Miscommunication led to three people turned away at pipeline checkpoint: RCMP

VANCOUVER — The RCMP says miscommunication led to three people being turned away at a checkpoint outside a natural gas pipeline work site in northern British Columbia, a situation that has sparked a complaint by a civil liberties association.

Supporters of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who oppose the Coastal GasLink project have set up three camps and settlements between the checkpoint and the work site.

The Mounties said in a news release Wednesday that there was some miscommunication as frontline police were implementing new access procedures after the checkpoint was set up on Monday morning.

Of the three people who were turned away, the RCMP said one would not provide basic details, such as identification and purpose of travel, another faced a shift in weather conditions as nightfall approached and the third person was refused access to transport food and supplies.

The police officer at the checkpoint made arrangements for the supplies to be transported in by a different person, but both individuals decided not to proceed and left the area, Mounties said.

The RCMP said since the procedures have been clarified it has not received any reports of further issues and most individuals have been able to proceed.

"The access control checkpoint is a measured response that reflects the need to prevent further escalation of the situation including the placement of hazards along the roadway and the creation of a third encampment blocking access," it said.

"It also allows the RCMP to be accountable for the safety of all persons accessing this area given the hazards, unplowed roads and severe winter conditions."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association announced Wednesday it has filed complaints to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP on behalf of two individuals who it said were bringing food and emergency supplies but were denied access.

The commission is an independent agency responsible for examining complaints of improper on-duty conduct by RCMP members.

Harsha Walia, executive director of the civil liberties association, said at a news conference she is concerned about the use of exclusion zones prohibiting Wet'suwet'en people, the public and media from accessing the First Nation's territories.

The association's two clients are a Wet'suwet'en woman and a Haida man who is married to a Wet'suwet'en woman and has been adopted into the nation, she said.

By preventing them access to the First Nation's traditional territory, RCMP violated their Indigenous rights and charter-protected rights, she said.

"We are deeply concerned by what's happening in Wet'suwet'en territories," she said. "The RCMP is claiming broad and vague powers of public safety despite no stated or identifiable threat."

However, the RCMP said the checkpoint is not an exclusion zone, which are areas created when police enforce a civil injunction. It said it's not enforcing a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to allow time for dialogue between the hereditary chiefs and Coastal GasLink.

The B.C. Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink the injunction Dec. 31 and the order authorizes RCMP to arrest and remove anyone they have reasonable or probable grounds to believe is knowingly contravening the order.

The RCMP said its operations commander had conducted a review of officers' actions at the checkpoint and concluded police appeared to be acting professionally and in good faith.

"If there are public complaints made, we will ensure full disclosure of all information regarding the interaction including the video captured by police," it said.

Representatives from the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, a University of British Columbia law professor and the treasurer of the B.C. Government Employees' Union joined the civil liberties association at the news conference.

While Premier John Horgan said this week that the permitted project will go through and the rule of the law must be respected, law professor Margot Young said it's not that simple.

There are other rights and laws, including Indigenous rights outlined in the constitution, local Wet'suwet'en laws, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people that should be considered, Young said.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said it's time to stop relying on "low level" injunctions and RCMP enforcement, and make room for broader consideration of Indigenous rights.

"There needs to be time and space set aside for a very thorough adjudication of the common law, the Wet'suwet'en law and all aspects and dimensions of this very complicated issue," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2020.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press