A non-partisan civil liberties organization is speaking up in regard to the ongoing dispute between Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and Coastal GasLink (CGL).
At a Jan. 15 press conference executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) Harsha Walia said she the organization was worried about the ongoing dispute that has been reignited in the weeks following a Dec. 31 interlocutory injunction issued by the B.C. Supreme Court which replaces an interim one from 2018.
“We are deeply concerned and troubled about what is happening in Wet’suwet’en territories particularly right now this week the implementation and enforcement of an RCMP exclusion zone at the 27-kilometre mark of Morice Forest Service Road West,” said Walia.
Walia said the BCCLA has assisted Delee Alexis Nikal and Cody Thomas Merriman (Wedlidi) in filing separate legal complaints to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police following the RCMP denying them permission to travel through the roadblock.
In her complaint Nikal states the experience was “a violation of our rights as Wet’suwet’en to be on our land and a denial of our laws and system.”
Nikal is a Gidimt’en member of the Wet’suwet’en nation and Merriman is from the Haida nation and part of the Gidimt’en clan through marriage.
During the conference Walia and others referred to the roadblock as an exclusion zone. The RCMP have referred to it as an “access control checkpoint” in multiple press releases and say it is not an exclusion zone. The RCMP have also stated permission to enter must come from the RCMP’s Operations Commander or delegate and that anyone wishing to enter must provide identification.
Walia also characterized the roadblock in question as in violation of inherent Indigenous and Charter-protected rights.
“Merriman and Nikal were both denied permission to travel through … for approximately three hours each as they waited in -37 [to] -40 degrees celsius winter.
“They stayed there because they were particularly worried about people at Gidimt’en camp who are lawfully and peacefully asserting their presence on their territories not having food and winter supplies that they critically needed to have on site.”
A public statement from the RCMP on Jan. 13 indicated that people transporting food, medical supplies and any critical winter supplies were among a list of persons who would generally be permitted through.
For a legal perspective, UBC Allard School of Law Professor Margot Young characterized the situation as one which is not reducible to a simple statement about the rule of law.
“In addition to law that comes out of [the] BC Supreme Court about the injunction there is also constitutional law — in particular constitutional rights and Aboriginal rights.”
She said these important elements as well as many others reflecting traditional Wet’suwet’en systems of governance must be part of the legal analysis of the dispute between the hereditary chiefs and CGL.
“The pattern we observe from the RCMP and its actions at the moment very much parallel global incidents where police end up in violent interactions with land defenders and so there’s great concern,” cautioned Young.
While unclear if she was referencing recent comments by John Horgan, the B.C. Premier did say the “rule of law applies” to the dispute in a statement where he confirmed the liquid natural gas pipeline would proceed despite ongoing opposition from the hereditary chiefs.
Walia said the BCCLA is also asking RCMP and CGL not to enforce the injunction at this time and for the RCMP to dismantle the exclusion zone.
They are also asking for the RCMP, provincial and federal government to sit at the table with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to find a peaceful resolution to the issue.
“In the view of the BCCLA the RCMP exclusion zone is arbitrary, excessive, impunitive and a violation of Charter rights that cannot be violated with such ease and at the discretion of the RCMP,” she said.
Walia said contrary to the RCMP’s statements of their presence being to prevent further escalation of the situation they are putting Wet’suwet’en people and their supporters well-being and safety at risk by controlling their access to food, medical supplies and emergency equipment.
“We remind the RCMP that the constitution is the ultimate law that they are charged to uphold and that they must respect the constitutionally protected and inherent rights of Indigenous peoples on their territories.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is an Okanagan Aboriginal leader who has served as President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) since 1998.
He said he was gravely concerned about the potential for escalation of the situation.
“Clearly reconciliation will never be achieved at the point of an RCMP sniper rifle,” said Phillip as he expressed his support for freedom of passage of the Wet’suwet’en people to travel freely from their territory and meet the needs of their people.
In response to a question about the RCMP’s updated Jan. 15 statement which addresses “miscommunication that resulted in three individuals being turned away” from the checkpoint, Halia did not mince her words.
“That’s frankly not an acceptable response because if the person should have been allowed through there was no reason for alternative arrangements to be made.”
She also questioned why people who were trying to carry food and winter supplies through to the Gidimt’en and Unist’ot’en camps further down the road would not be allowed through.
“Them attempting to suggest that they were finding a solution doesn’t get to the root of the issue which is that the exclusion zone denies people access to their own territories.”
“In light of last year’s incident I don’t think the RCMP can be trusted in regard to any public relation statements they may or may not make.
“We heard the same types of public platitudes and statements last year and yet they went in in the fashion that they did.”