Activists focus on RCMP as fears of a police raid on Wet'suwet'en territory escalate

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Activists rally in Etobicoke in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en Nation. Image: Anna Bianca Roach

On January 24, roughly 150 people gathered peacefully in front of the regional headquarters of the RCMP in Etobicoke, Ontario, to rally against police violence and surveillance of Wet'suwet'en land defenders resisting the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

"We are addressing the issue of the Canadian policing problem on Indigenous people and we are re-asserting the demands from the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs for the RCMP to leave their territory," said Vanessa Gray, a land defender from Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

"I want [the RCMP] to know that they are a target in this. They are part of that same police squad that is bringing violence into unceded Indigenous territories," Gray said. "And it's every Canadian's responsibility to do something about it until they are all safe again on their own territory without police."

On December 31, the British Columbia Supreme Court extended an injunction given to Coastal GasLink, the company that has been trying to build a pipeline that would carry gas across northern B.C. Since then, people from the Wet'suwet'en Nation and their supporters at the Unist'ot'en camp have seen a succession of events that has been highly reminiscent of the lead up to police raids in January 2019, which led to the arrest of 14 people.

"Since [the raid], they've been under severe surveillance from the police," said Gray. Tensions have escalated since The Guardian revealed that, in early 2019, RCMP officers had brought snipers and were prepared to use "lethal force" if necessary.

Despite recommendations from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, RCMP officers and Coastal GasLink employees have only intensified surveillance of the territory. Wet'suwet'en people and their allies say they anticipate a raid soon.

"Being Native, this is all of our family. And it not only affects us as people, but affects the rest of the world," said Candy, an interdisciplinary performing and visual artist who attended the Etobicoke rally. "This is attacking our water, and our land. … People don't realize that if you poison lakes, all the food … and the vegetation [and] animals, they're going to be poisoned too. […] Once everything is poisoned, what are you going to do with money?"

The solidarity action in Etobicoke comes after Victoria police arrested 13 Indigenous land defenders overnight on January 22. The activists were blockading a hallway at the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mining and Petroleum Resources to demand the federal government "put pressure on [B.C. Premier] John Horgan to meet with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, and to remove the forces of Coastal GasLink from unceded territories," says Ta'Kaiya Blaney, a land defender who was arrested at the action.

Blaney, who is 18 years old, says the police used "disproportionate" force against the unarmed Indigenous youth at the Victoria action. Blaney has been working with the Wet'suwet'en Nation and a number of anti-extractivism campaigns in the province. 

"The Victoria Police Department gave the impression that we would be allowed to remain in the building overnight so we could have a meeting in the morning and demands could be met," said Blaney.

Instead, police arrested 13 people; some people were dropped as police officers carried them out; one activist was injured when police tried to separate them from the other land defenders.

"[The action] has been called an 'occupation,'" Blaney says, "But Canada is an occupation. What we did was a reclamation of that space."

Vanessa Udy, a lawyer who has worked extensively with Indigenous communities, chronicled the violence she witnessed on Twitter. "I saw one protester dragged on the ground despite not resisting arrest. Another was tackled to the ground and his eyes gouged. He has lacerations and swelling around his eye now."

The Victoria police tell a different story. Police insist that they arrested no youths; yet, Blaney is still a minor under BC law. Police have also said that they provided access to food, water and medicine, and that community liaison officers had "many, many conversations working towards a peaceful outcome."

"To be detained for simply demanding that Canada … [abide] by the constitution and Canadian law that outlines that the Wet'suwet'en haven't given consent is absurd. It was a mass arrest, and Canada isn't reporting on it. It should be a national headline right now," Blaney said.

The police's reaction to the events have exacerbated fears that authorities have been attempting to establish a media blackout of the conflict. According to The Guardian, the RCMP established a media-exclusion zone last year that helped conceal their carbine rifles because "the 'optics' of the weapons were 'not good.'"

This year, the RCMP extended the exclusion zone to prevent Wet'suwet'en people themselves from accessing the camp. Between the exorbitant cost of travelling to the remote territories and a general lack of certainty around the timing of a potential raid, few media outlets have been able to send reporters to report on Wet'suwet'en territory. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that police are also screening the journalists who enter the camp. The precise requirements for journalists to enter the territory are unclear.

The policy created more concerns when RCMP let in Keean Bexte, who works for the right-wing outlet The Rebel. In 2018, an investigation by independent news source Ricochet found Bexte to be involved with Fireforce Ventures, a "white supremacist military surplus store."

At the Etobicoke rally on January 24, speakers and activists highlighted the central role that the RCMP has played in perpetuating violence and injustice against Indigenous people throughout Canadian history. "Look at the Oka crisis," said Candy. "They sent the military during the Oka crisis to build a golf course on a sacred burial ground."

"It's scary, I don't know what the future holds," said Candy. "But it's mixed, too, because then there's a lot of hope. And there's people standing up, and I see people from all kinds of nations at this event in Etobicoke. … There's a lot of talent here. It's a beautiful family coming together and singing and knowing that we can tell them … we're here, and we're hearing you, and we're going to keep making noise."

Anna Bianca Roach is a freelance journalist who covers social movements, labour, and environmental justice.

Image: Anna Bianca Roach

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