Three years ago RCMP moved onto Wet’suwet’en territory, tearing down a barricade on a forest service road that blocked access to the planned route of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
The single-day enforcement on Jan. 7, 2019, resulted in the arrest of 14 people, both Wet’suwet’en and their supporters. But it didn’t bring a resolution to the dispute over the pipeline, opposed by Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs.
Since then, dozens more have been arrested under an injunction granted to Coastal GasLink, which is building a 670-kilometre gas pipeline from northeast B.C. to an LNG processing facility on the coast in Kitimat.
And the conflict has brought increasing internal pressure on the BC NDP government to find a new approach that better reflects its stated commitment to Indigenous rights.
About 75 people have been arrested in total on the territory, with RCMP enforcement criticized as heavy handed and oppressive. In February 2020, 28 people were arrested over five days at several locations along the road. This November, at least 30 more were arrested over two days at a camp on Gidimt’en Clan territory and a worksite where Coastal GasLink plans to drill under the Morice River, known to the Wet’suwet’en as Wedzin Kwa.
And for three years, RCMP have continued patrolling the Morice, establishing a detachment on the remote resource road and racking up a bill for policing that now exceeds $20 million.
As rumours swirl about plans for a fourth police raid on Wet’suwet’en territory, the B.C. government faces growing pressure from within the NDP to find a new approach, with federal MPs, riding associations and high-profile supporters all calling for change — and getting very little response from B.C.’s ruling party.
Romeo Saganash, a former NDP MP and Cree human rights lawyer from Waswanipi, Quebec, has been pressing for a new approach from both the federal and BC NDP parties.
In B.C., he said, “A lot of those cabinet members are former colleagues of mine and obviously I look at this with deep disappointment and concern.” Saganash's colleagues in the federal NDP caucus included two MLAs elected provincially in the last election — Nathan Cullen, now provincial minister of state for lands and natural resource operations, and Murray Rankin, minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation.
“Using violence against people who are standing up for the territory and trying to protect our waters… is clearly a violation of their most fundamental human rights,” Saganash said. “Whether it’s NDP, Conservative or Liberal, I don’t care — I will always stand up for Indigenous rights in this country.”
Saganash is among more than 1,400 NDP members and supporters across Canada who signed a statement expressing anger at the provincial party’s actions and disappointment in the federal opposition’s response. Other high-profile signees include the Union of BC Indian Chiefs’ Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and several federal members of Parliament. More names and riding associations continue to be added every day.
“That’s where it should come from, the grassroots, the base of all parties,” Saganash adds. “I don’t know what [B.C. Premier John] Horgan’s beholden to, but it’s certainly not the rule of law or Indigenous rights.”
The BC NDP, re-elected with a majority win in a 2020 snap election, have repeatedly distanced themselves from the police actions on Wet’suwet’en territory. Horgan, Rankin and others have said the government does not direct the RCMP.
However, APTN has reported that Solicitor General Mike Farnworth approved the RCMP’s request for additional resources under Article 9.1 of the provincial police service agreement prior to each of the three raids.
The agreement says the RCMP will “at the written request of the Provincial Minister made to the Commanding Officer, be redeployed to such extent as is reasonably necessary to maintain law and order,” with the provincial government providing additional funding.
Following the second round of arrests in 2020, the provincial, federal and Wet’suwet’en governments signed an agreement to resume working on the nation’s title negotiations. Rankin and Cullen, then former federal MPs who had yet to be elected to the B.C. legislature, were both hired to assist the process.
But negotiations did not include the pipeline dispute, which has continued to simmer.
In September, after Gidimt’en Clan members blocked access to Coastal GasLink’s drill site, the province hired former Haida Nation president Miles Richardson to facilitate a dialogue amongst the parties. Those negotiations were unsuccessful, leading to the most recent police action in November.
The province has repeatedly pointed to jobs and economic opportunities provided by the pipeline, in addition to benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink signed by 20 band councils along the pipeline route.
“Economic benefits for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people include more than $1.25 billion invested in British Columbia to date,” Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a November news release, the same day he approved the redeployment of RCMP forces to the territory.
The Tyee has requested an interview with Cullen and is awaiting a response.
An interview request was also made to Rankin about the rumours of more arrests planned for Wet’suwet’en territory. B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation forwarded the request to the Ministry of Public Safety, saying it was “in the best position to address this topic.”
B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General provided a statement saying it has not received any recent requests for additional policing resources on the Morice.
That’s despite an announcement from the Wet’suwet’en Gidimt’en Clan last week that land defenders who reoccupied the Coastal GasLink drill site in December had staged a “strategic retreat” to avoid another police action.
“For the fourth time in four years, the RCMP appeared to mobilize for a large-scale assault on unceded Wet’suwet’en land,” the announcement said, adding that it believed the force had booked dozens of hotel rooms and increased patrols by its Community-Industry Response Group, formed in 2017 to address energy industry conflicts.
Last Monday, the same day land defenders left the drill site, RCMP denied it had immediate plans for another enforcement on Wet’suwet’en territory or that resources had been deployed to the Morice. According to RCMP Cpl. Madonna Saunderson, recent sightings of C-IRG vehicles in the area are part of routine patrols “to ensure access on the Morice Forest Service Road and the surrounding corridors.”
“However, there is no planned enforcement action and, therefore, no additional resources being deployed other than the regular change in shifts of C-IRG officers patrolling those forestry roads,” Saunderson added.
RCMP say there are no current plans for enforcement on Wet’suwet’en territory. But observers have reported additional RCMP resources in the area in recent days, including one of the forces’ airplanes landing Friday in Smithers, and several police vehicles spotted at local hotels.
In an emailed statement, Coastal GasLink said preparations for drilling under the Morice are underway with work “ramping up in the coming days and weeks.” The pipeline is more than halfway completed, it said.
Following the most recent round of arrests on Nov. 18 and 19, which included the three-day detainment of two journalists, many New Democrat members of Parliament expressed dismay about the use of force to push the pipeline through Indigenous territory without consent.
“I stand with the Yinka Dini, Unist’ot’en and the Wet’suwet’en. They are leaders, and defenders of their territory. They must be afforded the time to work within their Nations, and we must uphold their right of self-determination,” tweeted NDP MPs Niki Ashton, Leah Gazan, Lori Idlout and Matthew Green on Nov. 19, after RCMP used axes and chainsaws to break into a cabin that was blocking access to a pipeline worksite.
On the same day, the federal NDP issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” with the militarized response from RCMP.
“Given past events, we urge the protection of constitutional and human rights of all involved in the pursuit of de-escalation,” the statement reads. “These efforts have so far been unsuccessful. But we must do everything we can to make space for a peaceful resolution and open dialogue.”
It urged RCMP not to use lethal force against Wet’suwet’en land defenders.
“The NDP is committed to upholding Indigenous rights and advancing self-determination. New Democrats believe the federal government should not be able to pick and choose which Indigenous rights they will uphold, and which ones they will ignore.”
On Nov. 25, Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach, whose riding overlaps Wet’suwet’en territory, stood in the House of Commons and called on the Liberal government to review the RCMP’s actions.
“Last week, militarized RCMP once again descended on Wet’suwet’en territory. The world watched as unarmed Indigenous women were arrested at gunpoint and I’ve heard from dozens of Indigenous leaders who are horrified by what happened,” Bachrach said.
“To the minister responsible for the RCMP, do the events of Nov. 19 reflect his view of how Canada should engage with Indigenous people on their lands and if not what is he going to do to review RCMP conduct?”
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said at the time that the federal Liberal government had concerns about the operation.
But Bachrach told The Tyee he has not received a formal response from the minister. “Given that he has expressed his own concerns, I’m keenly interested to hear what actions he has taken,” Bachrach says.
Ontario New Democrat MPP Joel Harden also weighed in following the arrests, appealing to Horgan during an address in the Ontario legislature to respect Wet’suwet’en title and tweeting that “reconciliation doesn’t happen at the barrel of a gun.”
Avi Lewis, a high-profile but unsuccessful NDP candidate in the 2021 federal election, said the pipeline issue runs far deeper than simply blaming RCMP conduct.
“Remove the original crime of the climate-choking pipeline, and you don’t have all of the conflicts that it creates,” he said. “In a case where you have a cataclysmic climate emergency costing hundreds of lives in this province right now at a biblical scale, from fires to floods to blizzards, when you’re still advancing fossil fuel projects and ramming them through Indigenous territory with the colonial violence of the RCMP, it’s no wonder that people are just in dismay.”
Lewis grew up in family that jokingly referred to the NDP as “the family business.” His grandfather David Lewis’s time as federal NDP leader overlapped the period his father, Stephen Lewis, was leader of the Ontario party in the early 1970s.
Lewis placed third in the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country riding, but significantly increased New Democrats’ portion of the vote.
“We can’t abandon the NDP. We must fight within the NDP, because it’s the only political party that has a chance of governing, that has anywhere close to the human priorities that are required for the continued existence of all living things,” Lewis says, adding that the fight against climate transcends party politics.
“It’s not like I’m a party loyalist who would never walk away… this feels like a very urgent fight to have right now, to try to reclaim the NDP as a force for climate justice.”
At the BC NDP’s virtual convention in December, the party passed an emergency resolution related to RCMP violence in the enforcement of Coastal GasLink’s injunction.
It stopped short of passing a resolution aimed at ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies and some delegates have accused the party of suppressing a discussion on the broader topic of LNG development.
Frustration following the NDP convention led Shuswap NDP riding association president Kristine Wickner to write a public letter about the increasing negative feedback she says the executive has received from its members over the police actions.
She says the association has placed a moratorium on fundraising and outreach, calling on members to withhold support to the provincial party and instead donate to Indigenous land defenders.
“It’s very frustrating when the party expects our unpaid labour and partisanship without any interest in member engagement,” she said. “Over the holidays, I received three phone calls both from provincial and federal call centre employees asking for donations and I indicated my same stance on donating until there was moral clarity on Indigenous sovereignty and climate justice.
“All three times they indicated that I was not the only one.”
But she’s quick to emphasize that the criticism isn’t about dividing the NDP — it’s about improving the party.
“We feel strongly about bringing the party into alignment with the values that the NDP espouses,” she said. “We don’t believe the actions of the current government represent us and therefore want to reassure our members, supporters and voters that this isn’t who we are. It’s a small number of people that do not represent the larger membership.”
Lewis says that without a mechanism to discuss difficult issues within political parties, more members are likely to speak out publicly.
“There’s no transparent and structured mechanism to have any of those conversations,” he said, adding that “it’s wounding for people who have fought hard to elect this government, and wanted fundamental change,” to see the governing New Democrats increase subsides for fossil fuels.
New Democrat MLAs have largely remained silent on the issue of RCMP enforcement in Wet'suwet'en territory.
In December, Stikine MLA Nathan Cullen released a letter to RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki asking her to review recent RCMP actions in his riding, including concerns raised “regarding force used by members of the RCMP during the enforcement action addressing protests.”
He didn’t specifically name the Wet’suwet’en conflict or related arrests on adjacent Gitxsan territory, but pointed to a “disturbing video in which two young residents in my constituency were arrested with undue force.”
Lucki’s response was equally nebulous, saying that, “officers will use as much force as is necessary to resolve the matter.”
Any criticism aimed at the party doesn’t appear to be hurting Horgan’s leadership.
Despite two police actions prior to the 2020 election, the BC NDP won a large majority, including support from many Indigenous leaders, some of whom offered their endorsement despite expressing concern over the province’s record on issues like fossil fuel infrastructure, logging and Site C.
“Generally speaking, I support the NDP,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip told The Tyee at the time. “However, there are times that I’m very, very upset and angry with decisions that are taken by government.”
At the recent convention, delegates voted 83 per cent in support of Horgan’s leadership — a strong endorsement, though significantly below the roughly 97 per cent who supported him at the two previous conventions.
That’s why sources told The Tyee they will continue to push the party from the inside.
“I made it clear anything that goes against the interests and rights of my people, I’ll stand up against,” Saganash says, adding that he never allowed party politics to get in the way of his beliefs while in federal politics. “I don’t soften my opposition because it’s the NDP. I will always stand strongly in favour of Indigenous peoples rights and human rights in general.”
Wickner pointed to B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, passed in 2019, and the recent election of the party’s first Indigenous president, as promising signs.
“New Democrats are some of the most integrity-driven people I know,” she says.
Lewis adds that the true rift doesn’t lie within the NDP or any other political party. It’s simply a response to a greater societal divide between those who want fundamental change and those who support the status quo.
“That’s the division,” he says. “When we start addressing that kind of division, a lot of the divisions within political parties and within communities will start to evaporate.”
Read more: Indigenous, Rights + Justice, BC Politics
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