Even as the RCMP publicly denied plans for a January 2022 raid in Wet’suwet’en territory, the provincial government was told police action was “anticipated to occur around Jan. 10.”
But the planned police enforcement action was scrapped after rumors of a growing RCMP presence circulated on social media, prompting pipeline opponents to vacate an important Coastal GasLink worksite.
The documents, obtained by The Tyee through a freedom of information request to the BC Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, contradict RCMP statements as police forces were believed to be building in northern communities in early January.
“There’s no resources that have been deployed in the area and no understanding that there’s any requirements for any enforcement,” an RCMP media spokesperson said in a Jan. 3 interview with The Tyee. “[The commander] said he wasn’t even aware that there would be a requirement for enforcement… I’m not aware that there’s been a complaint or that there’s been something that would require us to do some kind of an enforcement.”
The comments were confirmed in a follow-up email from the RCMP to The Tyee.
But in an internal RCMP email sent later the same day, which was then forwarded to BC Public Safety Ministry officials, RCMP Chief Supt. John Brewer acknowledged that “rumors of RCMP impending arrival were leaked throughout the town and social media,” resulting in the camp being abandoned and a change in enforcement plans.
“The two tiny houses and bus parked on the Marten FSR [forest service road] were moved from the Marten FSR to the 44 km camp. The Marten FSR is now under the control of CGL security, and secured with a cable across the road pending the construction of a gate in the next few days,” Brewer said.
“CGL has drilling equipment enroute from Edmonton to the Marten FSR.”
Conflict over Coastal GasLink’s 670-kilometre gas pipeline through northern BC has been ongoing for more than three years. Dozens of people have been arrested during three police enforcements on the territory.
While some Wet’suwet’en band councils signed agreements with the company, the nation’s hereditary leadership has staunchly opposed the project, which would deliver fracked gas from the northeast to the LNG Canada processing facility being built in Kitimat.
On Jan. 7, 2019, RCMP enforced a BC Supreme Court injunction granted to the company, removing barricades at Kilometre 44 on the Morice Forest Service Road, known as Gidimt’en Camp, and arresting 14 people.
The conflict escalated again in February 2020, when police arrested 28 people over five days at several locations along the remote resource road, again opening the road for construction traffic after it was blocked for more than a month.
As the pandemic set in, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs went into talks with the provincial and federal governments to summarize negotiations over the nation’s land title.
But in September, a new encampment, dubbed Coyote Camp, was established on the Marten Forest Service Road, a spur road off the Morice West Forest Service Road about 60 kilometers southwest of Houston.
The occupation aimed to disrupt Coastal GasLink’s plans to drill under Wedzin Kwa, also known as the Morice River. Opponents say they fear the work could impact water quality and salmon stocks in the river, which is a major tributary of the Skeena.
In November, RCMP conducted its third enforcement on Wet’suwet’en territory, arresting about 30 people over two days at two locations in the area.
But pipeline opponents returned to the Marten spur road a month later, reoccupying Coyote Camp and again blocking access to Coastal GasLink’s drill site.
They abandoned those plans as rumors of RCMP entering the area spread in early January.
“We know that they are preparing to raid us once again,” said Molly Wickham, a member of Gidimt’en Clan whose hereditary name is Sleydo’, in a twitter posts on Jan. 4 announcing the land defenders had made a “strategic retreat” from the drill site.
“We know that they are here, we know what their plans are, and we cannot let that kind of violence continue to happen.”
The same day, Norman McPhail, a former Mountie under contract with the province’s policing and security branch to collect information about the demonstrations, emailed a “situational awareness” report to ministry staff.
“Police believe that the buildup of police in the immediate area was a trigger for the contemnors to abandon the occupation of the CGL Drill Site on the Martin [sic] Spur Road,” he wrote. “RCMP advise that CGL has reoccupied the Drill Site on the Martin Spur Road and has re-established a security perimeter/presence at this work site.”
A briefing note prepared the same day by BC’s policing and security branch said the police action was “anticipated to occur around Jan. 10,” but was derailed by mounting rumors on social media.
As a result the protesters had abandoned the camp, the briefing note said. “With that said, the anticipated enforcement around Jan. 10, 2022 may not be necessary, although the intentions of the contemporaries at km 44 require a police response if direct action ensues.”
Wickham said there has been a marked change in how RCMP police the camp at Kilometre 44 following what RCMP described as a violent incident at Coastal GasLink’s drill site in February.
On Feb. 17, the company reported that masked assailants had descended on the site overnight, swinging axes, threatening workers and causing millions in damage to equipment. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack and police have made no arrests, despite RCMP saying the force would dedicate 40 investigators to the incident.
Following the incident, RCMP Chief Supt. Warren Brown told The Tyee he believed the assailants came from outside the area. He added that while patrols had increased on the Morice road as part of the police investigation, “there’s no punitive reason for the police to come in right now and police any differently.”
But in late February, RCMP officers began entering the camp at Kilometre 44, often multiple times a day and in the middle of the night, telling occupants they are patrolling “Crown land” and that they have found a link between the camp and the February drill site incident.
Police have arrested at least one person in what was later confirmed to be a case of mistaken identity, according to an RCMP spokesperson, and this week began reading from a statement that claims the camp has hosted “individuals committing criminal code offences” since 2019.
When The Tyee asked for clarification about the offences, RCMP said that over the past three years officers have investigated people from camps in the area for mischief, criminal contemplation of court, theft, uttering threats, assault, assaulting a police officer and obstruction.
When asked whether any of the investigations had resulted in charges, the force referred questions to the BC Prosecution Service.
None of the arrests made under Coastal GasLink’s civil injunction have resulted in criminal charges and Wickham maintains that no criminal activity is taking place at the camp.
“There’s never been anyone convicted of anything,” she said. “They are targeting people at camp saying that we are responsible for the attack at the drill pad site.
“It’s obviously meant to wear people down.”
The Tyee reached out to the RCMP on several occasions for an update on the investigation into the February incident and to ask what link has been uncovered between the camp and the incident. The force has declined to answer questions, instead saying it increased patrols out of concern for the safety of those in the area.
“After the violent confrontation against employees of Coastal GasLink on the Marten Forest Service Road on Feb. 17, the RCMP has been concerned for the safety of those in the area,” RCMP Cpl. Madonna Saunderson said in a recent email.
“While we have maintained a presence in the Morice Forest Service Road corridor since 2019, the RCMP has increased our presence patrolling around the industry camps and other camps along the route, and interacting with people in the area.
“The investigation into the Feb. 17 incident remains ongoing.”
Since the RCMP conducted its first raid on the territory and established a remote detachment on the Morice Forest Service Road in 2019, the force has spent more than $21 million policing the conflict.
Concerns about the project’s environmental impacts are not unfounded.
BC’s Environmental Assessment Office has issued multiple orders to Coastal GasLink, dating back to October 2020, for insufficient erosion control measures and allowing sediment to flow into waterways at numerous locations along the pipeline route.
The company was issued at $72,500 fine for its environmental violations in February.
But the violations have continued, with inspections in early April again revealing inadequate erosion control and sediment-laden project water being pumped into waterways and wetlands near Kitimat.
The Environmental Assessment Office has posted two additional orders in the past week requiring the company to correct the violations at the western end of its pipeline near Hirsch Creek and Pine Creek.
Coastal GasLink responded to an email from The Tyee asking about when it plans to begin drilling under Wedzin Kwa by saying that preparation for microtunneling is currently underground.