The latest episode in a pitched confrontation over a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. came to a dramatic close Thursday, as RCMP officers broke up a road blockade erected by members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in what Canada’s national police force had billed as a “rescue” operation.
The developments on Wet’suwet’en territory came after weeks of tension in the same dispute that, two years ago, saw protests stretch across Canada in support of the Indigenous nation and its hereditary chiefs.
Fifteen people, including Indigenous elders, media and legal observers, had been arrested by the afternoon, according to Jennifer Wickham, a spokesperson for the hereditary chiefs and their supporters. Wickham stressed they had been acting peacefully.
Wickham said armed RCMP officers in tactical gear with canine units and heavy machinery moved into the Gidimt’en blockade at the 44-kilometre mark of the Morice Forest Service Road, using a vehicle and other obstacles to block the road.
“They’re trying to clear the road and they’re just arresting people at this point,” Wickham told the Star.
The RCMP did not immediately respond to requests to confirm their actions, but Coastal GasLink, the company building the pipeline, confirmed police had “cleared” the road.
The blockade had been in place since Sunday after being set up by members of the Gidimt’en clan, one of five in the Wet’suwet’en Nation. They described the blockade as an effort to enforce an “eviction notice” on the company that the nation had first issued last year.
They said some 500 workers at a work camp were given 10 hours’ notice to leave before the road was closed.
Coastal GasLink told the Star it did not move its workforce out of the area during the notice period because of safety concerns for the workers due to “inclement weather.” That left workers caught behind the blockade when it went up.
The company said the “illegal” blockade had put its employees at risk, obstructing access to medical care in the event of an emergency. The RCMP said the blockade had been “preventing essential supplies and services into the camp” and that attempts to reach a “peaceful” resolution had been unsuccessful.
At the centre of the dispute is a 670-kilometre pipeline intended to carry natural gas from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat, on the Pacific coast, where a liquefied natural gas facility is under construction. The Morice Forest Service Road begins about 60 kilometres southeast of Smithers, B.C.
The hereditary chiefs and supporters maintain Coastal GasLink has no right to build the pipeline because the project wasn’t given consent through their traditional governance system. They say they have never ceded, surrendered or lost title to the territory.
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While the hereditary chiefs oppose the pipeline, the 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline’s path have approved the project. The B.C. Supreme Court granted an injunction to stop protesters from holding up work on the project in December 2019.
In early 2020, protests in solidarity with hereditary chiefs took place across Canada after the hereditary chiefs issued an eviction notice to Coastal GasLink.
But the demonstrations ended when the federal and provincial governments reached a memorandum of understanding with the hereditary chiefs. The situation started steadily escalating again when the company began preparations to drill under the Morice River.
Wickham said Thursday the memorandum of understanding was meant to work toward agreements on Wet’suwet’en rights and titles; it did not include consent to the pipeline. She said pipeline opponents largely stepped back from protests due to the pandemic and to see how the talks progressed.
But they have not gone anywhere, she said.
“The agreement was that they were going to work on a plan to implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title,” she said. “Those conversations have not produced anything so far. They have not agreed on any point and the Coastal GasLink project was never on the table.”
A request for comment sent to the elected council was not returned Thursday but a statement Wednesday said the protesters didn’t consult with them before blocking the road and their actions “can’t claim to represent the members of the Gidimt’en or any others in the First Nation.”
Thursday morning, the RCMP issued a release indicating they would be shutting down the blockade in a move they characterized as a “rescue and enforcement” operation. The force said in a news release it had tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the dispute, but was unable to do so.
Wickham said the language used in the release was “deceitful” considering time was given to move workers out of the camp. She charged some workers weren’t even told by the company the blockade was being erected, which would have given them time to leave. A report in Vancouver-based news outlet the Tyee quoted someone in the camp, without revealing their identity, who said workers were not told about the blockade.
Coastal GasLink had not responded at press time to a question about whether workers were informed of the impending blockade.
With files from The Canadian Press
Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports
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