Watchdog opens probe into RCMP unit that polices resource standoffs in B.C.

On Jan. 7, 2019, RCMP enforced an injunction ordering people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink workers from accessing a road and bridge. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC - image credit)
On Jan. 7, 2019, RCMP enforced an injunction ordering people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink workers from accessing a road and bridge. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC - image credit)

The RCMP's federal watchdog agency is opening a probe into the activities and operations of the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG), a special unit that polices protests against resource extraction in British Columbia.

The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC), which receives and oversees public grievances against the Mounties, posted the terms of reference for the probe on its website Thursday morning.

According to the terms of reference, the watchdog will conduct a comprehensive review known as a systemic investigation and focus on the C-IRG's authorities and accountability.

The watchdog will assess whether the unit's operations are consistent with the Charter, legislation on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the findings of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The RCMP's E Division in B.C. created the C-IRG in 2017 to prepare for Indigenous and environmental activism targeting the Trans Mountain expansion and Coastal GasLink pipelines, its founding policing plans say.

In an email sent to stakeholders Wednesday and obtained by CBC News, the CRCC said systemic investigations allow the CRCC to examine RCMP programs and operations holistically and impartially.

"In conducting a file review, the CRCC can examine individual member conduct for the purposes of identifying trends, gaps, or deficiencies in policy, procedure, training, supervision, planning or leadership," the email said.

On top of handling complaints, the CRCC can conduct reviews of specified RCMP activities to ensure compliance with legislation, regulation, ministerial direction or RCMP policies, procedures and guidelines.

The CRCC said it has completed five systemic investigations with the RCMP accepting the vast majority of the recommendations. Among other things, the watchdog said these probes can examine RCMP activities strategically, over several years, to identify deficiencies and systemic issues.

RCMP welcomes investigation

The CRCC, led by chairperson Michelaine Lahaie, is not part of the force. It previously said it was "exploring options" to address hundreds of complaints made about the C-IRG.

In a statement provided to CBC News Thursday, the RCMP said it welcomes the announcement.

"We knew about the possibility for a review and have been working co-operatively to ensure that the CRCC have comprehensive access and a fulsome understanding of the C-IRG's policies, procedures, practices, guidelines, training and deployments," wrote media relations officer Staff Sgt. Kris Clark.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

CBC News recently reported the squad spent nearly $50 million on its operations over five years, prompting concerns from critics about a perceived lack of oversight.

In recent years, lawsuits, complaints and accusations of bad behaviour have hounded the unit, including allegations of Charter violations, excessive force, racism and more.

Many of the allegations are untested or unproven, and the squad's commanding officer denies them.

Clark said the RCMP is working to ensure the CRCC has what it needs to conduct a fulsome review but declined further comment now that the probe is underway.

The C-IRG generally deploys to enforce injunctions where First Nations groups or environmental activists mount resistance to resource projects.

The unit has deployed SWAT teams, crowd-control squads, dogs and helicopters to Wet'suwet'en territory to dismantle blockades interfering with the $14.5-billion Coastal GasLink project, a 670-km pipeline to transport natural gas from northeastern British Columbia to an LNG Canada facility on the coast.

The company has permits from the B.C. government and benefit agreements with five of six Wet'suwet'en elected councils, but it faces opposition from Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who say it requires their approval to build through unceded territory.

In 2021, the unit enforced an injunction against blockades against old-growth logging in the Fairy Creek area on Vancouver Island, sparking many of the CRCC complaints.

Ken Mizokoshi/CBC
Ken Mizokoshi/CBC

The CRCC investigation will focus on these two operations, plus a third from 2022 conducted against anti-logging demonstrations near Argenta, B.C.

The C-IRG has also led ongoing operations for the $21.4 billion Trans Mountain expansion, which would twin an existing pipeline carrying oil from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., near Vancouver. This operation is not covered by the probe.

The expansion faces opposition from the Tiny House Warriors, a First Nations-led group fighting the project on unceded territory near Blue River, B.C.

Kanahus Manuel, a Ktunaxa and Secwepemc activist with the Tiny House Warriors, expressed some skepticism the investigation will hold the RCMP accountable but said her group will participate to see the C-IRG's operations properly documented.

"The RCMP are just in a colonial occupation of our lands," she said.

"Instead of dealing with the real underlying issues, the fundamental issues around land and jurisdiction, they want to continue to just handcuff us."

She said international human rights agencies should also participate to scrutinize the RCMP's alleged violations of Indigenous rights.