RCMP force a retreat at Wet’suwet’en barricade

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RCMP Emergency Response Team (ERT) member clambers over barricade erected at Gidimt’en checkpoint on Jan 7, 2019. Photo by Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver

by Perrin Grauer and Jesse Winter, StarMetro Vancouver

MORICE WEST FORESTRY SERVICE ROAD, B.C.—A checkpoint camp was abandoned behind a massive fallen tree and a barrier of flame on Monday afternoon as dozens of RCMP officers finally pushed past the barricade set up to bar entry to the traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en people.

Fourteen people would be arrested by the end of the day.

The checkpoint, for weeks a movable gate at the mouth of a bridge, had been fortified by the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation as the RCMP marshalled in nearby towns over the weekend.

Camp members faced both uniformed RCMP and camouflage-wearing Emergency Response Team tactical unit officers through the barbed wire.

“What are your grandchildren going to think?” yelled nation members as police advanced.

After a lengthy, increasingly heated back-and-forth between the demonstrators and police, officers began cutting the barbed wire and started up a chainsaw. Camp members began to scream in protest; two young men had chained themselves to the fence below the view of the officers, encasing their arms in a kind of pipe that meant opening the gate risked breaking both of their arms.

The checkpoints are the latest act of defiance in a Wet’suwet’en grassroots uprising against the First Nation’s elected band council leadership and its decision to ink a $13-million agreement to support a pipeline.

The project is being headed up by Coastal GasLink to bring natural gas through the area for delivery to the proposed LNG Canada facility in Kitimat, B.C. Coastal GasLink is a subsidiary of TransCanada PipeLines Ltd.

While the band council signed the deal on behalf of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, all five of the clans that make up the nation are revolting against the decision. The clan chiefs, who inherit their positions but are still considered integral leaders of their communities, say that the First Nation’s band council only has jurisdiction over the reserve, not their entire traditional territories.

Each Wet’suwet’en clan is made up of a number of houses, also headed by hereditary chiefs. These house chiefs are also in full revolt and unanimously supported a decision to block Coastal GasLink from entering their territories, citing Article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That article says Indigenous Peoples must not be “forcibly removed” from their territories.

Eventually, police climbed a ladder over the top of the gate, circumventing a secondary blockade formed by the bodies of the camp members themselves. Then they began to arrest people.

A number of women linked arms across the path, singing a song in defiance. They were eventually arrested as well.

But as police began to storm the bridge, camp members farther along dragged a barrier of pallets, hay bales, firewood and tree limbs into the road, doused them in gasoline and set the whole thing ablaze, sending flames a dozen feet into the air.

Other supporters had chained themselves under a bus parked on the bridge where police now stood. Another man had suspended himself in a hammock from a tree far out over the frozen river.

As the fire blazed, demonstrators used a chainsaw to fell an enormous tree even farther up the road. It crashed down into the snow, and as police worked to clear the people who halted their march forward, more camp members stacked firewood against the newly fallen tree.

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Warrior flags flying at Gidimt’en checkpoint on Jan 7, 2019. Photo by Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver

Seeing this, the camp supporters who had not yet been detained sprinted back around the flaming barrier and over the fallen tree. They piled into trucks and sped off for a second camp set up by the Unist’ot’en clan, farther down the Morice West logging road, about 44 kilometres outside the town of Houston.

One stayed behind, soaking the wood piled against the fallen tree in gasoline. But the man ran out of matches before he could light a second blaze.

As police marched up to the first flaming barrier and peered through the hazy air, the man jumped on a snowmobile and sped off into the forest, now deep in shadow as the sun began to fall behind the towering, snow-laden trees.

RCMP worked to secure the scene, examining the fallen tree and scattering the blackened ashes of the flaming barrier, which by now had burned through most of its fuel.

As night returned to the area and police began to debrief, one man still remained, inside the hammock suspended over the frozen river.

While the RCMP have said they would use “a carefully measured and scalable approach,” fears remain among some Indigenous organizations in the province that the enforcement could spark a more protracted standoff. That’s what happened in Northern B.C. in 1995, when hundreds of police and military members moved in on a Secwepemc Indigenous gathering in the Cariboo region, sparking a month-long occupation, police gunfire and explosives at Gustafson Lake.

That conflict took place under the previous 1990s NDP government. The current NDP government supports the LNG project that depends on the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which it says will create thousands of jobs and still meet B.C.’s ambitious greenhouse-gas targets, despite skepticism from the Greens.

News of Monday’s events travelled slowly, as communications in the area were down. RCMP in Houston blamed a problem with “one of the satellites” and denied deliberately cutting communications, as they could only reach their own officers via radio.

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Fire burning at Gidimt’en checkpoint prior to Jan 7, 2019 raid by the RCMP. Photo by Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver.

Earlier in the day, through a locked gate strewn with barbed wire, RCMP negotiated with members of the Wet’suwet’en nation in an effort to get the Indigenous group to remove the barriers blocking the only access point to their traditional territory.

The first sign of police presence was a helicopter overhead, which cut through the silence of the snow-laden forest and sent camp members surging to the gate to greet the incoming police caravan.

Molly Wickham, a member of the Gidimt’en clan, spoke with officers through the barricade along with Chief Madeek, also of the Gidimt’en clan. Wickham would be arrested later in the day.

Wickham and Chief Madeek told the officers no meaningful conversation would take place without the presence of the hereditary chiefs, under whose jurisdiction the territories fall.

After some back-and-forth, RCMP said they would allow one hereditary chief from each of the five Wet’suwet’en clans to pass through an RCMP checkpoint at kilometre 12 of the forestry service road, so long as they could make it there by noon.

This gave the chiefs an hour to make it to the police checkpoint. If they couldn’t meet the deadline, it would be “down to business” for police, one Gidimt’en camp member speculated.

Afterward, Wickham said even a “token” gesture to allow the presence of a few chiefs would exclude more than half the hereditary chiefs whose territories are at stake.

Police had not reached out to camp members before Monday’s meeting at the barricade, Wickham said, nor had she or her allies seen the amended injunction that concerned their gate.

The injunction gave protesters 72 hours to remove obstructions. Police said that had not happened, preventing Coastal GasLink from being able to do any work in the area.

The construction of the Gidimt’en camp followed the original court injunction, granted Dec. 14 against the Unist’ot’en camp checkpoint farther along the road. Coastal GasLink argued the Unist’ot’en checkpoint, erected around 2012, effectively stalled construction on the pipeline project.

Camp members used the hour to refuel, warm up, send messages to loved ones and rest for whatever lay ahead.

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RCMP ERT members just prior to the Jan 7, 2019 raid. Photo by Michael Toledano.

The arrival of police was anticipated, since RCMP officers, numbering a dozen and possibly more, took up residence in hotels in Burns Lake, Smithers and Houston over the weekend. Camp allies reported Monday that RCMP officers left Houston before dawn to go to the checkpoints.

Before police arrived, camp members were anxious about the possibility of a conflict but were largely in good spirits — sharing hot drinks out of thermoses, eating soup cooked in a nearby tent and huddling around campfires to stay warm.

Overnight on Sunday, as temperatures dipped to -15 C, the glow and crackle of the fires penetrated the silence of the snow-covered forest.

When morning broke, a woman said a prayer, giving thanks for the day. Flags had been tied to branches mounted alongside the camp tents.

“When I look at each of you, I see a thousand allies,” she said to the small group gathered around. “A thousand allies in every one of you.”

Roughly 30 rallies are being organized across Canada, the United States and even Italy in support of the Wet’suwet’en nation members blocking the pipeline construction, according to various Facebook pages listing the events. This includes a rally outside the Calgary headquarters of TransCanada PipeLines Ltd. on Tuesday at noon.

In recent months, Calgary has seen mass rallies of oil-and-gas supporters frustrated with the lack of progress on major infrastructure projects, such as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The city is also home to the headquarters of some of Canada’s biggest oil-and-gas companies.

Michelle Robinson, a co-organizer with the Calgary rally in support of the Wet’suwet’en members, said this makes a rally in the city even more important.

“It’s incredibly important for us to be in solidarity because this isn’t something all of us consent (to),” Robinson said.

In Edmonton, a rally has been organized by Climate Justice Edmonton and Indigenous Climate Action at Beaver Hills House Park for Tuesday afternoon, according to a Facebook page for the event.

With files from David P. Ball, Brennan Doherty, Jeremy Nuttall and The Canadian Press

Correction — Jan. 7, 2019: This story has been edited from an earlier version that incorrectly stated that police set a fire to block a bridge. The fire was set by demonstrators.




Posted on January 7, 2019, in Oil & Gas and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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