The NDP is calling for an independent investigation into how police handled the Wet’suwet’en pipeline blockade in northern B.C. earlier this year, in response to a media report saying RCMP officers were willing to deploy snipers against protesters.
But the RCMP is defending its conduct during the incident, saying its approach to the blockade was focused on protecting lives and reducing the potential for injury of all those involved.
The controversy stems from a report on Friday in the the U.K. newspaper the Guardian detailing notes from what was described as an RCMP strategy session. According to the story, the notes say that RCMP argued for “lethal overwatch” of the protest site and officers were instructed to use “as much violence toward the gate as you want” in order to remove a roadblock erected by protesters.
CBC News has not independently reviewed the documents cited in the Guardian article.
Jack Harris, NDP public safety critic, sent a letter to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on Monday raising concerns about the “troubling strategies and tactics” RCMP brass allegedly discussed when planning to enforce an injunction against protesters interfering with the construction of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline.
“This language goes beyond what Canadians would consider acceptable within our national police force,” Harris wrote in the letter to Blair.
“It certainly does not fall in line with the commitments made by RCMP leadership and this government’s promises with respect to Indigenous justice and reconciliation.”
Harris’ letter points the finger at RCMP commanders and calls for a “full and independent investigation” into the allegations.
In a statement released on Monday, the commanding officer of the B.C. RCMP, Dwayne McDonald, disputed the Guardian story. McDonald said the newspaper had not shared the documents with the RCMP and the police force can’t speak to their authenticity.
“The RCMP has commenced a review of all documents relating to the enforcement of the court ordered injunction and to date can find no documents or references which reflect statements made in the article,” McDonald said in the statement.
“Whatever the source, the assertions made in the article do not in any respect reflect the spirit and intent of the direction of the RCMP commanders charged with planning and carrying out the court’s direction, nor does it reflect what actually occurred.”
McDonald also said the Guardian’s report had damaged relationships between the RCMP and the community. McDonald said the RCMP have asked for a meeting with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who led the blockade.
The Wet’suwet’en blockade
The blockade caught the attention of the country in January, when members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their allies set up checkpoints along a remote forest road to prevent workers from accessing a construction site for the Coastal GasLink project. The project is owned by TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada Corp.
The pipeline is meant to move natural gas from northeastern B.C. to the coast, where a liquefied natural gas project is scheduled for construction. Its planned route runs through the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en, located about 300 kilometres west of Prince George, B.C.
Though TransCanada had said it has signed agreements with all First Nations along the pipeline route, some members of the Wet’suwet’en argued their hereditary chiefs had not agreed.
The standoff lasted for a number of weeks until the RCMP entered the camp on Jan. 7 to enforce a court injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court ordering protesters to stop preventing workers from accessing the site. Fourteen people were arrested in the operation.
A spokesperson for the people at the camp accused the RCMP of using inappropriate force when officers entered the camp.
But the RCMP’s McDonald said RCMP officers followed the specific arrest and release processes permitted by the court injunction.
He added that officers conducted hundreds of hours of meetings with the Wet’suwet’en people up to and following the enforcement raid.
“Every person who was engaged in the enforcement of the order received cultural awareness training from the Wet’suwet’en elders,” McDonald said.
Civilian review a possibility
Harris’s letter follows a similar one sent by NDP MP Taylor Bachrach (Skeena—Bulkley Valley) on Friday to the civilian watchdog set up to monitor the RCMP for wrongdoing.
In that letter, Bachrach urged Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) chairperson Michelaine Lahaie to investigate what he called a “military style response” to a civilian protest.
I am calling on the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission to conduct an independent review of the RCMP’s planning and actions related to incidents on January 7, 2019, to determine whether they were consistent with Canadian law enforcement standards.
“The violence faced by Indigenous peoples undertaking peaceful protest remains a serious issue throughout the country,” wrote Bachrach.
“To learn that violence seems to have been encouraged against Indigenous people who are friends and neighbours is shocking and disturbing.”
A CRCC spokesperson said the commission is reviewing Bachrach’s letter.
Indigenous services minister calls for ‘review’
Blair’s office confirmed it received the letter from Harris and that it had raised the issue with the RCMP.
“We are committed to protecting the constitutional right to peaceful protest and are concerned by the unacceptable words and phrases that the Guardian reported were used,” said spokesperson Scott Bardsley.
“The RCMP’s first priority always is to ensure the protection and safety of all persons.”
When asked about the report on Friday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he would like to see a review of how RCMP resources are used in “sensitive” conflicts between companies and Indigenous nations over land.
“There are a number of very deeply concerning words, phrases and terms used to a situation that is immensely delicate,” Miller said.
“This is something that we need to revise as a government and take a look at that, because the terminology is entirely unacceptable.”