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Rights + Justice

A Year Later, Complaint about RCMP Actions During Wet’suwet’en Conflict in Limbo

Complainants called for an independent review, but instead police investigated themselves and pressured them to drop their case.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 15 Jan 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Amanda Follett Hosgood lives and writes amidst the stunning mountains and rivers of Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

A year after filing complaints with the RCMP’s civilian oversight body over RCMP actions during the Wet’suwet’en protests, Cody Merriman (Wedlidi) and Delee Nikal are frustrated by delays and what they call a broken system.

“Nothing’s changed and through the process it’s just been more police harassment, which is pretty insane,” says Merriman.

They filed complaints a year ago today about the RCMP’s actions in refusing to let them deliver food and supplies to Wet’suwet’en camps on the Morice forestry road last winter. The BC Civil Liberties Association assisted them.

In an email to The Tyee, RCMP media relations officer Cpl. Chris Manseau said final reports of the force’s investigation into the incident were mailed to the complainants earlier this week. He could not provide any details about their contents.

But the reports had not reached Merriman and Nikal, who are frustrated that their complaints have still not been reviewed by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, the independent agency tasked with oversight of Canada’s police force.

The complaints commission initially refers complaints to the RCMP for investigation.

Merriman said that has resulted in pressure from RCMP officers to drop the complaint. Nikal has heard very little about the investigation’s status.

If they are unsatisfied with the RCMP’s findings, they can request a review by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.

On Jan. 13, 2020, the pair arrived separately at Kilometre 27 on the Morice West Forest Service Road on their way to deliver food, supplies and cold-weather gear for camps at kilometres 39 and 44 on Gidimt’en clan territory, and the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre at Kilometre 66. The week prior, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs had closed the road and evicted workers for Coastal GasLink, which is building a natural gas pipeline through the region.

But that day the RCMP unexpectedly set up a checkpoint and “exclusion zone” on the remote forestry road and weren’t allowing anyone past. The Tyee was among those turned away by police on Jan. 13.

Two days later, Merriman and Nikal filed their initial complaints with the commission.

On Jan. 29, the complaints were followed by a policy complaint jointly filed by the BCCLA, Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Merriman’s and Nikal’s statements were also included in the second complaint.

Within a month, RCMP officers would arrest 28 people over five days along the Morice forestry road.

Merriman said he was shocked when the same staff sergeant who led the RCMP enforcement effort at one camp arrived at his house unannounced four months later saying he wanted to resolve the issue.

“It made me really mad at that point,” said Merriman, who is from the Haida Nation but lives in a cabin on Wet’suwet’en territory with his partner, a member of the Gidimt’en clan. “I was like, how can you be investigating this? Those are your colleagues and your boss.”

He says two RCMP vehicles blocked his car as he was leaving his home. As he spoke to the officers, one leaned on the hood of his vehicle, further preventing him from leaving. The officers insisted they wanted to resolve the issue independently and encouraged him to drop the complaint, he says.

According to the commission, the RCMP typically carries out the initial investigation directly with the complainant.

“So it’s still not an independent investigation,” Merriman said. “We have to go through this process with RCMP until there’s no resolution and then ask for that.”

Merriman said involving the same officers tasked with arresting land defenders during the high-profile conflict constituted both harassment and a conflict of interest. He filed a second complaint in August asking the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP to take over his grievance.

That did not happen.

Instead, commission chairperson Michelaine Lahaie responded in a Sept. 22 letter saying that the staff sergeant who led the raids on Wet’suwet’en camps had recused himself from the investigation and that someone at the Smithers detachment had taken over.

“Your concerns have been noted and can be expanded upon if Mr. Merriman requests a review after receiving the RCMP’s report on his original complaint,” the letter says.

No time limit exists for police to complete an investigation under the RCMP act, according to CRCC communications director Kate McDerby, although the force is required to provide update letters every 30 days until a final report is sent to the complainant.

If complainants aren’t satisfied with that report, they can ask the commission to review the RCMP’s investigation. If the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP finds shortcomings, it can ask RCMP to investigate further or initiate its own investigation.

In the meantime, Merriman continues to wait.

“At one point, I thought I could expect some sort of answer shortly, but I haven’t received that letter,” Merriman said this week. “So, it’s still an ongoing process.”

Harsha Walia, executive director of the BCCLA, says the fact there has been no resolution nearly a year after the raids shows the lack of accountability when it comes to Canada’s policing operations.

“I think most people would be outraged to know that when you make a complaint against the RCMP, and you are making a complaint to an ostensibly civilian body like the CRCC, that your complaint actually goes back to the RCMP under the facade of civilian oversight,” she says.

“These are deeply structural [flaws] and, of course, have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous land defenders who are criminalized for defending their land, who are criminalized as Indigenous people and who then have to deal with a completely flawed system.”

Nikal has also had limited communication since receiving a phone call from someone with the RCMP who said they were investigating her complaint internally.

“That would have been maybe two months after the complaint was filed,” she says. “Needless to say, I didn’t hear anything back from them. And I have specifically requested to hear back.”

She adds that the lack of response wasn’t unexpected.

In February, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP said it would not investigate the BCCLA’s broader complaint, filed after Merriman’s and Nikal’s, because it was similar to a complaint about police handling of an Indigenous-led anti-shale gas protest in New Brunswick in 2013.

The commission had initiated the investigation into the New Brunswick incident in 2014 “to review the allegations from a broader policy and practice perspective,” it said. The resulting 116-page interim report, which provided 12 recommendations to RCMP, was submitted to the force for review in March 2019.

It wasn’t until June 2020 that RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki responded to the commission’s interim report, pushing back against its finding that the exclusion zones in New Brunswick “were arbitrarily established or that individuals were being detained.”

In November, the commission released its final report into the New Brunswick protests. In it, the commission says it is “concerned” with the RCMP’s refusal to implement some recommendations.

“These included recommendations on important issues such as roadblocks and exclusion zones, and the need for RCMP members to be cognizant of the limits of their powers, especially in light of the fundamental constitutional rights being exercised by protesters,” the final report says.

The commission called for RCMP “decisions to restrict access to public roadways or other public sites be made only with specific, objectively reasonable rationales for doing so, and if legally permissible, be done in a way that interferes with the rights of persons in as minimal a fashion as possible.”

It’s not clear if the commission’s recommendations might have changed things on the Morice forestry road one year ago as temperatures dipped below -30 C.

But in any case, Nikal said the RCMP actions that day were wrong.

“I said, ‘I’m here delivering goods and supplies,’” she said, including warm mitts and first aid kits. “I don’t even know how somebody with a conscience could say no to bringing in winter gear to people in -30. I don’t understand that.”

She speculates the RCMP delays may be a tactic to discourage public complaints.

“I’m certain that they hope that most people either become discouraged and realize that nothing’s going to come of it or are just so stressed out,” she says. But she’s not dropping the complaint.

The Tyee asked the RCMP’s national headquarters about the average length of time to complete complaint investigations but did not receive an answer by deadline.  [Tyee]

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