RCMP won't agree to respect Gitxsan chiefs' ban on 'militarized' response group
The RCMP says it will not commit to respecting a Gitxsan hereditary chiefs' decision banning the Mounties' Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) from unceded lands in northwest B.C.
The chiefs ordered the C-IRG not to trespass or be deployed across 35,000 square kilometres of Gitxsan lax yip, or territory, in January.
"They come with guns. They come with dogs. They come with helicopters. They come with armoured vehicles," said Gwiiyeehl (Brian Williams), a Fireweed Clan hereditary chief from Kispiox, B.C., about what sparked the move.
"To do what? To kill us? We are unarmed. We are a peaceful nation. We are protecting our lax yip."
In a statement, the B.C. RCMP said it "acknowledges and respects" the chiefs' fears but would not commit to obeying their decree.
"While the B.C. RCMP will do everything possible to respect the ban, we have lawful obligations and responsibilities to enforce the Supreme Court Injunction and maintain public safety, which must take priority," wrote Staff Sgt. Kris Clark.
The chiefs, in their written decision, say relying on injunctions and the C-IRG, which is active across B.C., "to wipe out the freedom of the Gitxsan to their way of life is not justifiable" under Canada's Constitution.
"Militarized aggression against the Gitxsan people is reserved for the Parliament of Canada to order — if authorized under the Federal Emergencies Act," said the decision by Gitxsan Huwilp Government.
The C-IRG was created to "provide strategic oversight addressing energy industry incidents," according to the RCMP website. It was initially tasked with countering protests by First Nations and environmentalists against the Trans Mountain expansion and Coastal GasLink projects.
The $30.9-billion Trans Mountain project would carry heavy oils from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., near Vancouver. The First Nations-led Tiny House Warriors oppose it near Blue River, B.C. The $14.5-billion Coastal GasLink project would carry fracked natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a liquefaction plant in Kitimat on the coast. Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs have opposed it for years.
The unit consists of RCMP officers who volunteer for C-IRG deployments on top of normal duty.
Following a November 2021 tactical operation on Wet'suwet'en territory, C-IRG officers were shuttled an hour northwest to New Hazelton, B.C., where they broke up a Gitxsan-led solidarity rail blockade.
The Gitxsan hereditary chiefs and the RCMP have since signed a community safety plan to address the "burgeoning safety crises" on the land.
Gwiiyeehl, who is confident about the December 2022 agreement, wants government ministers to take note that the Gitxsan, including their hereditary leaders, must be properly consulted before handing out resource extraction permits.
"We're not nobodies," he said.
"We're not just going to lay down and get pushed aside."
In response, Clark said the C-IRG doesn't interfere with legal, non-violent dissent, and acts as "a last resort" when other conflict-resolution avenues fail but "the violent attack on the Coastal GasLink site in February 2022" made the need for police intervention "very clear," he added.
"C-IRG remains uniquely situated, with their specific training and resources, to enforce court injunctions and ensure public safety is maintained in the area, if required."
Show of force 'a frightening thing'
Lawyer and Vuntut Gwitchin citizen Kris Statnyk lives on Gitxsan territory in New Hazelton with his wife and son, who are Gitxsan. He witnessed the C-IRG's 2021 operation there enforcing a CN Rail injunction.
He said officers converged on the tracks wielding automatic weapons and snipers, sporting dark green fatigues from head to toe and backed by a helicopter and dogs.
"This huge enforcement presence arrived and really had an effect on people who were quite, I think, insulted and somewhat in disbelief," Statnyk said.
"When you experience it directly, it is a frightening thing."
Gitxsan have resisted colonial incursions on their land for more than a century, said Gwiiyeehl.
Between 1872 and 1888, the province sent gunboats up the Skeena River more than once as chiefs increasingly demanded compensation for trespassing and theft under Gitxsan law.
To be in essentially the same spot 135 years later "kind of lays bare a lot of things that have not changed," Statnyk said.
Meanwhile, the Gitxsan ban adds to a list of the C-IRG's troubles.
Now under investigation by the RCMP's complaints commission, the unit has become a magnet for lawsuits and complaints.
It's being sued in all three of its major areas of operation, in some cases more than once. Only one allegation has been upheld in court so far — a 2021 lawsuit by media outlets alleging the C-IRG's practice of excluding reporters from enforcement zones at Fairy Creek was illegal.