Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation are challenging RCMP actions on their territory after a security camera captured images of police with assault rifles checking an empty building located deep in the woods.
The building, a smokehouse that will soon be used to process fish, was built this spring at the request of Gidimt’en Clan Hereditary Chief Woos. It is on the Morice River about one kilometre from the Morice West Forest Service Road, not far from the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre where conflict between Wet’suwet’en members and pipeline builders began a decade ago.
The long dispute came to a head in January 2019 when heavily armed RCMP officers enforced an injunction by removing barricades and arresting 14 people opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory. Earlier this year large RCMP operations again removed barricades and arrested dozens at several camps over five days.
A trail camera installed to monitor the Gidimt’en smokehouse captured two RCMP visits this month, including images of three officers, one carrying what appears to be a semi-automatic Colt C8 assault rifle, surrounding the building.
According to Cpl. Madonna Saunderson, the officers are members of a Quick Response Team assigned to the Community-Industry Safety Office, a remote detachment established to police the Morice West Forest Service Road following the arrests in January 2019.
“The photos being circulated online relate to recent patrols and the check of a newly constructed building which is on the pipeline’s right of way and is therefore in breach of the BC Supreme Court injunction order,” the statement said. “We understand that CGL has posted a notice on the building advising of this breach.”
The foot patrols were followed a few days later by Coastal GasLink workers, who posted notices that the structure is within their work area and saying it should be moved, according to Gidimt’en Clan member Jennifer Wickham.
“It’s very obvious to us that CGL is using the RCMP yet again as their personal security and they went in to clear the area,” Wickham said. “I don’t know what they expected to find, other than a smokehouse, with such heavy-duty weapons. But there are people in and out of there. We’re planning on getting fish soon. The spring salmon are running. We are going to be actually using that smokehouse to prepare and preserve our food fish.”
Wickham disputes the RCMP’s claim that the building violates the injunction issued by the BC Supreme Court on Dec. 31 that prohibits anyone from blocking access to work sites, as the company does not currently have an environmental assessment permit allowing work in the area.
“It’s really concerning to us, obviously, that they’re so heavily armed going in there to make sure the site is clear for CGL to post their letters that actually have no weight behind them,” she said. “There’s no reason for them to call RCMP because what we’re doing there is not illegal.”
Work continues on Coastal GasLink, a $6.6-billion, 670-kilometre pipeline to carry fracked gas from the province’s northeast to an LNG plant under construction in Kitimat. By late May, 77 per cent of the pipeline right-of-way had been cleared, according to a construction update from the company.
However, TC Energy, the pipeline’s owner, did not have the final permits from B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office required before work can begin within the Morice River Technical Boundary Area, which includes the smokehouse.
The Unist’ot’en, a house group of the Wet’suwet’en, had initially prevented Coastal GasLink from accessing the area to prepare reports on the project’s environmental impact. The province granted a permit anyway on the condition that the company later provide a report assessing impacts.
The pipeline company was able to access the area last summer. However, its report was rejected by the Environmental Assessment Office in February, which said it didn’t provide sufficient information to assess the project’s impacts.
At that time, it gave the Unist’ot’en 30 days to engage with Coastal GasLink about potential impacts from the project.
A new report has not been submitted, according to an emailed statement from the premier’s office today.
“The EAO understands that CGL is working toward submitting the updated report in July,” the statement said. “With regards to CGL workers on location, as the EAO has confirmed previously, CGL is required to visit the site in order to complete the report.”
According to archaeological surveys, the area in the headwaters of the Morice and Bulkley rivers has a rich history of traditional use by the Gidimt’en Clan, Wickham said, and the smokehouse was built on an ancient trailside campsite.
“(Coastal GasLink) are very aware that this is a culturally significant site. There’s an ancient trail that goes right through where they want to clear,” she said.
Earlier this month, the pipeline company was disciplined for violating the terms of its environmental assessment approvals in other areas. On June 16, the province issued several compliance and enforcement orders, including an order to stop removing endangered whitebark pine trees and another to cease construction within 30 metres of ecologically sensitive wetlands.
The company was given until June 30 to provide a list of ecologically and socio-economically important wetlands and until July 17 to submit a draft whitebark pine mitigation, reclamation and monitoring plan to the Environmental Assessment Office.