Original Published 08:54 May 12, 2022

By Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The images are familiar now, iconic even: Heavily armed RCMP officers use an axe and a chainsaw to break down the  door of a tiny house. 

Indigenous land defenders, their faces  marked with red handprints to symbolize Missing and Murdered Indigenous  Women and Girls, stand inside with arms raised as police aim  high-calibre rifles at them. 

Days later, after enduring what has been  described as petty and punitive treatment in holding cells, they emerge  from the courts exhausted, no sign of the hair braids they carefully  tied with strands of plastic wrap seconded from microwaved meals because  the releasing officers demanded they “return police property.”

When RCMP conducted its November 2021  raids on the Wet’suwet’en reoccupation of the nation’s unceded territory  — which blocked access to Coastal GasLink  pipeline worksites — the world watched. Tensions between industry and  Indigenous people in the region flared into a conflict and B.C. opted  for the third time to resolve it by deploying a paramilitary-style  police operation.

Land defenders blocked the road into the territory on Nov. 14, after 50 days of occupying a site near  where the company plans to drill under the Wedzin Kwa (Morice River.)  Workers were issued an evacuation order and given 10 hours to leave. But  only a handful left — in part because not all of them were told of the  evacuation order, according to reporting by The Tyee.  Approximately 500 employees and subcontractors were stranded at work  camps deep on the territory, a detail which would be cited as a catalyst  for police action with the RCMP and provincial government  characterizing the operation as a “rescue mission.”

Senior RCMP officials had discussions with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs — who never consented to the  pipeline — about convening a “summit meeting” to resolve the situation.

According to documents obtained by The  Narwhal through freedom of information legislation, B.C. RCMP Assistant  Commissioner Eric Stubbs wrote an email early on Nov. 16 to the Office  of the Wet’suwet’en — an administrative body which represents the  Hereditary Chiefs — as a follow-up to a discussion he’d had with its  executive director, Debbie Pierre, the night before.

“I hope the Wet’suwet’en communities  continue to recover from the recent COVID outbreaks,” he wrote, noting  their evening phone call as well as recent “very positive discussions”  he’d had with Chief Woos, whose house territory sits at the centre of  the dispute. 

Then he changes his tone. 

“However, the actions of the land  defenders on Sunday that has closed off the Morice Forest Service Road  has caused a number of concerns related to public safety.” He concludes,  “It would be difficult to for [sic] a summit meeting to occur with the  RCMP if the road remains closed.”

Two hours later, he forwarded his email to  Wayne Rideout, assistant deputy minister and director of police  services with B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety & Solicitor General.  “It occurred to me that it’s important to formally request in writing to  the Wet’suwet’en to open up the road prior to enforcement,” he wrote.  “I don’t expect much of a timely response.”

Senior RCMP officials discussed meeting with Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, but had already approved raids

By the time Stubbs was in conversation  with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en on Nov. 15, the RCMP’s  Community-Industry Response Group, a special unit set up in 2017 to  police protests of industrial projects in B.C., had already received  approval to deploy resources to conduct the raids, the documents show.  Ward Lymburner, a former police officer and senior official with B.C.’s  public safety ministry, confirmed authorization to John Brewer, the  unit’s gold commander, at 11:33 a.m. that day.

Dinï ze’ (Hereditary Chief) Na’moks told  The Narwhal the chiefs were actively working towards meeting with RCMP  and representatives of the federal and provincial governments.

“We were talking with full intentions of  doing this meeting and then they sent an invasion — their decisions had  already been made,” he said in an interview.

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), said the content and tone of the message is coercive. 

“On the surface of it, it seems like a  form of blackmail, an ultimatum that the RCMP will refuse to meet with  the Office of the Wet’suwet’en unless the Office of the Wet’suwet’en  play a role in removing the blockade on the forestry road,” she told The  Narwhal in an interview.

Stubbs denied the allegation.

“For a number of years, I and others on my  team have been actively involved in both in-person meetings, Zoom  meetings and/or phone conversations with a goal to find resolutions that  would eliminate the need for enforcement,” he wrote in an email to The  Narwhal. 

“The difference with the breach of the  court injunction in November 2021 was the safety and well being of the  workers in the camp that couldn’t leave.” 

He explained that coordinating a meeting  “would have taken time to organize as there are other parties involved  in this matter along with the Hereditary Chiefs. It was not likely to  occur in a timely manner that would address the urgency related to the  workers that were trapped.”

Stubbs declined to share the nature and content of his phone discussions with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en. 

Na’moks said he and other chiefs were  finalizing the agenda of the proposed meeting on Nov. 17 when the first  flight of tactical unit officers arrived on the territory.

“We went in there with full trust and  faith and there was no faith or trust given on the side of the RCMP,  B.C. and Canada,” he said. “Blackmail, intimidation, psychological  warfare, armed forces — which is an invasion — is all in their  playbook.”

“It simply is whatever is needed to remove us from our lands, to allow this pipeline and to poison our river and  kill our salmon, trample our Rights and Title — our human rights,” he  continued,  noting the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group, also  known as C-IRG, seems to act with impunity.

The RCMP has also been criticized for  restricting access to journalists during operations that involve  disputes over Indigenous Rights issues. Critics, such as the Canadian  Association of Journalists, have said this makes it harder for  journalists to document what is happening and ensure that members of the  public are informed.

“They’ve been given this overall rubber stamp,” Na’moks said. “C-IRG wasn’t created out of nothing, it was to  protect industry and trample on human rights and Indigenous Rights.” 

Audio recordings reveal RCMP officers joked about arrests

Moments after the Nov. 19 arrests, two  RCMP officers can be heard in an audio recording, joking about pipeline  opponents who were just detained.

One of them says someone they arrested “is a fucking tool.”

They laugh and continue to make derogatory remarks about others, including an American.

“A nice ride back to the border,” one of them says. “I’d make her walk.”

“Did she say why she’s up here?” the other one asks. “To save the world?”

“Oh, I didn’t ask.”

Their banter doesn’t end there.

“Do they have fucking face paint on too?” one asks. “They’re not orcs?” he adds, seemingly referencing The Lord of the Rings. 

Another laughs, “The Uruk-Hai, yeah, they  burst from the earth” and makes a guttural growling sound as the first  officer giggles. “Hand of Sauron.”

Pasternak, from the Yellowhead Institute, said the audio recording is the latest sign that shows there is racism  within the RCMP.

“There’s ample evidence to show that  there’s systemic racism within the force,” Pasternak said. “The officers  on the ground are meant to have sensitivity training, but they’re  operating within a context of extreme racism, which is the context of  the injunction itself. The injunction itself is upholding private  property law over underlying aboriginal title. And so it creates this  refracting funhouse of racism within the entire system.”

In June, 2021, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security published a damning report  that highlighted a “resounding acknowledgement of the reality of  systemic racism” in the RCMP. The committee made 42 recommendations to  address what it described as an urgent need for reform.

On April 28, 2022, a special committee on policing reform in B.C. published a similar report on the province’s Police Act.  It noted “clear evidence of systemic racism in policing as well as the  colonial structure of police services.”  It called on B.C. to set up its  own provincial police force and “implement a new … act to govern the  provision of policing and public safety services based on values of  decolonization, anti-racism, community and accountability.”

The RCMP did not respond to questions about the conduct of its officers, citing an inability to “verify or  fact check the information.” The Narwhal offered to play the recordings  over the phone but Staff Sergeant Janelle Shoihet said audio would be  insufficient evidence to investigate the allegations and pursue  disciplinary actions.

“Using audio alone, it would be already  difficult for me to conduct the necessary fact checking and follow-up to  determine the full context of any conversations that were allegedly  recorded, and most certainly not by your end day deadline,” Shoihet  wrote in an email.

The Narwhal reiterated its offer to connect with officers on a phone call as per Canadian Association of Journalists ethics guidelines  and asked how long RCMP would need before providing comment, but  Shoihet said the force would not comment without a copy of the  recording.

In response to questions about systemic  racism within the force, Shoihet told The Narwhal all RCMP officers  receive “cultural awareness training.”

“This training continues throughout the  course of our careers,” Shoihet wrote in an email. “Officers who work in  and with our Indigenous communities receive additional training and  often participate in cultural ceremonies in an effort to foster a  greater understanding of that community and the history [that] had  helped form it.”

Tactical units left Wet’suwet’en territory after concluding the November arrests and related policing on neighbouring Gitxsan territory. 

In February, unknown assailants chased off company security and vandalized equipment,  causing millions in damages, according to Coastal GasLink. RCMP has  made no arrests to date but maintains a presence in the area and tensions are high.

Three land defenders were arrested in  recent weeks, according to those on the ground and the RCMP. After being  physically restrained and questioned, each was subsequently released  without charges. Those staying at the camp, including Wet’suwet’en  Elders, told The Narwhal they’ve been constantly on edge as a result. 

“We continue to be concerned about the safety of our workers, who were terrorized during a violent attack at a construction site on Feb. 17, 2022,  which is now the focus of a criminal investigation,” Coastal GasLink  wrote to The Narwhal. “Our work is lawful, authorized, fully permitted,  and has received unprecedented support from all 20 elected Indigenous  communities along our project corridor.”

TC Energy, the pipeline company that is  pursuing the project, also noted it had signed agreements with 16  nations across the project corridor that offer options for a 10 per cent  equity ownership of Coastal GasLink, which is also owned by investment  funds in the U.S. and South Korea.

The company said this agreement is “a first for a project of this scale.”

TC Energy added that it would be  “inappropriate” for it to comment further since a number of matters  remain before the courts, along with an active criminal investigation.

RCMP industry unit visits land defenders late at night

Coastal GasLink security workers have an  around-the-clock presence outside Gidimt’en Camp, a remote site near  where many of the conflicts have taken place. Members of the RCMP’s  Community-Industry Response Group continue to conduct daily visits to  the site. According to land defenders at the camp and video footage  posted to social media, these visits happen at all hours, including in  the middle of the night.

Chief Na’moks said it’s important to  remember people live year-round at the camp and at places like the  nearby Unist’ot’en healing centre.

“I wonder how people would feel if they  had people like that come through their yard or their house or kitchen?”  he asked. “I expect nothing different from them because they believe  that we don’t exist, that we don’t have our Rights and Title.”

“What if it was you? What if they just came through your door right now? How would you feel?”

— With files from Mike De Souza

This item reprinted with permission from The Narwhal, Victoria, British Columbia