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Rights + Justice

Trial Begins for Land Defenders Arrested at CGL Drill Site

Sleydo’ Molly Wickham, Shaylynn Sampson and Corey Jocko face criminal contempt charges.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 9 Jan 2024The Tyee

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

A trial began Monday morning in Smithers, on Wet’suwet’en territory, for three people arrested in November 2021 for allegedly violating a court-ordered injunction that prevents anyone from blocking access to work sites or roads used for the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Among those standing trial is Molly Wickham, who holds the traditional name Sleydo’. Sleydo’, who has been a frequent spokesperson for Wet’suwet’en who oppose the 670-kilometre gas pipeline, was previously arrested in January 2019 under an interim injunction first issued to Coastal GasLink a month earlier. An interlocutory injunction, which remains in effect until the pipeline is complete, was later granted to the company by the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

Sleydo’, a member of the Gidimt’en Clan, stands trial this week with Shaylynn Sampson, who is Gitxsan, and Corey Jocko, who is Haudenosaunee. All three were arrested after RCMP officers entered two structures located at the site where Coastal GasLink was preparing to drill under the Morice River, a sacred river known to Wet’suwet’en as Wedzin Kwa.

During the first week of the two-week trial, the Crown intends to focus on evidence related directly to criminal contempt charges against the three accused, according to prosecution lawyer Paul Battin. If Justice Michael Tammen determines there is enough evidence to find the defendants guilty, the court will then consider applications, filed last year by the defence, that ask for a judicial stay of proceedings based on police conduct and alleged Charter violations during the arrests.

“We intend to confine the evidence called this week strictly to the criminal contempt facts and not to the allegations that are raised in the applications filed by the defendants,” Battin told the court.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership has long opposed pipelines through the nation’s traditional territory. That has led to a number of high-profile police actions over the past five years, resulting in dozens of arrests. On Nov. 18 and 19, 2021, about 30 people were arrested at two locations near the pipeline route.

The two-day police action followed a four-day standoff that blocked access to the Morice Forest Service Road and, by extension, two work camps for the pipeline project. RCMP moved to enforce the company’s injunction on Nov. 18, 2021, arresting more than a dozen people that day and reopening the road to construction traffic, allowing supplies to reach the camps.

Among those arrested on Nov. 18, 2021, was Sabina Dennis, a member of the Dakelh Nation, who stood trial this past November. Dennis, the first person tried on criminal charges under the injunction, was found not guilty after Tammen determined she intended to play a peacemaking role when she stepped onto a bridge on the Morice road, an area covered by Coastal GasLink’s injunction.

According to facts read in court on Monday, Sleydo’ and Sampson were arrested shortly after noon on Nov. 19, when RCMP moved to arrest people at a small structure located near the Marten Forest Service Road, which leaves the Morice about 63 kilometres southwest of Houston, B.C., and provides access to Coastal GasLink’s drill site. Jocko was arrested inside a separate cabin, the court heard. The site was dubbed “Coyote Camp” by the land defenders occupying it.

A woman wearing a grey toque, grey sweater, jeans and boots stands on a pile of cut logs, with a wide expanse of land recovering from logging behind her.
Sleydo’ Molly Wickham, a member of the Wet’suwet’en Gidimt’en Clan, stands at the intersection of the Marten Forest Service Road and the Coastal GasLink pipeline route in September 2021, near where she was arrested two months later. Photo for The Tyee by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

Sleydo’, Sampson and Jocko were transferred, along with others arrested the same day, to the Houston RCMP detachment and then to Smithers, Battin said. They were released from the Prince George RCMP detachment after a bail hearing held several days later.

Among those arrested in the structures the same day and held in custody several days were two journalists, Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano. While Coastal GasLink announced a month later that it would not pursue legal action against the journalists, Bracken and the Narwhal, the news outlet she was working for at the time of her arrest, said they would sue the RCMP for damages, wrongful arrest, wrongful detention and violation of Charter rights.

Audio recorded during the Nov. 19 arrests captured police making derogatory comments about the arrestees, including racist remarks about face paint worn by Sleydo’ meant to recognize missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Battin said the Crown intends to call seven witnesses this week. They include employees with Coastal GasLink and Forsythe Security, the pipeline company’s private security firm, and two RCMP officers who were present during the arrests.

Julie Jones, a private investigator contracted by RCMP to retrieve and preserve videos posted to social media accounts supporting Wet’suwet’en pipeline opponents, was the first person to testify Monday. Jones previously testified at the trial for Chief Dsta’hyl, Adam Gagnon, who was arrested Oct. 27, 2021, in another area near the pipeline route. The court has not yet delivered its decision in Dsta’hyl’s case.

Among the evidence needed to establish contempt of court is the existence of a court order, a contemnor’s knowledge of the order and their intentional violation of the order. Criminal contempt is distinguished from civil contempt by the additional requirement that the violations be public in nature.

Coastal GasLink recently announced that the pipeline project, which has faced significant delays and cost overruns, had reached mechanical completion through northern B.C.  [Tyee]

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