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BC Approved Wet’suwet’en Police Enforcement During Flooding

Documents contradict previous statements made by RCMP Chief Supt. John Brewer.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 11 Mar 2022TheTyee.ca

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

British Columbia’s Public Safety Ministry worked to provide policing resources for the arrest of Wet’suwet’en and their supporters who blocked a remote resource road in northern B.C., even as the province’s southwest faced unprecedented flooding last November.

Internal emails obtained through freedom of information laws show that the two situations unfolded simultaneously, with high-ranking Ministry of Public Safety and the Solicitor General officials working to provide provincial police resources even as the province declared a state of emergency over the flooding and landslides that killed four people.

That contradicts previous statements made by RCMP Chief Supt. John Brewer, who is also gold commander with the force’s Community-Industry Response Group, which polices resource extraction conflicts.

“It certainly wasn’t planned during floods,” Brewer told APTN in early December. “The operation was being planned to open up that road before the floods hit.”

At the time, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth declined to comment on when approvals were granted for the RCMP action, reiterating the province’s talking points that the government does not direct police. However, a week later and after multiple requests from APTN, the ministry confirmed that Farnworth gave verbal approval to deploy provincial resources to the north the same day flooding overtook areas of the Lower Mainland, southern Interior and Vancouver Island in the wee hours of Nov. 15.

But it’s clear from internal emails that the ministry continued to finalize those resources and monitor the unfolding situation on the Morice, which resulted in a two-day police enforcement on Nov. 18 and 19.

The November enforcement is the most recent RCMP response to blockades that have prevented access to the Morice Forest Service Road and the route of the Coastal GasLink pipeline currently under construction through northern B.C. While Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs oppose the project, five of the nation’s six band councils have signed benefits agreements with the pipeline company, something the provincial government has repeatedly noted in its support of the project.

On Nov. 14, members of the Gidimt’en Clan attempted to evict pipeline workers and decommissioned the Morice road, blocking access to work camps and preventing hundreds of workers from leaving the camps.

851px version of MoriceForestServiceRoadSign.JPG
A sign warns travellers on the Morice Forest Service Road that the resource road, which is used to access the Coastal GasLink Pipeline route, is blocked at kilometre 39, where members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their supporters decommissioned the road on Nov. 14, 2021. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

Verbal approval to dedicate provincial resources to the police action was given by Farnworth the next morning, as the province scrambled to respond to the extreme weather event that had caused landslides shortly after midnight the same day.

“We are going to marshal resources to open the Morice FSR as soon as practicable,” Brewer said in an email sent just before 10 a.m. to members of the RCMP and the Public Safety Ministry’s Policing and Security Branch.

“Given the known numbers and posture of the contemnors causing the blockade, I will need resources in the Tactical Support Group to accomplish this,” Brewer continued, adding that he was seeking verbal confirmation under Article 9.1 of the Provincial Police Service Agreement, which allows the province to redeploy provincial policing resources during “an emergency in an area of provincial responsibility.”

Contemnor is a legal term for someone who is in contempt of the law. An injunction granted to Coastal GasLink by the BC Supreme Court bans anyone from blocking access to pipeline worksites or access roads.

The province is responsible for 70 per cent of costs for resources provided under the agreement with the RCMP. The total cost for policing the Morice road over the past three years has surpassed $21 million.

“I will follow up in writing as per normal, but time is of the essence right now,” Brewer continued, adding that the timeline for enforcement was Nov. 16 to 23 followed by “a period of time to assess and hold the Morice FSR until it can be turned over to CIRG [Quick Response Team] as per normal operations.”

The RCMP has maintained a constant presence on the Morice since January 2019, following the first of three police actions to remove roadblocks in the area.

Brewer said that he was seeking “a peaceful resolution to open the road,” but added there was a tight timeline with three days to maintain the “comfort/life support” for workers stranded at the camps.

“I need to move resources now,” Brewer concluded.

Ward Lymburner, the Public Safety Ministry’s executive director for police agreements and law enforcement administration and a former RCMP officer, said in an email later that morning that public safety assistant deputy minister Wayne Rideout had confirmed the minister’s verbal approval for the response.

In a media availability held the same morning, Minister Farnworth defended what some called a slow response and lack of warning to the flooding, saying the landslides were “unpredictable.” At that time, up to 100 vehicles were trapped on Highway 7, Search and Rescue crews were on the ground, helicopter rescues were being planned and evacuation orders were in effect.

“The situation is dynamic,” Farnworth said about the province’s response. “High winds may challenge these efforts.”

The next morning in the legislature, Farnworth addressed the situation on the Morice, calling it “not acceptable.”

“We are working very closely in terms of dealing with CGL and the situation for those workers behind those blockade lines and, at the same time, being in regular contact with the RCMP in terms of ensuring that, as much as possible, we can get this situation resolved and de-escalated in a way that reduces the potential for conflict, which I don’t think anybody wants to see,” the minister said.

That afternoon, Nov. 16, as the province announced the first of several fatalities as a result of landslides, Lymburner emailed with several ministry officials, including the assistant deputy minister, requesting their input for a draft letter formalizing the province’s policing contributions in the north.

“Note I require some verbiage around the scope/locations,” the email said. “The link below gets you to the draft and add your thoughts and comments. Can then get it finalized and back to you in eApprovals for the movement up the chain.”

The same day, Farnworth held another media availability to address the flooding where he announced that one person was confirmed dead and at least two others reported missing.

“I have no doubt that these are climate related events,” Farnworth told reporters. “They are unprecedented in their nature.”

The irony of sending policing resources to address pipeline opposition while dealing with one of the worst climate change disasters in the province’s history was not lost on many B.C. residents.

“If the BC NDP Caucus truly believes their words, and they are committed to reconciliation and addressing the climate emergency, then they need to take immediate action on the terrible decisions being made by their leadership,” Saanich North and the Islands MLA Adam Olsen, a member of the BC Green Party, said in a Nov. 20 Facebook post. “It is unacceptable to be diverting critical RCMP resources away from flood ravaged parts of British Columbia in order to protect their fracked gas pipeline.”

It wasn’t until Nov. 17, two days into the province’s response to flooding and the same day it declared a provincial state of emergency, that the ministry formally approved a draft letter that confirmed it would send policing resources north.

Lymburner approved the draft and forwarded the letter to Glen Lewis, the ministry’s associate director of police services, with a recommendation to sign and forward it to RCMP.

Enforcement began the following day.

Just before noon on Nov. 18, RCMP provided an update to the ministry. At that point, nine people had been taken into custody out of a total 15 arrested that day. In total, 30 people would be arrested over the two-day conflict, including two journalists who were released from custody several days later.

In his update, Brewer reported “active resistance” from those arrested and said that “empty hands techniques [were] required to effect arrests,” referring to physical use of force, such as punches and kicks, used by officers, according to the force.

The 22-page FOI response included five pages that were withheld under sections 15 and 16 of B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Those sections protect disclosure that could be considered harmful to law enforcement and to intergovernmental relations.

The response did include a letter, dated Nov. 26, from Farnworth to RCMP Assistant Commissioner Dwayne McDonald. Noting his verbal approval on Nov. 15, the minister appears to belatedly grant permission for the use of provincial policing resources on the Morice.

“I am authorizing the temporary internal redeployment of resources from within the Provincial Police Service to the extent necessary to maintain law and order, and to ensure the safety of persons, property, and communities in the area,” the letter reads.

It requested that all provincial resources be exhausted before RCMP borrow from municipal policing resources and asked that the minister be kept appraised “if the situation escalates and there is a need for further [police] resources.”

“Please continue to notify the ministry of the planned actions and further developments,” the minister said. “I appreciate the urgency of these situations and look forward to receiving a report on the actual redeployment that was required.”  [Tyee]

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