The RCMP’s most recent actions in Wet’suwet’en territory unfolded more like a horror movie than any semblance of the rule of law in a functioning democracy.
Raw footage of the police arrest of Molly Wickham, the spokesperson of Gidimt’en Clan, was eerily reminiscent of the frightening “Here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson uses an axe to force his way into a room.
On November 19, as the RCMP advanced on Coyote Camp in Gidimt’en territory, they first demanded entry to the one-room tiny home where Wickham and her supporters were staying. After being asked for a warrant, which they said they didn’t have, the RCMP walked away. But moments later, we see the RCMP use an axe to blow pieces off the front door, before they fire up a chainsaw to finish forcing their way into the home.
Over the weekend, the RCMP deployed its Emergency Response Team—armed with snipers, attack dogs and assault weapons—to violently remove Indigenous land defenders from their territory. Repeating their tactics from their previous militarized raids in 2019 and 2020, they set up illegal exclusion zones to prevent the media from covering the story, and they locked up the only journalists who were on site to document the events.
Media couldn’t access the raw footage taken by filmmaker Michael Toledano until he and journalist Amber Bracken were released from prison days later. Even though the pair had identified themselves as journalists, the RCMP jailed them anyway. When they were released three days later, we then saw the dramatic arrest of unarmed land defenders at gunpoint.
This is the kind of story we hear about in other countries, like China or Russia, when Canadian officials strongly denounce attacks on unarmed human rights defenders or the imprisonment of members of the press.
Earlier this year, Trudeau condemned the arrest of a journalist from Belarus, calling it “an attack on democracy and on freedom of the press.” The Trudeau Liberals have denounced China for its arrests of human rights and pro-democracy activists and confronted Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte for his country’s bloody crackdown on illegal drugs. Yet, here in Canada, unarmed Indigenous human rights defenders and members of the press are arrested and detained in violation of Indigenous, Canadian and international laws.
BC marks second anniversary of UN Declaration with police violence
The most important thing about this situation is that it is against the law to forcibly remove Indigenous peoples from their territories. Exactly two years ago, the province of British Columbia passed Bill 41, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), which recognizes the applicability of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in provincial laws. Then, last year, the federal government passed a similar law, Bill C-15, which also confirms the applicability of UNDRIP in Canadian law.
There are many human rights protections recognized within UNDRIP: Article 3 speaks to the Indigenous right to self-determination; Article 10 prohibits forced removals of Indigenous peoples from our territories; Article 18 protects our right to engage in decision-making by representatives of own choosing; Article 26 recognizes Indigenous rights to our lands and resources; Article 29 protects the right to conservation and protection of our lands and resources; and Article 32 protects the right of Indigenous peoples to decide what happens on our lands and the right to free, prior and informed consent before any development occurs.
It should also be noted that in December 2019 the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) called on Canada to stop construction of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, remove the RCMP and their weapons from Wet’suwet’en territory, protect Indigenous peoples from violence, and to respect with Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent.
Weeks later, the RCMP engaged in a campaign of forced removals and arrests along the pipeline route, inspiring hundreds of solidarity actions across the country. It was later brought to light that Canada’s national police force was prepared to shoot Indigenous people who were blocking pipeline construction.
Canada eventually responded to the UN CERD, in July 2020, with a weak interpretation of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). In a November 2020 response, UN CERD Chair Yanduan Li rebuked Canada’s interpretation of FPIC as “a duty to engage in a meaningful and good faith dialogue with indigenous peoples and to guarantee a process, but not a particular result.” The committee reminded Canada that it means no decisions that affect Indigenous rights can be taken without FPIC. Canada is completely off-side on this issue.
Two years after failing to heed the UN CERD, with the RCMP running roughshod over Indigenous rights, the federal and provincial governments have the nerve to express “concern” that negotiations—at gunpoint, mind you—have not produced their desired results: a ‘yes’ to the pipeline.
Growing numbers of media organizations, lawyers, and environmental, human rights and civil liberty groups, along with more than 700 academics, have condemned the RCMP’s actions. First Nations have responded with solidarity actions, engaging in marches, rallies and other demonstrations, some of which have also ended with violent RCMP arrests, like that of unarmed Gitxsan land defender, Denzel Sutherland-Wilson.
Other First Nations have written letters of solidarity and support calling out RCMP’s violent suppression of Indigenous rights, including the Heiltsuk Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Nation at Kahnawà:ke, and others.
It is clear that the RCMP are out of control, but neither BC, nor the federal government, have taken steps to rein them in—thus making them all complicit in these grave human rights violations. And this isn’t the first time. The BC RCMP have a long history of human rights violations. Human Rights Watch Report “Those that Take Us Away” documented many accounts of RCMP physical and sexual assaults on Indigenous women. Former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Michel Bastarache’s report Broken Lives, Broken Dreams concluded that the RCMP is a toxic culture of racism, misogyny, homophobia and violence and cannot be fixed from within.
Context is important here because there is a massive divide between the political rhetoric and promises of government leaders, on the one hand, and the RCMP’s actions on the other. This is never more the case than when it comes to respecting, protecting and enforcing the constitutionally- and internationally-protected rights of Indigenous peoples versus the private interests of corporations like TC Energy, the parent company of Coastal Gaslink pipeline.
Is the Liberal government really ready to “give land back”?
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller recently said that the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples is broken because of land theft, and that it’s time to give land back. That is literally what we have been saying for years.
These words, on the face of it, are almost as encouraging as when Justin Trudeau enthusiastically said he would “absolutely” respect the Indigenous right to say no to pipelines on our lands—a promise that helped him get elected. His government’s subsequent promises to respect Indigenous rights and even repeal laws that conflict with our rights set the path forward.
Miller’s recent words about giving land back also seem to be in line with the federal litigation directive that “Aboriginal rights do not require a court declaration or an agreement in order to be recognized.” Thus, in theory, Indigenous peoples should not be forced to spend millions of dollars and decades litigating in court to have their land rights respected. This is especially true of the Wet’suwet’en, whose hereditary leaders, together with those of the Gitxsanm, already went to the Supreme Court of Canada in Delgamuukw.
So far so good. But the behaviour of the RCMP and its lethal overwatch, snipers, axes, and chainsaws puts the lie to the Liberals’ words. The RCMP acts like a private security force for the extractive industry—essentially the big guns behind big oil and other private corporations. Working closely with Coastal GasLink, they have used more than $20 million dollars suppressing Wet’suwet’en land defenders to date—costs Canadians and Indigenous peoples pay.
The world is finally catching up to Indigenous peoples
For generations Indigenous peoples have been warning about environmental damage, climate disaster and the pollution of our waters from extractive and energy industries.
We were dismissed. Now the majority of the world’s leading scientists are echoing what we have literally been saying forever. We have to take urgent action on climate change before it is too late. Scientists here at home, like David Suzuki, have been saying for years that our best chance at saving the planet is the liberation of Indigenous peoples.
Yet, instead of working with our Nations, Canada through the RCMP continues to violently oppress and dispossess Indigenous peoples. Peaceful land defenders, water protectors, and Indigenous rights advocates are vilified, criminalized, surveilled, suppressed, and incarcerated at ever increasing rates. This stands in stark contrast to Indigenous lands defenders’ goals of protecting the lands and waters for our future generations.
Government support of pipelines run counter to political speeches expressing the need for urgent action on climate breakdown, something Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Jerry DeMarco recently concluded: “Investing in the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) is an example of policy incoherence with progress toward climate commitments.”
Despite commitments to address climate change, all levels of government proceed with haste on extractive and energy projects that damage the environment and contribute to the crisis. Climate change, together with environmental degradation, is wreaking havoc in BC. Trudeau even committed the military to help BC address its state of emergency.
Instead of sending all available officers to help with BC’s state of emergency, and to save lives, C-IRG—which is essentially the RCMP’s special brand of private security for the extractive industry—dressed up in their military cosplay, gathered up their biggest guns and best sharpshooters, and arrived by the busloads in Wet’suwet’en territory.
No, the RCMP did not deploy to save lives, nor to contribute in a meaningful way to the state of emergency, but to clear Wet’suwet’en people and their relatives from Wet’suwet’en territory (yintah) but for Coastal Gaslink pipeline. They used their discretionary powers in the middle of a state of emergency to enforce a private court injunction for CGL pipeline.
Instead of arresting Indigenous peoples who are peacefully trying to protect water sources from contamination by pipelines, Canada should be working with us—the people protecting the water for all of us. It’s time for Canada to rein in the RCMP. They have become a threat to Indigenous peoples and Canadians alike.