On Thursday, the B.C. government announced a seven-day “de-escalation” to allow for mediation talks with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline across their territory. During this week-long mediation period, however, tensions remain high and the RCMP presence has increased significantly.
Thus far, no attempts have been made to clear the trees blocking the road or to transport Coastal GasLink employees into the area. But the RCMP are amassing in nearby settlements such as Houston and Telkwa, B.C., and an RCMP checkpoint set up to control access into Wet’suwet’en territory remains a serious point of contention.
Legal observers are now joining the Wet’suwet’en to record police actions and violations amid the conflict.
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More entry denials at police checkpoint
Journalists and supporters bringing food have been turned away at the RCMP checkpoint, a transgression under scrutiny by the BC Civil Liberties Association. A lawsuit is being pursued on behalf of Delee Nikal, Wet’suwet’en, and Cody Merriman, Haida, who were denied access by the police.
More recently, Carmen Nikal, 73, mother of Delee and one of those arrested during last year’s police raid on the Gidimt’en checkpoint, faced arrest at the RCMP checkpoint. On Jan. 31, 2020, Carmen refused to produce personal identification to cross the RCMP checkpoint. Given that having to show identification is not a requirement of the injunction, it remains to be seen what law was broken.
“I reminded [the officer] that it was a public road and I was there under the authorization from the Wet’suwet’en chiefs,” Carmen told Ricochet.
The officer admitted he remembered her from previously permitted entry, according to Carmen, but said she should still provide identification to be permitted to enter the territory, Cas Yex, which is one of the Gidimt’en Yintah (a territory of the Gidimt’en clan).
Carmen was adopted into the Gidimt’en clan more than 40 years ago and reaffirmed at a bahlat (feast) a year ago.
“I’m a settler, but I’m the bridge for Delee,” Carmen said. “So I’ve worked hard to maintain my role so that she definitely has a place within that house.”
“The senior officer said I was under arrest and I asked, ‘What for?’” she said.
Her daughter, Delee, who had shown identification, also spoke up and was threatened with obstructing an officer making an arrest.
After they both repeatedly asked why Carmen was being arrested, another officer informed her that she was no longer under arrest.
“I guess I don’t quite understand what ‘under arrest’ means,” Carmen said. “But there was no charge and I was allowed to walk away.”
Part of what the Wet’suwet’en are doing differently this year to try and ensure human rights are upheld is welcoming legal observers at every camp and checkpoint along the road to the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, located approximately 39 kilometres past the RCMP checkpoint.
Legal observers include any independent volunteers willing to record police activity where peaceful assembly and law enforcement action are occurring. They are meant to record encounters with police like Carmen Nikal’s.
Their main focus at the moment is the RCMP checkpoint. Since Coastal GasLink was granted the injunction, the RCMP have had the power to arrest any people blocking construction on Wet’suwet’en Yintah.
Irina Ceric, a criminology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University who has been involved in defending human rights for nearly two decades, has assisted in training legal observers to ensure that police are adhering to laws.
“What we’re trying to record and monitor is the operation of this roadblock and the exclusion zone,” Ceric said in a phone interview with Ricochet. “There are very clear principles that observing the police is legal. People are absolutely free to monitor the activities of law enforcement. If you make up guidelines that actually prohibit people from doing that, then you are creating a bubble zone of unaccountability that isn’t actually supported.”
The RCMP says that legal observers at the police checkpoint must maintain a distance of two vehicle lengths from police vehicles. But Ceric said “there’s no legal basis for that.”
“It’s almost up to us to educate police on what those observers are and what their role is,” she said, adding that legal observers “are not there to antagonize or make lives more difficult.”
The RCMP should take the legal observers seriously, said Ceric. “Dismissing the presence of legal observers is not a good policy decision and it doesn’t de-escalate tension.”
Wet’suwet’en law, civil liberties, and human rights
A wave of legal experts have risen to begin what appears to be a long battle over jurisdiction on unceded territory.
“The confluence of legal systems here makes the problem a complicated one and one that is not reducible to a simple statement about the rule of law,” stated Margot Young, a University of British Columbia law professor, during a press conference organized by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs a few days ago in Vancouver.
Young was referring to a recent statement made by B.C. premier John Horgan, wherein he claimed the rule of law is being upheld by the RCMP, even though the Wet’suwet’en have unequivocally said no to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project at every stage of discussion.
“The failure to receive free, prior, and informed consent from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs about their traditional land and the impact on it by the pipeline development meant that the pipeline project should be stalled,” Young said. “The RCMP should stand down and government must kick up meaningful conversations with the Wet’suwet’en over the use of this land.”
The BC Civil Liberties Association has joined the call for the removal of the police checkpoint.
“The RCMP is claiming broad and big powers of public safety despite no stated or identifiable threat,” said Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, at the press conference. “The RCMP exclusion zone is arbitrary, excessive and punitive and a violation of human rights.”