RCMP seeking to resolve Coastal GasLink crisis without resorting to ‘police enforcement’
CALGARY – Senior RCMP officers are in contact with First Nations protestors opposed to the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline, trying to negotiate a way for construction work on the natural gas pipeline to resume in north-central British Columbia.
“Or priority is to engage with CGL, Indigenous communities and government to facilitate a resolution without police enforcement,” RCMP Cpl. Madonna Saunderson said in an emailed statement, adding that the force’s senior commander “has already been in direct contact with representatives of all these stakeholder groups, including the Hereditary Chiefs.”
Over the weekend, a breakaway group of hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs that oppose the natural gas pipeline asked the RCMP to “refrain from interference” in the dispute over the project that will link gas fields near Dawson Creek to the $40-billion LNG Canada export project in the coastal community of Kitimat.
Coastal GasLink said Monday that trees had been felled along the forestry access road leading to a pipeline work camp in contravention of the order, but the company said it didn’t know who cut the trees. Asked how access had been restricted, the company provided aerial photos to the Financial Post that were taken Monday showing dozens of trees along the road in the contested area.
The standoff has escalated tensions between the pipeline company, the protestors and highlighted divisions between elected and hereditary chiefs in British Columbia. All 20 elected band councils along the route have signed benefits agreements with the pipeline and connected $40-billion LNG Canada project, but a group of hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation bands are looking to prevent work in the middle of the route.
Even though elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs and band councils have signed onto support the project, the hereditary chiefs issued TC Energy Corp., the company building the pipeline, an eviction order over the weekend.
In a press conference Tuesday, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Na’moks said there will be no access to the First Nation territories without consent from the hereditary chiefs, demanding that the province stop construction of the pipeline and that the RCMP withdraw from their lands.
The hereditary chiefs said they were acting in accordance with their laws on behalf of the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en nation.
“The province has proclaimed they will implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes free, prior and informed consent, but has failed to intervene in this issue,” the chiefs said in a statement.
The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs were not available for an interview Tuesday.
Suzanne Wilton, a spokesperson for Calgary-based TC Energy, said the company is in the process of remobilizing 1,000 workers along the pipeline route through British Columbia, where preparatory work is underway and work camps are under construction. At this rate, the company plans to put pipes, which are being delivered along the pipeline route, in the ground this summer.
But Wilton confirmed the company’s security guards have abided by the eviction order and have left the area near Houston, B.C.
The company will not send workers to the area at this time.
In a release, Coastal GasLink has said, “We believe that dialogue is preferable to confrontation and will delay re-mobilization near (the workforce camp) while engagement and a negotiated resolution remain possible.”
“Based on Chief Namox’s public comments, we anticipate a positive response to our meeting request and hope that a meeting can be set up quickly to resolve the issues at hand,” the company said in a release published Tuesday.
In January 2019, RCMP officers enforced an interim injunction order for the pipeline, arresting protestors and removing obstacles at a blockade in the same region in what became a nationally televised confrontation and incident.
Last week, the Supreme Court of British Columbia extended that injunction order in a ruling that also included an enforcement order, providing the RCMP with a “mandate” to ensure access to work sites.
The situation has inflamed tensions across British Columbia, a province which has been negotiating agreements and treaties for years with First Nations groups on vast swaths of contested lands.
I don’t see any way out of this
Ellis Ross, B.C. Liberal MLA
“Rights and title are held on behalf of the community,” said Ellis Ross, a B.C. Liberal MLA and a former chief councillor of the Haisla Nation, adding that it’s incumbent on the Wet’suwet’en people to determine who speaks for their community and who represents their rights.
“I don’t see any way out of this,” Ross said. He said the provincial government led by the NDP should become more involved in the dispute over the pipeline.
Representatives of the B.C. government did not respond to requests for comment.
On Tuesday, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, UBCIC, issued a statement that said the group “fully supports the efforts of Indigenous Nations to ensure that their inherent Title and Rights and unconditionally recognized and upheld.”
The group called on people who support the opposed Wet’suwet’en chiefs to join protests planned around the country this week, from Montreal to Vancouver Island between now and Sunday. Reuters reported that protesters against the Coastal GasLink project blocked a major road in the business district of Toronto.
UBCIC has special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. On Tuesday, a U.N. committee on racism asked Canada to stop work on some $25 billion in resource projects, including the Site C hydroelectric dam, Coastal GasLink pipeline and potentially $10-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which led to a scathing response from the Alberta government.
“We wish that the U.N. would pay as much attention to the majority of First Nation groups that support important projects such as Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink,” Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in a release.
“First Nations leaders increasingly recognized that responsible natural resource development can serve as a path from poverty to prosperity for their people. Yet this U.N. body seemingly ignores these voices,” Savage said.