‘Localized harassment’: RCMP patrol Wet’suwet’en territory despite UN calls for withdrawal

On Valentine’s Day, a small group of Wet’suwet’en people gathered outside a Coastal GasLink pipeline work camp in northwest B.C. to hold a ceremony to remember Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. They chose the site because of the connection between work camps and violence against Indigenous women.

The police and security presence on Wet’suwet’en territory has been constant since last February, when heavily armed RCMP descended on the Morice River forest road to enforce a Coastal GasLink injunction against land defenders who were blocking work on the pipeline. Twenty-eight people were arrested, including matriarchs. Today, the territory is still monitored daily by police and private security officers, despite calls from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for police and security forces to withdraw.

“I just get so mad and frustrated because we’re living with it every day,” said Wickham, who lives with her family in a cabin on the territory and is the spokesperson for the Gidimt’en Checkpoint, one of the sites of the police raids. “They’re patrolling all the roads. You could get pulled over at any point in time for no reason at all. If you go anywhere, they’re going to follow you.”

Jeffrey Monaghan, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice and co-author of Policing Indigenous Movements, told The Narwhal there’s systemic racism in the RCMP and the “localized harassment” happening on Wet’suwet’en territory is common.

“I would characterize it as petty, retaliatory attacks,” he said.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has been calling on Canada to withdraw police and security forces from traditional lands since 2019. It has also been calling on the government to stop construction on the Coastal GasLink pipeline — as well as the Trans Mountain pipeline and the Site C dam — until it receives free, prior and informed consent from First Nations.

Before the arrests last year, the committee issued a decision statement, which is an official call for urgent action, saying it is disturbed by the “forced removal, disproportionate use of force, harassment and intimidation by law enforcement officials against Indigenous Peoples who peacefully oppose large-scale development projects on their traditional territories.”

It called on Canada to “guarantee that no force will be used against the Wet’suwet’en and guarantee that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and associated security and policing services will be withdrawn from their unceded traditional lands.”

Amnesty International echoed the committee’s concerns in a statement and said when Canada committed to reconciliation, the government said it would respect and protect Indigenous Rights.

“If promises to do so are not met with concrete action, including tough and challenging decisions such as those required here, then the words remain empty.”

“Canada has consistently failed to take appropriate measures to combat and eliminate all forms of discrimination against Indigenous Peoples.”

In November, the UN committee reiterated its requests in a letter to Canada’s permanent representative to the UN office in Geneva, stating the federal government “has provided no information on measures taken to address the concerns raised by the committee.”

Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs have also been calling for the police to get off their land. Following the 2020 arrests, the RCMP agreed to remove the temporary detachment it set up on the Morice River forest service road, the main access road to the Coastal GasLink work site.

However, in late November, the RCMP re-established the detachment, which is known as the Community-Industry Safety Office. In an email to The Narwhal, RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Madonna Saunderson said the intent was to reduce the chances of COVID-19 exposures between local RCMP officers and members of the RCMP’s quick response team, which is composed of officers from across the province.

Saunderson would not divulge information on how many officers are assigned to the unit, citing operational reasons.

Wickham said based on her observations, there are six or seven vehicles on duty per shift, with two officers assigned to each vehicle. She said she has also seen a canine unit on the territory and believes the RCMP have access to armored vehicles, snowmobiles and ATVs.

Saunderson said the unit’s mandate is to “conduct safety check stops for compliance” with laws and regulations. She stressed that check stops are conducted at major intersections and include industry traffic.

The RCMP aren’t alone in policing the territory. TC Energy, the company behind Coastal GasLink, employs multiple private security forces, according to Wickham. She said one is Forsythe Security, a company that specializes in working for the oil and gas industry. The company is operated by a retired RCMP officer, Warren Forsythe. According to Canada’s National Observer, Forsythe worked for Kinder Morgan during 2018 protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Coastal GasLink did not respond to requests for interviews or information. In an email, a Forsythe representative said it does not discuss companies it may or may not work for.

In addition to stopping Wet’suwet’en people on the territory, the RCMP has recently started serving vehicle inspection notices, according to Wickham. Anyone who receives a notice has to take their vehicle into an approved mechanic for a full inspection and fix anything noted on the report.

“Most of the stuff is not mechanical,” she said, explaining that a full vehicle inspection will note minor damages like chips in the windshield. She said an inspection costs around $200 and a second inspection is required to confirm the repairs have been made. As a result, she said, the inspections are costing community members thousands of dollars and three people have already had to take their vehicles off the road.
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