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Audio Reveals RCMP Officers Laughed about Beating a Land Defender

C-IRG’s silver commander apologized for the comments while testifying during a BC Supreme Court hearing.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 19 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.

[Content warning: This story contains depictions of police violence and racist language.]

It was about 7 a.m. on his very first day with the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group when Supt. James Elliott received a call letting him know the Morice Forest Service Road had again been blocked as part of the ongoing conflict over the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Time was of the essence, Chief Supt. John Brewer, who had just been promoted to C-IRG gold commander, told Elliott over the phone. Protesters had stolen heavy equipment and used it to dig up the road, stranding hundreds of Coastal GasLink pipeline workers at a work camp. Supplies were running low, he said.

As the newly minted silver commander for C-IRG, Elliott would be responsible for co-ordinating the police response on Wet’suwet’en territory. “Three-day deadline,” he scribbled in his notebook on Nov. 15, 2021.

More than two years later, as he testified this week in a courtroom in Smithers, B.C., Elliott apologized for comments made by the officers he oversaw during the arrests that followed.

In audio recordings captured after arrests on Nov. 19, 2021, several officers can be heard laughing about police violence, mocking arrestees and making derogatory comments about symbols worn by two Indigenous women to honour and remember murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

“That is unacceptable and I’ll offer my personal apologies,” Elliott said during his testimony Wednesday. “That should never have happened.”

“This is certainly not in accordance with the gold commander’s direction to ensure that your mission would respect the rights of all persons and be compliant with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” suggested defence lawyer Frances Mahon. Mahon is representing three Indigenous land defenders — Sleydo’ Molly Wickham, Shaylynn Sampson and Corey Jocko — charged during the enforcement.

Elliott agreed but stopped short of accepting Mahon’s suggestion that the racist remarks were a result of inadequate briefing prior to the enforcement to respect the rights of those arrested, particularly Indigenous people.

“I did my best to provide a thorough briefing and the expectation was that everyone came with the appropriate training and was professional and respectful. Obviously, they weren't,” Elliott said. He added that it was the first time he’d heard the recording and didn’t know which officers had made the comments.

But it’s not the first time RCMP have been made aware of some of the comments. Two clips were shared with Brewer in June 2022 by the Narwhal. The C-IRG gold commander called the comments “beyond troubling.”

“I had my whole team, all my commanders, sit down: Can you identify those voices? There’s absolute zero tolerance for that in this unit,” Brewer told Narwhal reporter Matt Simmons at the time.

But one clip, lasting about a minute and a half, in which officers described beating an Indigenous arrestee, was newly revealed during Elliott’s testimony.

Criminal contempt

Elliott’s admission came several days into a B.C. Supreme Court hearing on the defendants’ application to stay the charges against them based on RCMP officers’ conduct during the arrests. Defendants allege that the RCMP violated their Charter rights and used excessive force and racist language during the arrests.

Sleydo’ has been a prominent figure in the years-long dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory.

While the nation’s hereditary leadership has opposed pipelines since before the project was first proposed, the company has pointed to impact benefit agreements signed with five of six Wet’suwet’en band councils as evidence of support for the project.

In 2018, the B.C. Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an injunction that prevents anyone from blocking access routes or work sites used for pipeline construction.

Since then, RCMP have conducted several police actions against those blocking access to the remote Morice resource road.

On Nov. 18 and 19, 2021, about 30 people were arrested and 19 were later charged with criminal contempt. Some have since pleaded guilty. In November, one person was found not guilty. To meet the threshold of criminal contempt, the Crown must prove that someone knew about the injunction and deliberately defied it, degrading the court’s authority.

Last Friday, after hearing several days of evidence from the Crown, Justice Michael Tammen determined that there was enough evidence to convict Sleydo’ and two others arrested on Nov. 19, 2021. He began hearing evidence the same day into the three defendants’ application to dismiss the charges.

Sleydo’ and Sampson, who is from the Gitxsan Nation, were arrested while inside a “tiny house” that was located on a work site next to the pipeline route. Two journalists also in the building, including Amber Bracken on assignment for the Narwhal, were arrested and held in custody for several days. Bracken is now suing the RCMP.

Jocko, who is Haudenosaunee, was arrested the same day in a separate building located about 800 metres down the pipeline route, where Coastal GasLink was preparing to drill under the Morice River. Concern over impacts on the river, known in the Wet’suwet’en language as Wedzin Kwa, has been central to Wet’suwet’en opposition to the project.

Wet’suwet’en and their supporters first occupied the work site, which is several kilometres off the Morice near the Marten Forest Service Road, in September 2021.

On Nov. 14, 2021, according to RCMP, supporters also dug up the Morice, the main access road into the area, blocking access to the pipeline route and work camps in Wet’suwet’en territory.

The Nov. 18 and 19, 2021, enforcement would be the third high-profile police action on Wet’suwet’en territory in as many years. A previous action had led to protesters shutting down shipping routes across Canada. Elliott said the potential for a repeat was never far from his mind.

As he planned the enforcement, Elliott took a hardline approach. And once enforcement got underway, Elliott determined, the time for talking was over.

“There was not going to be any negotiation. There was quite a bit of destruction on the roads and the time for setting conditions and negotiations was over,” he testified. “There was criminal and injunction violations occurring, and we needed to enforce that.”

That week, Elliott travelled each morning from Huckleberry Lodge, a Coastal GasLink work camp where police officers were housed, to the firehall in nearby Houston, B.C., where command was stationed. From there, he was in radio communication with officers on the ground while also receiving intelligence that would inform the enforcement response.

It was up to Elliott to assess risk and determine how many people were likely to be arrested. From that, he determined the appropriate resources needed. The remote area meant that it would take some time to bring in officers. The enforcement was delayed by a day as the RCMP chartered a flight to bring officers in.

It was important there be enough resources to arrest people and move them efficiently through the system, Elliott testified.

“If I were to take everybody, put them in cars and leave them there for the next six hours, that’s unacceptable,” he said.

Elliott’s risk assessment was informed, in part, by monitoring social media. Phrases like “last stand,” used in a post by Sleydo’, indicated the potential for violence, he said. Elliott also noted Sleydo’’s call out for supporters and the potential for an influx of people into the area.

Among those supporters were members of the Mohawk Nation, part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in Ontario, who had arrived at the Morice. Elliott testified that “Mohawk symbology,” such as flags, patches and stickers, represented potential for “enhanced activism” and heightened his risk assessment because it had been used at similar events elsewhere.

“I remember one post that I was provided at the time that said something about hiding weapons under the snow, in the forest,” Elliott testified. “I was required to make sure that those resources were there and properly staffed to deal with them.”

Mahon began her cross-examination by reading the full text of the post. “‘Even in the eye of the storm, there is great peace. We must all bury our weapons underneath the pines,’” Mahon read.

“Sir, are you familiar with the common expression ‘burying the hatchet’? Do you know what that means?” Mahon asked.

Mahon informed Elliott the post was communicating a Haudenosaunee expression of peace.

Elliott testified that Mahon’s assessment of the expression could be correct, and that it meant the opposite of what he had first assumed. But he said the mention of weapons still led to a heightened risk assessment.

“Destroying the roads, lighting things on fire, was not necessarily peaceful,” he said.

Mahon then provided some background on the Mohawk flag, which was designed by Louis Hall in 1974 and was “intended to be a symbol of unity for all Indigenous people,” she said.

“Are you aware... that it is also intended to be a visual manifestation of the Haudenosaunee oral constitution, sometimes described as the Great Law of Peace? Are you aware, sir, that the Mohawk word for warrior has a different connotation than how we understand that in English?” Mahon asked.

She said the Haudenosaunee word for warrior is Rotisken’rakéhte, meaning “he carries the burden of peace.”

Elliott testified that he wasn’t aware of the additional context, nor did it inform his assessment of the situation.

On Nov. 18, at first light, RCMP officers departed Huckleberry Lodge. Their primary goal was to clear the Morice road, Elliott testified. He was surprised by how quickly the operation unfolded. By midday, RCMP had arrested 15 people at Gidimt’en Checkpoint, a camp 44 kilometres down the Morice, and supplies were flowing into the pipeline work camp the same day.

The following morning, as police staged for the second day of arrests, Elliott watched a live social media feed showing Sleydo’ and Sampson wearing red dresses and red handprints in paint on their faces. He understood the symbols represented awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, he testified.

Watching the social media video that morning, Elliott made note of a “dead man barricade,” a two-by-six plank across the door.

During previous testimony, officers who breached the structure and made arrests testified that they came unprepared and did not have proper breaching tools, instead using heavy axes and a chainsaw they found on site.

Those inside the cabins, including the defendants, were taken into custody without incident, Cpl. Sebastien Pilote and Sgt. Ryan Arnold testified.

As Elliott’s cross-examination wrapped up Wednesday, the defence played several minutes of audio, which was recorded after police confiscated equipment from Bracken and another journalist, Michael Toledano, who was also taken into custody during the arrests.

The audio appeared to capture arresting officers making disturbing comments about the arrestees and police actions during arrests the day prior. They begin by mocking the face paint worn by Sleydo’ and Sampson.

“Do they have fucking face paint, too? They’re not orcs?” asked one officer, referring to fictional monsters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Officers also compared their entry into the cabins to a scene from the horror movie The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson’s character breaks through a door with an axe and looks inside, saying, “Here’s Johnny.” Other officers laughed in response.

Perhaps most disturbing was the clip that caught an officer describing an Indigenous arrestee as “that big fucking ogre-looking dude.”

“He’s actually, like, autistic,” the officer said, as other officers responded with laughter. “Then the fucking guys just beat the shit out of him and then he started crying. I felt bad for him. Apparently the sergeant grabbed his balls and twisted. I guess he was on the ground and everyone was just grabbing limbs. He didn’t have a limb to grab, so he’s like, just grab his balls, like, ‘You done now? You done resisting?’”

This clip does not appear to have been shared publicly before the trial. Elliott called the comments “unacceptable, unprofessional.”

His testimony wrapped up Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, the court heard from two RCMP officers involved in processing people following the arrests. The court was expecting to hear from two RCMP dog handlers today.

While the hearing was initially scheduled to end this week, it’s now expected to continue an additional seven or eight days. Those dates were expected to be set today.  [Tyee]

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