Detained at Gidimt’en: Inside the media confinement zone

Journalist Jerome Turner was held by the RCMP for eight hours while reporting on a police raid
Jerome Turner

An RCMP convoy. An ambulance. Helicopters. Tactical officers. Rifles. The messages were coming in fast and furious — and then all communication ceased for more than eight hours. Here’s what happened at Gidimt’en checkpoint in northwestern B.C. on Feb. 7, 2020, after journalist Jerome Turner went dark, as told in his own words.

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The journey back

My journey back into Wet’suwet’en yintah (territory) began the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 5. I’d been reporting from the area, including Unist’ot’en, on and off for weeks after Coastal GasLink was granted an injunction to allow its workers in against the wishes of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Now I was racing to get past police lines before the RCMP raid started.

On my way from Smithers to Houston, B.C., the town closest to the pipeline standoff, I made two stops to check on RCMP activity in the village of Telkwa.

Locals reported that during the period of mediation led by former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, an empty lot in town had held a number of law enforcement officers.

SUPPORT OUR REPORTING Gitxsan journalist Jerome Turner is in northern B.C. covering the Coastal GasLink conflict. Please support his work by becoming a member or making a donation. On desktop, the relevant buttons are at the top of the screen. On mobile, pull down the main menu to find them.

The mediation period, advertised by B.C.’s premier as a full week of de-escalation, was cut short after only five days. Only two days of talks occurred with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Coastal GasLink brass determined those few days were enough to show no progress would be made through mediation.

I thought about the disappearance of the pipeline company at the mediation table as I looked at the empty lot where the RCMP were said to have maintained a heavy presence for at least a week. Where did they go?

The RCMP had agreed to stand down from enforcement of the injunction for a week, but with the mediation over it was unclear if they’d stick to that timetable.

In Houston, I found a major police presence at the community hall. My knuckles had been tight on the wheel, worried I was behind the RCMP advance. But here, in Houston, I’d caught up to them.

Now I just had to make my way past the police checkpoint.

Jerome Turner

Entry denied

I drove straight out of Houston and up the Morice Forest Service Road until I hit the RCMP checkpoint at the 27-kilometre mark.

The criteria for entry had been constantly shifting, making each trip through police lines an adventure.

Only a minute or two after walking away with my driver’s licence, the officer who greeted me was back. He told me I wasn’t allowed in due to a lack of valid media credentials.

I asked for clarification of what valid media credentials entailed, given that I had been granted entry three times prior with the same documentation. On those occasions I had used my phone to show a letter of assignment from Ricochet Media and a copy of the RCMP’s own press release about entry into the injunction zone, as required by the police force.

“Unfortunately, the rules have changed then,” the officer said, refusing to let me through.

Alarm bells went off. It was clear now that whatever the RCMP had planned, it would be happening in short order.

I turned around and drove the 27 kilometres back to town, trying to think of someplace with a printer.

Jerome Turner

Undeterred and supported

As soon as I made it back to cell range I called my editor, Ethan Cox, who confirmed that I should print out the same documents I had shown police on my phone while he started contacting the RCMP about the denial of access to the “exclusion zone” — which was not being called such yet by the RCMP — to formally request I be permitted entry.

As soon as I learned Ethan had successfully reached someone with the police, and they’d promised to send word to the checkpoint to let me in, I drove back out with printouts in hand.

My next attempt at entry didn’t yield a better result though. A new shift of police officers guarding the exclusion zone said I was not allowed in because I lacked approved media credentials.

Inwardly frustrated, I waited while the officers, who were very patient, requested clearance for me again over the radio.

Again, no dice.

Just before the officers walked away, one of them asked if I would like to wait for a supervisor to come and describe to me in greater detail why I was being denied entry as media.

I said okay, thinking this was most likely going nowhere, and again listed all the other media outlets I have worked for and been published in — CBC Daybreak North, The Interior News, The Tyee, The Vancouver Sun, NorthShore News, and more.

But this time the officers accepted my credentials and said I could drive on. I thanked them and was on my way.

It was shortly after 9 p.m. by this point, roughly three hours since my first attempt to cross the checkpoint.

Jerome Turner

A very quiet place

I pulled up at kilometre 39, one of four Wet’suwet’en sites along the road, which is as far as the road was plowed at that point.

The lone watchperson at that site welcomed me, offered me some moose stew, and informed me everyone else was sleeping.

I remember how quiet the area was in that moment.

After eating I put on warmer gear and began the 5-kilometre hike that lay before me to reach the Gidimt’en checkpoint.

The walk was as needed as it was beautiful. There was enough moonlight that I didn’t have to turn on my headlamp.

I don’t remember thinking about much of anything in particular while travelling the packed-down trail.

I do remember having to step over and crawl under trees that were across the road, as I had on my previous trips.

The only real break in my meditation came when a very low exhalation-type noise came from just inside the treeline to my right.

This stopped me in my tracks and my heartbeat sped up for a moment while I scanned the trees looking for visual confirmation of what I had heard.

Perhaps it was snow falling from a tree? Maybe it was a yawning Grizzly? Sasquatch?

Whatever it was it brought me back into my head, and I started thinking about what lay ahead of me.

When would the raids take place?

I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out.

Jerome Turner

4:44 a.m. at kilometre 44: Frantic dispatches incoming

At Gidimt’en checkpoint on Feb. 6, I was awakened by a radio crackling to life in the cabin I was sleeping in, which was built by Molly Wickham of the Gidimt’en clan, Cody Merriman of the Haida Nation, and others who lent hands and sweat to the home’s construction.

The main reason Wickham and Merriman are not living there currently is they have a second child on the way, and as a result the hereditary chiefs have barred them from being on the territory until after the RCMP siege is over or the baby is born. No children are permitted to be on the territory until the situation is resolved.

The danger of being forcibly removed hung in the air as the first reports of RCMP vehicles leaving Houston came in.

From first-hand accounts I would hear later, I know police arrived and moved in on the site at kilometre 39 without much warning.

One land defender was in a locked vehicle off the road with a radio, transmitting what she was seeing.

None of what I heard over the radio was easy to hear.

“They’re taping the window. I don’t know if it’s to prevent me from seeing or to break it.”

“They’re smashing the window!”

Then silence.

I can’t go into what happened at 39-kilometre because I wasn’t there, but six land defenders and two journalists were arrested very quickly.

What part of the injunction did they break? Why were media personnel detained?

Answers to those questions may never be provided because all charges were dropped. The journalists — Vice’s Jesse Winter and a filmmaker from the United States — were dropped off in Houston after being told they were going to be let out where their vehicle was parked at 27-kilometre.

Not arrested then, but not free either.

After the raid on 39-kilometre, the RCMP plowed to the 44-kilometre mark and, save for a few officers, fell back for the evening.

Jerome Turner

Raid on 44: Big guns, fast helicopters, and a dog

Being one of the only journalists in a place where tactical police units are moving in is very stressful.

But I imagine being one of four land defenders facing more than 50 RCMP officers is much worse.

Thankfully, my editors at Ricochet Media were putting pressure on both the B.C. government and the RCMP to allow for media freedoms guaranteed in the Charter.

Nevertheless, I do question the restrictions that were placed on me. But I’ll get to that below.

The first thing I heard was the sound of heavy machinery approaching.

The four land defenders who chose to make the stand moved to where they would ultimately be arrested for breaching the injunction. Among them was Eve Saint, whose father, Hereditary Chief Woos, holds the traditional name to the territory from kilometre 39 to the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre at kilometre 66.

Two of them headed directly for a school bus parked near the bridge over Lamprey Creek, and the other two climbed up into a lookout tower above the bus that was built days before with hand-milled lumber.

From there, the RCMP advance happened in incongruous chunks.

The road was plowed to the locked gate and bridge over Lamprey Creek. Once a path to the four land defenders was cleared, two helicopters approached to drop off both tactical and regular RCMP officers on the road leading toward the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre.

This created a semi-contained zone, with both ends of the road blocked by the RCMP and the land defenders in the bus and tower in the middle.

I decided to head toward the landing helicopters to get eyes on what was happening. There were a number of officers already on the ground as I ventured close enough to see.

I was watching a group of RCMP officers walk up the road toward the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre, away from the tower, when I noticed that two tactical officers kneeling on opposite sides of the road were pointing their rifles in my direction.

This was a first for me, and I never want to have the feeling again.

Jerome Turner

In a pinch

As soon as the helicopters had flown far enough away that I could be heard over their noise, I notified the tactical officers that I was media. They lowered their weapons.

Eventually, one K-9 officer and its human were dropped off as well.

I was sending as many short, live updates to my editors as I could while this was happening. Thumbs ablaze.

Meanwhile, an officer was reading off the injunction through a megaphone from the other side of the gate.

Not long after the helicopters left, the dropped-off officers began moving toward the tower and bus.

I had a very tough decision to make: stay where I had access to a Wi-Fi connection and the outside world, or get close to the bus.

I chose the bus.

This is when family, friends, and colleagues began to worry about my safety. I would later find out that they sent a ton of messages and made a lot of phone calls in attempts to reach me.

As I was making my way toward the bus, the other media person present, a filmmaker, passed me. I stopped where I could get a few pictures of the full scene.

In hindsight, I should have moved closer to the bus and tower.

The filmmaker moved back to where I was positioned, and it wasn’t long until the tactical units made their way to the bus.

At this point there was nobody left to report at Gidimt’en checkpoint or the cabin, where two other land defenders were inside. I would later learn that despite a long standoff at the cabin, the two individuals inside were not detained or arrested that day.

Media weren’t so lucky. We were detained as soon as the RCMP reached us, and from that point on we had no freedom of movement.

Jerome Turner

In a ditch

The officers were very nice and asked if we wanted water and snacks several times over the next eight hours — which is how long we were restricted from moving anywhere not offered by police.

The only time I questioned my safety was when the police had their weapons trained on me.

Yet, according to the officers, safety was the reason I was not permitted to fully cover the events that unfolded during my detainment.

The police moved the filmmaker and me to a location in a ditch with heavy branches between us and the bridge. We were over 60 feet from the tower and not permitted to go anywhere else.

Our options were to stand in one spot until we agreed to leave, and accept a ride out in the back of a police car, or be arrested if we tried to move around, report what was happening at the cabin, or go down the road to Unist’ot’en.

I hope my editors make a stop-motion film using all the photos — essentially of the same thing from the same vantage point — I was able to take.

Shortly after I was detained in the ditch, an excavator began dismantling the gate on the bridge, along with the wooden spiked fence constructed to deny access to anyone not given permission to enter by the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

Once the impediments were removed, several officers and engineers crossed the bridge, while others used a snowmobile path to go down to the creek and then up to the bus and tower.

The RCMP has said that the bridge was intentionally compromised. CBC journalist Chantelle Bellrichard said that she was turned back at this bridge on Sunday when police told her it was unsafe, but she then watched several other vehicles cross it without issue. I believe a D7 bulldozer and other heavy machinery have also crossed the bridge to plow to the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre at 66-kilometre.

Jerome Turner

‘It’s pretty sketchy’

The arrests of the four land defenders were, thankfully, anticlimactic, which is to say that they never resisted arrest and were not put in handcuffs.

Eve Saint and another land defender, Shiloh Hill, exited the bus of their own accord and walked across the bridge to sit in a police van. On the way, Eve sang the women’s warrior song. Anne Spice, a land defender in the tower, joined in with her voice and drum.

Most of the RCMP officers were sent back at this point, but they would not be able to get off the clock any time soon because land defenders had parked a number of vehicles across the road at 27-kilometre to prevent any traffic from leaving the exclusion zone.

Following that, the remaining officers turned their attention on the two individuals in the tower — Anne Spice, Tlingit, and Denzel Sutherland-Wilson, Gitxsan.

Sutherland-Wilson did most of the talking with a tactical officer during the time it took the police to safely rig up ladders to the perch atop the tower, which is punctuated by a spike jutting upward.

Tactical officer Anthony Cappelli won’t soon forget his encounter with Spice and Sutherland-Wilson in that tower.

Cappelli confirmed that Spice and Sutherland-Wilson would not leave willingly. “Well then, I’m coming up,” he said.

Before Capelli could begin the ascent, Sutherland-Wilson said that he would come down under two conditions.

“One, the RCMP leave the territory, or two, Chief Woos comes and tells me I have to get down.”

Capelli eventually replied, “You’re both already under arrest. This isn’t the safest and it’s pretty sketchy up there.”

To which Sutherland-Wilson said, “I know. It’s pretty sketchy all these officers coming to arrest four people.”

“Well, the mission is to get you down safely,” said Capelli.

“No! The mission is to stop a pipeline,” replied Sutherland-Wilson. “You know I know you don’t have to do this.”

Jerome Turner

Holding out in the crow’s nest

Sutherland-Wilson then described another scenario where the RCMP could refuse to enforce a court-ordered injunction.

“You know you don’t have to do this. You could quit,” Sutherland-Wilson said. “Do you love to do this?”

Capelli said he was not willing to stop what he was court-ordered to do.

While this conversation was happening, Capelli and another officer were making their way to the aerie where Spice and Sutherland-Wilson were.

Once the two officers secured the third ladder to the final portion of the tower, they requested a chainsaw to remove some wooden spikes.

Both Spice and Sutherland-Wilson displayed heightened signs of distress at this point, and Spice made a number of comments, but I could not make out what was being said from the media detainment zone.

Just prior to Capelli making the final climb to the top, a legal observer who was sitting in a tree adjacent to the bus and tower asked if medical personnel were nearby in the event of an emergency.

This question caught most of the RCMP officers off-guard.

A few lean-in discussions took place between the commanding officers, and an ambulance the RCMP had brought along and two attendants were moved to the other side of the bridge.

Spice and Sutherland-Wilson did not end up needing medical attention and did not resist arrest.

It should be noted that officer Capelli was extremely kind and gentle during the entire operation.

Most of what happened following the arrests, including Jerome Turner’s detainment on the road for four hours, can be found in an earlier article here. You can also see his photo essay from the raid here.

Jerome Turner
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