Tensions continue to rise between RCMP and Wet'suwet'en amid pipeline dispute

Tensions continue to rise between RCMP and Wet'suwet'en amid pipeline dispute

The RCMP continued to make arrests on Saturday — the third day in a row of police enforcement against the Wet'suwet'en and their supporters opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C.

CBC News saw RCMP officers dragging several people on sleds out of a camp area early Saturday afternoon after people were told they had to leave the area or face arrest. 

RCMP later confirmed that 11 people were arrested at a warming centre after not following instructions to leave. Police said in a statement that several people had "barricaded themselves inside, some using chains in an effort to prevent their arrest." 

Tensions remain high in the area and more arrests are expected as people and obstacles remain in the way of Coastal GasLink and its contractors who are attempting to get back into a disputed area to re-start work on a natural gas pipeline. 

On Dec. 31, a B.C. Supreme Court judge issued an injunction against members of the Wet'suwet'en Nation blocking access to the pipeline project inside their traditional territory and empowered RCMP to enforce the injunction.

Chief Na'moks of the Wet'suwet'en Nation said people who have been arrested for opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline weren't obstructing any construction. 

He said residents are going about their business while the project is on hold during the winter season. 

Communication between the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and the RCMP appeared to reach a new low on Saturday morning when the chiefs were prevented from moving through a police checkpoint to see what was happening at the warming centre on Morice Forest Service Road. 

"We need access to get up there and you have no right stopping us at [this checkpoint]," Chief Madeek told RCMP Chief Superintendent Dave Attfield in a phone call heard by journalists.  

 "Sorry you can't go up there right now," said Attfield. "I do hope to get you guys in there if you want to go in."

"We've been fed a bunch of lies ever since we met you guys," said Madeek.  

Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC News

The chiefs said they were particularly angry because they had talked with RCMP the night before and asked to arrange a meeting with Attfield Saturday morning.

But when the chiefs showed up, Attfield wasn't there — and said he wasn't aware of the meeting. 

"I'm sorry Madeek, I didn't get that information," CBC News heard him say during a phone call.   

Since Thursday the RCMP have been moving in, kilometre-by-kilometre, camp-by-camp, down the Morice West Forest Service Road, to enforce the injunction against named Wet'suwet'en defendants and supporters. 

Watch: RCMP break up Wet'suwet'en blockade

The conflict, once again, is amplifying tensions between the Canadian and Indigenous legal systems as supporters of the hereditary chiefs say it's Wet'suwet'en law they are choosing to uphold. 

All the while, the RCMP continue to uphold the injunction which found Coastal GasLink, a subsidiary of TC Energy, is fully permitted by the province to work on constructing a $6-billion, 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline from northeastern B.C. to the coast in Kitimat. 

Criminal investigation

RCMP say a criminal investigation will be conducted after support beams on a bridge at the Gidimt'en checkpoint  appeared to have been cut near an area where police began arresting people for breaching the injunction that demanded they move aside.

Four people were taken into custody on Friday and were to be taken to a detachment in Houston after six others were arrested a day earlier and released.

For three days, RCMP have maintained an exclusion zone on the Morice West Forest Service Road, preventing anyone except police from moving freely down the road and into the areas where police continue to take enforcement actions. 

Hereditary chiefs have been let through at least once — in addition to media at certain times.  

But the exclusion zone continues to morph and change as police continue their actions on the road where the Wet'suwet'en and their supporters are maintaining a constant presence, along with trained legal observers and members of the press. 

On Friday night police announced the exclusion zone and checkpoint would be relocated more than 20 kilometres away on the road that is the only route that connects the Wet'suwet'en reoccupation sites with the nearest town of Houston, B.C. 

Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC

They made the announcement after they came across an unexpected blockade on the road on Friday afternoon, as vehicles were trying to leave from where the second wave of arrests had taken place to get back to Houston.

One of those vehicles was a police vehicle which was transporting the arrested people. 

The road was made impassable by people who parked several vehicles in a disorganized configuration.

Mounties said RCMP vehicles were damaged when they entered the court-ordered exclusion zone on Friday night.

Police were visibly frustrated when they came across the new blockade and tensions continued climbing as officers tried to ask who they needed to talk to about what was going on. 

By late Friday night police had removed the vehicles with the help of heavy machine operators and the road was once again made passable — but tensions had clearly reached a new peak.

Unist'ot'en next site facing enforcement 

There is one main site that police have yet to move in on — the Unist'ot'en healing village. 

It's not clear how many people are staying there or what kind of obstacles stand in the way of Coastal GasLink and its contractors. Police arrived at the camp Saturday morning but left after about an hour when occupants of the healing centre declined to engage, according to RCMP. 

Across Canada, people have staged blockades and protests in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs.