefaction and export facility currently under construction on the northwest coast.
Wilfur singled out Wickham in his letter, noting that she “has been arrested in the past for breaching the injunction as a result of the unlawful activities.”
“As was first communicated to you on September 25, 2021, Ms. Wickham and a number of other blockaders, including several who are known to the RCMP, occupied the Marten Forest Service Road (Marten FSR) and the Morice River Crossing drill site located where the Marten FSR intersects the [pipeline] right of way.”
Wilfur went on to note that the injunction order “contains enforcement provisions compelling the RCMP to enforce the injunction.”
While it is true the injunction order explicitly includes enforcement provisions, it also notes police “retain discretion as to timing and manner of enforcement.” It specifically advises discretion around “timing and manner of arrest and removal of any person pursuant to this order.”
Wilfur concluded: “We are left with very little recourse but to make an application to the court to have direction provided to the RCMP to enforce, so that we may resume work on this critical aspect to our project.”
“The courts can’t instruct police to enforce,” Jeffrey Monaghan, associate professor at Carleton’s Institute for Criminology and Criminal Justice, told The Narwhal in an interview. “The company just has no clue what they’re talking about.”
Yet Brewer flagged the company’s intent to have the court intervene in an email to Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs and Deputy Commissioner Dwayne McDonald in an email he sent on Nov. 3.
“Police do not have to enforce these injunctions — they have discretion to be able to enforce injunctions, they don’t have to do it,” Monaghan emphasized. “The police are choosing to enforce these injunctions. They go all in, SWAT team, Oka-style. Police are making those decisions and those decisions are very closely aligned with the interests of the companies.”
The letter from TC Energy stressed its position that its work is “lawful and permitted” and the actions of opponents to the project were preventing its “critical” work on micro-tunneling under the river.
LNG Canada’s former chief executive officer, Peter Zebedee also urged RCMP officials to enforce the injunction in his own letter, sent on Nov. 10, 2021.
Zebedee noted the export facility would be a “major driver of positive social and economic benefits” and delays to the pipeline would have a “knock-on impact to the start-up and operations of the LNG Canada project.”
“LNG Canada has signed agreements with five First Nations in the vicinity of the LNG Canada project, and [Coastal GasLink] has obtained agreements with the 20 First Nations along the pipeline route,” as spokesperson for the company told The Narwhal in an emailed statement, noting the project has awarded $3.7 billion in contracts as of February, 2022. Of that amount, $2.9 billion was awarded to First Nations-owned businesses and local businesses.
“LNG Canada respects the rights of individuals to peacefully express their points-of-view, as long as their activities do not jeopardize people’s safety and are within the law,” the spokesperson wrote. “We also respect the rights of the 20 First Nations along the pipeline right-of-way, their councils and their nations who have put in considerable effort and due diligence to come to a decision to support LNG development in B.C. and have signed project and benefits agreements with [Coastal GasLink].”
‘Quixotic love triangle’ between province, Coastal GasLink and RCMP
Wickham said she’s not surprised Coastal GasLink is singling her out. She told The Narwhal the company’s lawyers have referred to her as the “protest leader,” which she said “speaks to their inability to comprehend the ways that we make decisions and the way that we do our work as Wet’suwet’en houses and clans.”
“They’re lacking the understanding that this is about Wet’suwet’en sovereignty and title and not just about one individual.”
She explained that she is a spokesperson for the checkpoint and does not speak on behalf of the nation or clan.
“I think it was very clear during the arrests and raids that they were targeting me because they arrested my husband and called him Cody ‘Wickham’ — when that’s not his name. They knew exactly who he was. They illegally arrested him and put him in jail for four days.”
Wickham’s husband, Cody Merriman, was arrested on the afternoon of Nov. 19. At the time of arrest, he was standing at a junction between the Morice River road and another forest service road that leads to his home.
TC Energy did not answer questions about why they decided to note the presence of Wickham in communications to the RCMP, noting “there are a number of matters before the courts and an active criminal investigation underway.”
“At Coastal GasLink, nothing matters more than the safety of our people and the public, including those who oppose this project. We will never compromise on safety,” the company wrote in a statement emailed to The Narwhal.
“Coastal GasLink had serious concerns about escalating protester actions in 2021 threatening our workers and our work in contravention of a court order. These actions included blockades, acts of vandalism, threats of violence to people and property, which ultimately led to a number of individuals being arrested.”
TC Energy also stressed that its work is “lawful, authorized, fully permitted, and has received unprecedented support from all 20 elected Indigenous communities along our project corridor,” adding that it recently signed equity option agreements with 16 of those elected First Nations.
But Wickham suggested it was misguided for the company to target her in its communications with police.
“In 2020, there was huge resistance to the project and I was nowhere to be found behind the blockades. I was eight months pregnant.”
She added that it’s obvious that the RCMP is giving the pipeline company preferential treatment.
“The other day, as an example of this collusion, the Forsythe security was instructing the RCMP officer how to get to my home,” she said at the press conference. “They have regular meetings right outside of Gidimt’en checkpoint, where they’re sharing information with one another.”
Forsythe is a private security force that works with fossil fuel companies, led by a former RCMP officer, Warren Forsythe. It is unclear whether there are multiple security companies working for Coastal GasLink and who is on site at any given time. It is also unclear what information the company is gathering, what it does with that information and how much is shared with RCMP or what the RCMP shares with private security personnel.
Shiri Pasternak, co-founder of the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led research organization, and an assistant professor in criminology at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University), described the connections between police, government and industry as “an astonishing kind of corruption and malfeasance by the B.C. government.”
“There is a quixotic love triangle between [Coastal GasLink], RCMP and the B.C. provincial government,” she told The Narwhal in an email.
“There’s so much mystery to unpack about the authorization of the pipeline and the way that they’ve been positioning the Hereditary Chiefs as having no authority. That’s totally contradicting B.C.’s negotiations over land claims with the Hereditary Chiefs for a period of decades.”
Land defenders face possibility of criminal charges
The November raids garnered international attention, in part because along with dozens of land defenders the RCMP also arrested and incarcerated photojournalist Amber Bracken and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano.
For Pasternak, that attention is simply a by-product of the real issue at play.
“The political risk for Indigenous people of exercising their inherent rights on their own lands is the reason why journalists are being arrested,” she explained. “It’s the collateral damage of the denial of Indigenous Rights.”
“What used to be done outside the eyes of the good, decent and caring people of Canada is now happening under the cool light of a video camera with the press in attendance,” he said.
“But the world is watching and history will see this no differently than Wounded Knee or the boarding schools of oppression and despair. It’s all part and parcel of the same mentality and it is time for it to end and for mankind to move away from this savage brutality and inequality.”
Both Bracken and Toledano approached the media spotlight with the same focus, always driving interviews back to the reason why they were there in the first place: to document Indigenous land defenders as they stood up for their rights in the face of government-sanctioned industrial development and police intervention.
Charges against Bracken and Toledano were dropped in December but 27 land defenders and community members — including Wickham and Merriman — still face charges of civil contempt. In a brief hearing on April 13, Coastal GasLink lawyers petitioned the courts to have Crown lawyers intervene and escalate the charges to criminal contempt. On June 1, the B.C. Prosecution Service will decide whether it is in the public interest to step in and pursue criminal litigation.
“Every time that I’ve been arrested, every time that I’ve seen guns and canine units coming at us, we’re standing in our strength and our power under Wet’suwet’en law,” Wickham said. “And that is what we will continue to do.”
“This is our livelihoods that we’re talking about. This is the livelihoods of everybody downstream. This is the livelihoods of so many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. We, under our law, are required to protect that by any means necessary.”
— With files from Mike De Souza
This item reprinted with permission from The Narwhal, Victoria, British Columbia