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A supporter of the Wet'suwet'en Nation inspects a fallen tree before setting up a support camp near Houston, B.C., Jan. 8, 2020.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

RCMP have launched a criminal investigation after safety hazards such as partly cut trees in danger of toppling and stacks of tires and accelerants were found along a remote access road that construction workers need to build a natural gas pipeline.

A group of hereditary chiefs with the Wet’suwet’en Nation has declared the Coastal GasLink project will not go ahead, and they plan to defy a court injunction ordering the removal of barriers that have been placed in the road. The company posted an injunction order online on Tuesday and a copy on Thursday was pinned to one of the barriers. The order gives the defendants 72 hours to clear the way before the company is authorized to remove obstacles along the road, but Coastal GasLink has said that doesn’t necessarily mean it will immediately begin clearing them way.

In a statement on Wednesday, RCMP said officers patrolling the logging road came across trees that were partly cut in readiness for felling, three stacks of tires covered by tarps and trees, and several jugs of accelerants, including gasoline and diesel oil.

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The “concerning items” resulted in a criminal investigation, police said, adding partly cut trees along the Morice West Forest Service Road are a safety hazard because wind could cause them to fall without warning.

“While the RCMP respects the rights of individuals to peaceful, lawful and safe protest, within the terms set by the B.C. Supreme Court, our primary concerns are public and police safety,” the RCMP said, adding that police would much prefer the dispute to be resolved through dialogue.

Protesters on Wednesday put up a canvas tent in a pullout area off the road and said they planned to stay there to support the hereditary chiefs, who have served an eviction notice to Coastal GasLink.

“We’re here to support them in that, to make sure Wet’suwet’en law is enacted and respected," said Cody Merriman, who also goes by the name Mona’gila.

Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer in a statement on Thursday called the police findings “extremely disappointing” and said the company hoped to find a “mutually agreeable solution” that would ensure the safety of all involved.

The pipeline would carry natural gas from northeast British Columbia to an $18-billion export terminal on the West Coast. The B.C. and federal governments support the pipeline, as do all 20 elected First Nation councils along the route, but the group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs is opposed.

On Dec. 31, a B.C. Supreme Court judge extended an injunction to stop Wet’suwet’en members and anti-pipeline supporters from blocking workers’ access to construction sites for the project.

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After the court order was announced, Coastal Gaslink said more than 100 trees had been cut down along a logging road, preventing contractors from returning to work. The hereditary chiefs said the trees were put across the road for safety reasons. The RCMP has not moved to enforce the injunction, saying this week its priority is to “facilitate dialogue between stakeholders.”

A year ago, RCMP arrested 14 protesters at a police checkpoint along the logging road while enforcing the interim injunction.

In her Dec. 31 ruling, Justice Marguerite Church said there are deep divisions between hereditary leaders and elected band councillors.

Justice Church cited Wet’suwet’en member and pipeline supporter Troy Young, who co-owns Kyah Resources Inc. with the Witset First Nation. Kyah does road building and other work for Coastal GasLink. Witset is one of five Wet’suwet’en bands whose elected councils support the project.

Gary Naziel, an equipment operator for Kyah, said Coastal GasLink is providing much-needed economic benefits to Indigenous businesses. As a Wet’suwet’en hereditary wing chief (sub-chief) and a former elected Witset councillor, he finds himself disagreeing with his own hereditary house chief, Ron Mitchell of the House of Many Eyes.

Mr. Naziel criticized the tactic of placing obstacles on the logging road.

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“That’s not the proper Wet’suwet’en way,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “We’ve got to all start working together, because we’re all Wet’suwet’en people, and no us-versus-them.”

Karen Ogen-Toews, chief executive officer of the First Nations LNG Alliance, a group representing First Nations that back LNG development, on Thursday said she hoped elected band officials and hereditary chiefs would find a way to talk about their differences, saying the groups have common interests.

“Both elected and hereditary chiefs should be concerned about the people and the land, period,” Ms. Ogen-Toews said.

Mr. Merriman said that, “people say what we’re doing is unlawful, but this is for our kids, it’s for these beautiful spaces out here.”

The fight over territory and land has been going on for hundreds of years, he said, and the process for resolving disputes has to change.

“Unfortunately, it’s that time again, and I don’t see this fight going away any time soon,” he said.

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Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said Cody Merriman acknowledged a Wet’suwet’en Nation blockade of the Coastal GasLink project in northern B.C. was unlawful. In fact, Mr. Merriman said other people consider the blockade unlawful.

With reports from The Canadian Press.

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