Canada police begin clearing Wet'suwet'en land defender camps

Wet'suwet'en Nation leaders say they never consented to Coastal GasLink pipeline project in British Columbia.

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    Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and other members of the community have also raised concerns about the RCMP using force to clear their camps [Michael Toledano/Al Jazeera]
    Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and other members of the community have also raised concerns about the RCMP using force to clear their camps [Michael Toledano/Al Jazeera]

    Canada's federal police force (RCMP) has moved in to clear an Indigenous camp in an area of northern British Columbia (BC) slated for pipeline construction, Indigenous land defenders said, a move that has been condemned by rights groups.

    RCMP Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs told reporters on Wednesday that police intended to enforce a court injunction ordering the Morice West Forest Service Road cleared to allow for construction on the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

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    Members of the Wet'suwet'en Nation have set up camps and checkpoints along the forestry road near the town of Houston, BC, over 1,000km (621 miles) northwest of Vancouver, to try to stop the pipeline from being built on their traditional territories.

    Wet'suwet'en leaders say they never consented to the 670km (416-mile) pipeline, which will cut across vast swaths of their land as it transports natural gas from northeast BC to a terminal near the town of Kitimat, where it will be prepared for export overseas.

    "They're tearing down the tents at the watch camp at 39km," Jennifer Wickham, the media coordinator for one of the camps, the Gidimt'en Access Point, told Al Jazeera in a brief phone call at about 5:15am local time (13:15 GMT) on Thursday.

    In late December, the BC Supreme Court granted the company behind the Coastal GasLink project, TC Energy, an injunction to continue construction activities.

    The court also issued an enforcement order for the RCMP to clear the area.

    "We encourage all of the protesters to abide by the injunction and leave the area and they will not be arrested," Stubbs said during the news conference on Wednesday. "If there are arrests to be made, there are peaceful options that will require a minimal use of force."

    Early-morning raid

    Another encampment set up to reclaim traditional Wet'suwet'en lands in the area, the Unist'ot'en Camp, said six people were arrested in the RCMP raid on Thursday morning.

    "Dogs were used, media was banned from filming arrests. Militarised police with night vision and automatic weapons raided the camp in the dead of night," the group said on its website.

    "Our understanding is these tents at 39KM were NOT blocking the road and are NOT in violation of the injunction area," the group tweeted earlier in the day.

    The RCMP did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment via email and phone.

    In a statement after the early-morning actions, the RCMP said it was enforcing the court's injunction.

    It did not comment on the reported arrests, but it said police would enforce a "full exclusion zone" at a checkpoint it set up on the forestry road in mid-January.

    "As of February 6, 2020, the RCMP will not allow access to anyone who is not part of the enforcement team, with some exceptions for Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and elected council members," the statement read.

    The raid was condemned by rights groups, including the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, an Indigenous advocacy group, which accused the RCMP of engaging in "senseless violence".

    "We are in absolute outrage and a state of painful anguish as we witness the Wet'suwet'en people having their title and rights brutally trampled on and their right to self-determination denied," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said in a statement.

    "Indigenous rights are human rights and they cannot be ignored or sidestepped for any reason in the world, and certainly not for an economic interest."

    Negotiations with BC

    The conflict centres around unresolved Indigenous land claims and raises questions about how major resource development projects may infringe on Indigenous rights that are protected under Canada's constitution and laws.

    It is one of several disputes happening across Canada over oil and gas pipeline projects.

    TC Energy says it reached agreements with 20 elected First Nation bands along the pipeline's route and has the necessary permits to build. It has hailed the Coastal GasLink project as a way to create jobs and bolster economic development.

    But Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, who under Indigenous law hold authority over approximately 22,000sq km of land, say they never gave Coastal GasLink their consent to move ahead with the project.

    Wet'suwet'en
    Protesters demonstrate in downtown Seattle, Washington, to support the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, a community in British Columbia, Canada opposing a natural gas pipeline [File: Ted S Warren/AP Photo] 

    The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1997 that the Wet'suwet'en never ceded their rights or title to that vast swath of territory.

    Canada has what is called a "duty to consult" Indigenous peoples whose rights may be affected by such projects. It also signed on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which outlines the principle of "free, prior and informed consent" for Indigenous peoples.

    The Wet'suwet'en land defenders say the Coastal GasLink project poses a risk to the land, the water, and their way of life.

    Since the court issued the injunction in late December, the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs have evicted Coastal GasLink workers from their territories. They have insisted on meeting with the BC government to settle the dispute.

    The province and the hereditary chiefs announced on January 30 that they would enter into a seven-day negotiations period. On Tuesday evening, they said those talks had broken down.

    "While we were not successful in finding a resolution to the current situation, we continue to remain open to dialogue with the Wet'suwet'en leadership on this issue," Scott Fraser, BC minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said in a statement.

    Coastal GasLink President David Pfeiffer said in an open letter on Thursday that it was "truly unfortunate that we were unable to find a path forward that allowed for the construction of Coastal GasLink with the support of all".

    "Now that our work has resumed, we will press ahead in accordance with our construction schedule and do not anticipate any further disruptions," Pfeiffer said.

    'Protecting our territory'

    Meanwhile, the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and other members of the community have also raised concerns about the RCMP using force to clear their camps.

    Heavily armed RCMP officers cleared the Gidimt'en Access Point in January 2019. Fourteen people were arrested at that time, and the RCMP officers were authorised to use "lethal force" during the dispersal, The Guardian recently reported, prompting widespread criticism.

    "The threat of their extreme use of violence and force … hasn't gone away since the day of the raid. We're constantly under that threat and that pressure," Sleydo' (Molly Wickham), a Wet'suwet'en land defender and spokeswoman for the Gidimt'en checkpoint, told Al Jazeera in December.

    At the news conference on Wednesday, the RCMP said it had no choice but to enforce the injunction.

    "Orders and injunctions from the Supreme Court of British Columbia are not optional invitations or suggestions for the parties and the police. Instead, they are mandatory directions from the court. Police are not at liberty to choose which law to follow," said Stubbs.

    But on Thursday morning, Sleydo' said the RCMP had no jurisdiction on Wet'suwet'en lands.

    "It's time to make it known that Indigenous people will not be oppressed any longer, that the RCMP can't come in and remove us from our territories," she said in a video posted on Facebook.

    "We have a right and a responsibility to be protecting our territory, to be protecting our water, to be protecting our future generations."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News