A militarized RCMP raid of Wet’suwet’en territory appears “imminent” after talks broke down between First Nations leaders and the B.C. government over the construction of a $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline through unceded Indigenous land.
Tensions on a logging road leading to Wet’suwet’en land defender camps have been rising for a month since hereditary chiefs evicted Coastal GasLink pipeline workers from their lands.
Police set up a roadblock in mid-January limiting access to camps where Wet’suwet’en chiefs and supporters are asserting land rights, setting the stage for a possible repeat of a 2019 raid by militarized RCMP.
Last week a police helicopter was spotted for the first time circling the Wet’suwet’en watch camps and blockades, and land defenders say they saw an increase in police patrols through the area.
Over the weekend close to 100 additional RCMP officers started setting up a camp in Houston and Telkwa, B.C., a half-hour drive from the front lines.
According to the National Observer, it‘s believed three of the commanding RCMP officers from last year‘s raid are in the area. An explosive report published by the Guardian in December alleged that the RCMP officers had pre-authorization to use deadly force during last year‘s violent arrests. The RCMP denied the report.
Police have said they would not move to enforce a court injunction against Wet’suwet’en watch camps while the hereditary chiefs meet for a week with representatives from the province and the RCMP, hoping to find a peaceful solution. The meetings, called “wiggus”—which means “respect” in the Wet’suwet’en language—were a last-ditch effort to avoid a repeat of last year’s violence. That deadline was Wednesday.
According to a statement by Chief Woos, one of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs participating in the talks, the company has not recognized the progress made at the negotiating table. “Therefore, the enforcement of the injunction zone is imminent,” reads part of the statement released through the Office of the Wet’suwet’en.
RCMP did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.
But even if a police raid happens as expected, Coastal GasLink won’t be able to start construction in the contested area for weeks unless it meets some outstanding conditions of an environmental assessment certificate, according to B.C.’s environment ministry.
Jason Slade, an environmental consultant working with a healing lodge on Wet’suwet’en land, told VICE there is no need for the police to enforce an injunction the way they did last year. “When (B.C. Premier John) Horgan says that all the authorizations have been granted, that’s patently untrue,” he said.
“A delay would give everyone some breathing room,” Slade said. “There’s no need to go in and arrest everybody.”
Coastal GasLink’s environmental permits were originally issued in 2014. But because so much time has passed, the company had to redo reports about potential impacts to an area where the Unist’ot’en healing lodge sits.
When the original report was written, the healing lodge didn’t exist.
But in the years since, the Wet’suwet’en have built a $2 million facility, complete with accommodations, an industrial kitchen, and sweat lodge. The facility provides land-based cultural programming and treatment for people suffering everything from PTSD to addictions issues, funded in part by the First Nations Health Authority, Slade said.
Slade said in meetings with staff from the Environmental Assessment Office last fall, he asked whether this kind of omission would be allowed if it were a settler-run wilderness lodge and not an Indigenous healing centre.
“They said we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” Slade said. “These kinds of gaps are exactly what the Environmental Assessment Office was designed to mitigate.”
Gavin Smith, a lawyer for West Coast Environmental Law, said if the Coastal GasLink report is rejected, it could mean a construction delay of months—not weeks.
That’s because Coastal GasLink would have to go back and redo its work, including hiring expert consultants to evaluate the pipeline’s impact on jobs, culturally sensitive land, and traditional practices around the healing lodge.
Smith said it’s disappointing to see the B.C. premier making repeated references to the “rule of law” when the environmental assessment process is still going on.
Coastal GasLink did not respond to VICE’s request for comment by press time.
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With files from Sarah Berman.