Tension remains high in Northwestern BC as representatives from the Unist’ot’en clan and their legal representatives held a meeting with the RCMP regarding the fate of their settlement camp on Tuesday afternoon.
A non-violent occupation of unceded Unist’ot’en traditional territory since 2010, the camp was originally established to stand in the intended path of the Pacific Trail natural gas pipeline. It has since expanded to include structures built directly in the path of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and the TransCanada Coastal Gaslink pipeline, encompassed within a sweeping declaration that all pipelines are banned from their territories. A checkpoint ensures that no one enters or leaves the territory without their direct consent.
The meeting comes in the wake of widespread speculation regarding a potential RCMP raid on the camp.
This statement was sparked by a face-to-face meeting between the leadership council and RCMP representatives in the boardroom of the UBCIC, Philip told VICE.
“It became very evident at that point in time that, despite our objections, despite our strong opposition to them moving in in force, it was clear that they had made decisions that they were going to execute their operational plan,” said Phillip, speaking from the road on his way back from the Unist’ot’en camp on Tuesday.
That meeting was followed by an additional report, from a source Phillip considered to be reliable, that approximately 200 RCMP officers were gathering in towns close to the camp.
“There were phone calls made to the highest levels of the RCMP in Ottawa, who, under great pressure, admitted they were fully engaged,” added Phillip.
Fearing imminent violence, Phillip said he then “dropped everything” and immediately drove to the camp on Sunday, stopping only to buy a sleeping bag on the way.
As he traveled, wider speculation swirled that the impending raid could possibly be a test drive of new powers afforded to police by the newly enacted Bill C-51.
Though no evictions or raids have yet taken place, Phillip’s comments, which also warned of potential of mass arrests, prompted the BC Civil Liberties Association to issue a strongly worded letter to the RCMP, stating that such a move would be “disastrous” and “would not respect the constitutionally-respected Title and Rights of the Unist’ot’en, as well as their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
An additional letter, signed by a number of high-profile civil liberties advocates and environmentalists titled “We Stand With the Unist’ot’en,” offered further backing, much if it international, to the camp’s position.
On Friday, the BC RCMP responded with a statement that the police force had no intention of taking down the camp and said their position was one which “respects the rights of individuals to peacefully protest.”
“They could be standing back for a minute, and then come back again full force on Wednesday morning or something, that could happen,” said Zoe Blunt, a camp supporter who has helped organize caravans of other supporters into the camp for several years.
Blunt received an email from a camp member on Tuesday which stated that legal representatives for the Unist’ot’en had secured a guarantee from the RCMP that they would not enter the camp prior to Tuesday’s meeting. What happens beyond that point is dependant on what is discussed.
Wet’suwet’en members and supporters of Unistoten camp in front of healing centre, under construction. July 2015.
Both Blunt and Phillip feel that a raid, if planned, may have been stayed by the intense scrutiny and overwhelming support the camp has received in recent weeks.
A recent tour by Unist’ot’en camp spokeswoman Freda Huson and four hereditary chiefs from the area was met with standing ovations and packed crowds, said Blunt.
“This was the first time they had ever experienced anything like this, going off-reserve and speaking to a big group of people—that’s always been Freda’s role,” said Blunt. “They were just blown away, they were feasted everywhere they went and were treated like rock stars, basically. It must have been really overwhelming.”
Despite support from many corners, not everyone is pleased with the situation as it unfolds.
A letter issued from four elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs issued on Monday states that they are concerned with the support from aboriginal and non-aboriginal individuals and groups such as those who have signed the “We Stand With the Unist’ot’en” letter, saying that their definition of sustainability may be different from those who live in the area.
Pipeline workers are actively clearing the centreline for the Chevron – Pacific Trail Pipeline two kilometers from Unist’ot’en Camp. August 2015.
“We have long believed it is short sighted to turn down projects such as the Coastal GasLink project before understanding the true risks and benefits; that is just an easy way to avoid dealing with complex issues,” stated Wet’suwet’en First Nation Chief Karen Ogen, who was joined by Nee Tahi Buhn Chief Ray Morris, Burns Lake Band Chief Dan George and Skin Tyee Nation Chief Rene Skin in signing the statement.
The continued pressure from oil and gas companies has also not relented.
On the territory of the Gitdumden First Nation, work continues as Chevron clears a right of way for the Pacific Trail Pipeline up to two kilometres from the Unist’ot’en camp.
“We’re not out here causing any trouble, we’re here to see the damage that you guys are going to have to pay for when this all goes to court,” said Richard Sam of the Laxilyu clan, as he hikes out to survey the damage in a video filmed on Aug. 30 and posted to YouTube.
“It’s a bit pointless, right? They’re not coming through with their pipeline, so any money that’s spent at this point is a waste,” said Sam, who was a plaintiff in a 2011 Wet’suwet’en court victory against Canfor.
On Sunday, Gitdumden chiefs sat down with Unist’ot’en clan members to discuss how they might work together to stop Chevron from clearcutting the right of way for the PTP pipeline.
As the future of the camp remains uncertain, Phillip said on his trip he did not observe any RCMP in the towns closest to the camp, and believes they may have indeed left.
“I’m grateful that cooler heads may have prevailed and they re-thought the dynamic of this. Obviously the enormous groundswell of response through social media was an indication that this would have completely spiraled out of control, and quite possibly could have triggered other actions throughout the province and right across the country,” he said.
“One of the outcomes of this situation that arose is that there is an opportunity now for all the parties to understand the gravity of the situation and begin to open up a dialogue and come to some agreement.”
The RCMP have not yet responded to a request for comment on this story.