RCMP denies restricting air traffic into Wet’suwet’en territory, but local companies say otherwise

When roads become impassable in winter, camps opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline rely on helicopters for supplies
Jerome Turner
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The RCMP says there are no formal restrictions on air travel to the site of the Coastal GasLink pipeline standoff in northern B.C., but aviation companies have told Ricochet a different story.

Several local companies say they were contacted by the RCMP and told they could not travel into the area.

This presents a problem for residents — namely, members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their allies.

In winter, the area can become inaccessible by road, leaving helicopters as the only way to bring in supplies.

Police turning people away at checkpoint

This latest revelation fits a broader pattern of attempts by the RCMP to restrict access to the area following a B.C. Supreme Court injunction granted to Coastal GasLink that says the company’s workers cannot be stopped from accessing unceded Wet’suwet’en territory.

On Jan. 13, the RCMP set up a checkpoint on the main service road, requiring individuals to present identification and explain their reasons for passing.

“The only way the police can direct helicopters not to land is if they are breaching a valid trespass order from the lawful owner.”

Late last week, they began requiring that all vehicles entering the area have snow chains and forest service radios, despite the road now being fully plowed. They have also implemented new restrictions on lawyers entering the area to meet with clients, saying only lawyers licensed to practise in B.C. will be admitted.

At least five people were turned back for not having chains and radios on Friday, including two lawyers, a journalist with Vice News and two camp members making a supply run.

RCMP contacted aviation companies

Ricochet journalist Jerome Turner was allowed past the checkpoint several times last week and visited three camps established by the Wet’suwet’en along the pipeline route. He was told by residents of the Unist’ot’en camp that they could not secure helicopter services due to RCMP-imposed restrictions on air traffic. Given recent heavy snowfall, there were concerns that the road was impassable and supplies could run out.

Over the past few days, Ricochet has asked the RCMP about restrictions on air travel to the area. The police repeatedly said there were none.

Aviation companies in the area, however, have interpreted communications from the RCMP to include restrictions on travel.

Ricochet contacted 10 local companies about this issue. Four said they were contacted by the RCMP and told they could not travel into the area. Of these four, one company said the RCMP told them they could fly into the area only in the event of an emergency. Another said the RCMP told them they could not transport protesters. Two said they were told they could not fly there at all.

A half-dozen other companies referred requests to their head office or did not return calls asking about flying into the area.

Constitutional lawyer Rocco Galati told Ricochet he thinks the RCMP have no legal basis for trying to restrict air traffic.

“The RCMP directive to helicopters not to fly or even land, so long as they do not disrupt and do not impede the area delineated by the order, in my firm opinion is both illegal and not in concert with the [injunction] order, but it is also unconstitutional.

“The order provides for peaceful demonstration so long as the order is not contravened. How would flying in food and supplies in aid of the peaceful protests contravene the order? Moreover, how would flying in the press to observe and report?

“The only way the police can direct helicopters not to land is if they are breaching a valid trespass order from the lawful owner.”

Police deny restrictions

On Monday, Ricochet contacted the RCMP to ask if a no-fly zone had been established.

Senior Media Relations Officer Janelle Shoihet responded that she had “been able to confirm that no such air restriction has been requested by the RCMP.”

We then asked if the RCMP had made any requests to local operators or taken any action to discourage flying in the area.

“I want to understand, are you asking can they fly overhead or into the area covered by the injunction to land. I will ask but I need to know specifically what I am asking about,” responded Shoihet.

We said that we were asking whether there were restrictions of any kind.

“There is no restriction to the air space,” replied Shoihet. “The RCMP has provided local companies with a copy of the injunction and explained that the RCMP is not in a position to take delivery of supplies into the injunction area.”

After being confronted with the discrepancy between these statements and what aviation companies had told us, the B.C. RCMP provided the following statement.

“S/Sgt. Shoihet has confirmed that she did not attempt to mislead you in her response on January 21st. She advised she responded to your questions as she understood them to be and in keeping with similar media requests received on the topic. If the helicopters companies need clarification they have and can connect directly with the RCMP.”

This is not the first time this month that the RCMP has been unclear with a journalist covering the pipeline standoff. Vice’s Sarah Berman reported on Wednesday that the RCMP had initially denied reports they were conducting aerial surveillance of the Wet’suwet’en camps. The police admitted to such surveillance after being presented with a photograph of a clearly marked RCMP plane over the camp.

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