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Police violated protesters' rights in Wet'suwet'en pipeline blockades, Amnesty says

VANCOUVER — A hereditary chief with a British Columbia First Nation at the centre of protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline says an Amnesty International report tells the truth about "police violations" of Indigenous rights when they removed a
Supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and who oppose the Costal GasLink pipeline, work on a support camp just outside of Gidimt'en checkpoint near Houston B.C., on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. A report by Amnesty International says police in British Columbia conducted arbitrary arrests and "aggressive surveillance, harassment and intimidation" of First Nations protesters blocking a pipeline project. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

VANCOUVER — A hereditary chief with a British Columbia First Nation at the centre of protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline says an Amnesty International report tells the truth about "police violations" of Indigenous rights when they removed and intimidated protesters.

The report released Monday criticized the handling of the protests on Wet'suwet'en territory in central B.C. between 2019 and 2023, including multiple RCMP raids on protesters in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

It found that consultation on the project did not adhere to international human rights standards and violated the Wet'suwet'en Nation's right of self-governance.

The Amnesty report said the court injunction against blockades allowed for the "unlawful" surveillance and intimidation of protesters, as well as arbitrary arrests that violated individuals' rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.

"This is not the first nor the only time that injunctions have been used in Canada as a tool for companies and government authorities to circumvent Indigenous authority," said Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary-general for Amnesty International Canada's anglophone division.

"So, what emerges clearly from our report is that the intimidation, the harassment, the unlawful surveillance and the criminalization of Wet'suwet'en land defenders were part of a concerted effort to remove them from their ancestral territory, in order to allow the pipeline construction to proceed."

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Na'moks told a news conference in Vancouver announcing the report's release that Indigenous protesters faced racial discrimination and harassment from the RCMP and Coastal GasLink security when members were defending their rights to consent or deny projects on their territory.

"They keep on making legislation to assist the oil-and-gas industry and the mining corporations," Na'moks said of the federal and provincial governments. "That is not what Canada is supposed to be.

"Canada is supposed to be what we are doing, keeping everything free for everybody, the ability to be on your own lands, the ability to have a talk and communicate with each other without being intimidated, without being arrested."

The report said some protesters faced gender- and racial-based intimidation and violence, with people held for multiple days before bail hearings, while and other Indigenous participants were forced to appear "in shackles in their underwear" in front of a judge.

RCMP raids on protesters in 2019, 2020 and 2021 were "disproportionate," involving dozens of officers "armed with semi-automatic sniper rifles," dogs, bulldozers and helicopters, the report said. 

"I'm the son of a Second World War veteran," Na'moks said. "I'm the son of a residential school survivor. They fought so hard to make sure that we … can have a better future, and this is what we're fighting for.

"Every time we, the Wet'suwet'en, offer the government an olive branch, they just snap it in half and slap us in the face with it."

In a written response, RCMP spokesman Kris Clark said while police always hope that protests end without enforcement, orders and injunctions from the Supreme Court of B.C. "are not optional invitations or suggestions," and the Mounties "do not have the option of refusing to enforce."

Clark also said protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline have not been peaceful or lawful, with one incident in February 2022 captured on video showing individuals attacking company vehicles with axes while an employee was inside.

"The actions of the individual or crowds will dictate the actions of police," Clark said. "Arrests and enforcement actions are only undertaken once all other avenues to resolve the conflict have been exhausted and enforcement action becomes necessary to prevent the continuation of any unlawful protest."

He said the RCMP does not target anyone or any group based solely on racial, ethnic or religious background. Rather, it focuses on "observed or suspected criminality and behaviours.

The 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline stretching across northern B.C. was declared mechanically complete last month. 

Its owner and operator, TC Energy Corp., said it is Canada's first pipeline to the West Coast in more than 70 years.

Planning for the pipeline began a decade ago but saw construction delays due to protests, including train blockades by First Nations across the country in solidarity with protests by the Wet'suwet'en in 2020.

TC Energy said in a written statement that it is still reviewing the report but had been transparent in providing information to Amnesty about its "commitment to respectful relationships with Indigenous and local communities" in regions of operation.

"Coastal GasLink has not been provided the research that Amnesty is relying upon or been provided the chance to review the evidence behind Amnesty International’s initial claims," the statement said. "We have, so far, encountered selective biases in the way they have handled information shared as well as in their decision to exclude important voices."

The company said while it has taken "extraordinary measures" to engage with Indigenous communities such as the Wet'suwet'en, it also has to "take the steps necessary" to protect the safety of workers on the project.

Amnesty is calling on the federal and provincial governments to immediately stop the use and suspend "all permits and approvals" for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, and have all current charges dropped against Wet'suwet'en protesters.

It also wants policies put in place that would prevent the use of court injunctions to "infringe" on the rights of Indigenous groups in the future.

The pipeline was approved by all 20 elected First Nation councils along its path to transport gas from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat.

But some hereditary chiefs and others say they never ceded the territory. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2023.

Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press