The RCMP have moved in to enforce a court injunction against protesters who say they are defending the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s traditional territory by opposing the construction of a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia.
One group that is part of an anti-pipeline campaign, the Unist’ot’en camp, said on its website that RCMP officers had arrested six people early Thursday. Unist’ot’en is affiliated with Dark House, one of 13 Wet’suwet’en hereditary house groups, which in turn fall under five clans.
Supporters of hereditary house groups were “removed from Wet’suwet’en territories in an aggressive pre-dawn raid by RCMP on behalf of Coastal GasLink,” the Unist’ot’en camp said.
Coastal GasLink’s $6.6-billion pipeline would transport natural gas from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat on the coast, where Royal Dutch Shell PLC-led LNG Canada has started building an $18-billion terminal that is slated to export liquefied natural gas to Asia by early 2025.
About 190 kilometres of the 670-kilometre pipeline route cross the Wet’suwet’en’s traditional territory.
British Columbia and Ottawa support the pipeline, as do all 20 of the elected First Nation councils along the route. But a group led by eight Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs and their supporters are opposed.
The eight house chiefs say Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders, not elected councillors, have jurisdiction over unceded territory outside federal reserves.
The arrests took place just hours after the RCMP held a news conference to say officers would soon be enforcing a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that extended an injunction against blockades on a logging road that leads to construction sites for Coastal GasLink’s pipeline project.
In her Dec. 31 ruling, Justice Marguerite Church said there are deep divisions between elected band councillors who support the project and hereditary leaders opposed to the pipeline.
Days later, dozens of trees were cut down along the logging road, preventing contractors from returning to work on a section of the pipeline. Hereditary chiefs said the trees were put across the road for safety reasons.
The RCMP have been “instructed to use the least amount of force that is reasonable to safely arrest a protester,” RCMP assistant commissioner Eric Stubbs said Wednesday.
On Thursday, the force issued a statement to confirm that police had moved in on the logging road near Houston, B.C., and made six arrests for obstruction.
“There will continue to be a marked increase in police resources in the Houston area, and patrols will be conducted on the ground as well as from the air to monitor the situation beyond the blockade of fallen trees and incendiary materials,” the RCMP said.
Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer said he is disappointed that the RCMP had to enforce the court-ordered injunction.
"This is not the outcome we wanted. We have made exceptional efforts to resolve this blockade through engagement and dialogue,” Mr. Pfeiffer said in an open letter posted on Coastal GasLink’s website. “Over the past month and over many years, we’ve reached out to the hereditary chiefs, over and over, but to no avail.”
Coastal GasLink has said that the pipeline project has been unsuccessfully seeking for at least six years to consult with Dark House chief Warner William as well as prominent Dark House member, Freda Huson, including seven failed attempts to meet with her.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, criticized the RCMP’s actions. “Indigenous rights are human rights and they cannot be ignored or sidestepped for any reason in the world, and certainly not for an economic interest,” he said in a statement.
On Tuesday night, talks broke down between a provincial delegate, former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, and hereditary chiefs. Mr. Cullen and other officials have tried to help bridge deep rifts, including between hereditary leaders and elected band councillors.
“This is tough slogging. This is a divided community,” B.C. Premier John Horgan said Thursday. “We are continuing to be hopeful that there will be a peaceful resolution and our dialogue with the Wet’suwet’en and other people in the community will continue."
Earlier this week, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, a non-profit society governed by hereditary chiefs, filed an application in B.C. Supreme Court for a judicial review to challenge the BC Environmental Assessment Office’s permit extension approvals for Coastal GasLink.
The environmental regulator “fails to demonstrate a reasoned chain of analysis that is justified and intelligible,” lawyers for hereditary chiefs said in their 26-page filing.
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