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The criminalization of Indigenous land defenders is a global concern

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Land defenders at Wet'suwet'en Access Point on Gidimt'en Territory. Image: Wet'suwet'en Access Point on Gidimt'en Territory/Facebook

The Globe and Mail headline reads "RCMP Viewed B.C. Coastal GasLink Protesters as 'Radicalized,' Court Documents Show."

That article reports that on January 8, 2019, the day after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raided the Gidimt'en checkpoint on Wet'suwet'en territory in British Columbia, RCMP Sergeant John Uzelac stated in an affidavit, "I am aware that critical infrastructure can be targeted by persons with radicalized ideology."

Sgt. Uzelac was reportedly referring to unarmed Indigenous land defenders who had gathered at the Gidimt'en checkpoint in opposition to a fracked gas pipeline being constructed on their unceded territory without the free, prior and informed consent of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the recognized governance body of those lands.

Furthermore, The Guardian has reported, "Canadian police were prepared to shoot Indigenous land defenders blockading construction of a natural gas pipeline… The RCMP commanders also instructed officers to 'use as much violence toward the gate as you want'… The RCMP were [also] prepared to arrest children and grandparents…"

This despite, the article notes, police intelligence reporting "no single threat indicating that [land defenders] will use firearms."

Criminalization of land defenders globally

On April 24, 2019, a United Nations media release highlighted: "Indigenous peoples face a worrying escalation in their criminalization and harassment, especially when defending and exercising rights to their territories and natural resources, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard today as it continued its third day of discussions."

The Inter‑American Commission on Human Rights has defined criminalization as the "manipulation of the punitive power of the State by State and non-State actors in order to control, punish, or prevent the exercise of the right to defend human rights."

Land Rights Now adds, "Portraying community leaders and activists as obstacles to development, a risk to national security, undermining traditional values or contributing to disruptive violent events is a common strategy."

And Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, stated: "Extractive activities within indigenous peoples' lands and territories undertaken without adequate consultation or consent are the main source of serious violations of their human rights, including violence, criminalization and forced displacement."

This criminalization can have the direst of consequences.

The Dublin-based human rights organization Front Line Defenders recently reported that of the 304 human rights defenders killed around the world in 2019, 40 per cent of them were working on land rights, Indigenous peoples' rights and environmental rights.

The current situation in the Wet'suwet'en Nation

On December 13, 2019, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Canada "to guarantee that no force will be used against Secwepemc and Wet'suwet'en peoples and that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and associated security and policing services will be withdrawn from their traditional lands."

But just one month later, on January 13, the RCMP established an Access Control Checkpoint at the 27-kilometre mark of the Morice West Forest Service Road on Wet'suwet'en territory.

That's in part because a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted Coastal GasLink's application for an interlocutory injunction that prohibits land defenders from impeding Coastal GasLink workers on their territory.

Yellowhead Institute research director Shiri Pasternak notes, "When the court refused to recognize Wet'suwet'en hereditary authority, [the land defenders] become de facto lawless and so are labelled and treated as criminals. So a spectre of danger around these supposed criminals is created by the RCMP and other actors."

Significantly, Pasternak asks, "But how can the injunction override a Supreme Court decision that recognized hereditary leaders as the proper title and rights holders?"

And yet the exclusion zone has been set up by the RCMP and hereditary chiefs are required to produce identification to them to access the territory.

Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Na'Moks comments, "This isn't a war zone. We're not terrorists and that's how they're treating us."

And Harsha Walia, the executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), says, "The RCMP, in our opinion in this case, has instituted an exclusion zone that is arbitrary and unnecessary and reinforces a criminalizing approach to dealing with Wet'suwet'en rights and title, and Wet'suwet'en jurisdiction."

A key aspect to the peaceful resolution of this situation is the state refraining from the criminalization of Indigenous peoples on their own territories and the recognition of constitutional and human rights obligations, rather than the presumed supremacy of a corporate fossil fuel mega-project.

Given their experiences to date, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs have already "submitted a formal request to the United Nations to monitor RCMP, government and Coastal GasLink actions on our traditional, unceded territory."

Brent Patterson is the executive director of Peace Brigades International-Canada. This article originally appeared on the PBI-Canada website.

Image: Wet'suwet'en Access Point on Gidimt'en Territory/Facebook

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