In the middle of a pre-dawn RCMP raid Thursday on a Wet’suwet’en watch camp in northwest British Columbia, there was a land defender in a gorilla suit.
With a climbing harness around his waist, the man initially told police he would comply with their orders and leave willingly. He refused to give his name, telling police to refer to him as “Sasquatch,” and spent about 45 minutes debating colonial history with the RCMP officers watching him and—when they finally became distracted—he dashed over a snowbank and into the pitch black forest.
“Uh, Sasquatch just ran into the trees,” one of the officers said over his radio.
The tactical teams deployed after him, along with dogs and a drone with the ability to detect heat signatures in the darkness, causing more delays.
The land defenders’ actions were meant as a delaying tactic, trying to peacefully stall the RCMP advance as long as possible. It’s part of the reason why an RCMP raid on Wet’suwet’en camps remains ongoing more than 24 hours later, unlike last year, when militarized police removed 14 land defenders from the same area in just a few hours.
At issue is the $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline that will bring natural gas through Wet’suwet’en territory to the coast. Hereditary chiefs say they still hold title rights to the land, and have not given consent.
Today, land defenders at a second Wet’suwet’en camp have announced a snow plow and at least 14 RCMP officers are advancing on the gate.
Though faced with another long convoy of trucks and police tactical gear, according to video posted on the Gidimt’en Facebook page, it's not yet clear whether or not land defenders will repeat some of the same stalling tactics they deployed yesterday.
One woman, who managed to lock herself in the cab of a pick-up truck Thursday morning, spent 45 minutes relaying minute-by-minute updates over a radio to the Gidimt’en checkpoint camp at kilometre 44.
Thursday’s raid unfolded much like last year, but this time the RCMP tactical teams, with their assault and sniper rifles, green combat fatigues, and night-vision goggles, were not front and centre leading the charge.
A VICE journalist and a videographer were both threatened with arrest almost immediately after police barged in. After being made to stand outside the camp, and being prevented from documenting police “going hands on” with protesters, the RCMP then ordered the journalists farther and farther away.
As the tactical officers got out of their vehicles, RCMP officers told both journalists explicitly that they would be arrested and charged with obstruction if they took any pictures of the tactical officers.
Thursday’s raid happened two days after talks broke down between hereditary chiefs and the province of B.C.
While initially described by the province as seven days of meetings, hereditary chief Na’Moks (also known as John Ridsdale) said the province only actually spent two days—Monday and Tuesday—meeting with the chiefs.
Na’Moks said it was actually Coastal GasLink that called off the talks after growing frustrated with the chief’s refusal to back down and allow their workers back into the territory.
“We always knew that industry was directing government,” Na’Moks said, “but this is the first time we’ve ever seen them say it publicly, right there in our meeting minutes.”
After talks were called off on Tuesday, land defenders expected a raid “imminently.”
That night more supplies were ferried into the watch camp at kilometre 39. Land defenders had renamed it Wolverine Watch, after a wolverine that was spotted prowling in the nearby forest.
Wednesday was spent in hours of tense expectation. Land defenders rose long before dawn, expecting the police to arrive at any moment. They discussed how they would react to the police. “No matter what happens, remain peaceful,” they said, over and over like a mantra.
All told, six land defenders were arrested Thursday, and all were released without charges.
After Thursday’s raid, four of the hereditary chiefs gathered at the watch camp at kilometre 27, outside the police exclusion zone. Surrounded by dozens of supporters, they approached the RCMP lines—now marked by a thin band of yellow tape across the road.
Led by Na’Moks, they demanded access to the raided watch camp.
“We need to relight that fire; we need to cleanse the air and heal ourselves,” Na’Moks said. “There was pain there this morning; we need to fix that.”
While police initially refused the chiefs’ entry, dozens of supporter vehicles convoyed up the road behind them, effectively creating a second block that prevented police vehicles from entering or leaving the exclusion zone.
“This is supposed to be a democracy,” Na’Moks said. “We are not criminals. We own this land, and we have a right to visit our lands.”
“We are not asking permission,” Na’Moks said. “We are going through.”
Eventually, police agreed to let the chiefs speak with Chief Superintendent Dave Attfield, who had driven in from Houston to the roadblock for the meeting. Attfield agreed to let the hereditary chiefs and any wing chiefs (also called sub-chiefs) through the roadblock for a few hours.
“How many wing chiefs are here?” Na’Moks asked the gathered crowd. Nearly everyone put up their hands. “OK, you’re all deputized wing chiefs today. You’re coming with us.”
At the camp, the mood was sombre. Hardly anyone spoke except Chief Smogelgem and Chief Madeek, who together helped smudge the area and cleanse it of the violence from earlier that day. As they worked, a snow-white ermine darted around the camp, seemingly unafraid of the dozen or so people who gathered up the belongings of the land defenders who’d been arrested earlier, and loaded them in trucks.
It was a ritual that is likely to repeat itself, as police approach the Gidimt’en access checkpoint and a second phase of the raid begins.
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