Canadian Federal Police Have Raided First Nations Land to Protect Fossil Fuel Companies

Last month the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided and dismantled a blockade of a pipeline on indigenous land — one of many clashes between federal police and First Nations land defenders and their supporters throughout Canada’s history.

Signs hang from a snowplow during a protest against the Coastal GasLink pipeline near Belleville, Ontario, Canada, on February 13, 2020. (Brett Gundlock / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In late November, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raided and dismantled Coyote Camp, a resistance camp and blockade of the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land in the province of British Columbia (BC). They arrested dozens, including two journalists who were covering the events.

Police cast the effort as a “rescue mission” to support several hundred workers behind the blockade line — a claim that strains credulity — and as the enforcement of an injunction from the BC Supreme Court in support of the pipeline. The camp, which has been running since September, was set up to stop project drilling under the Wedzin Kwa (also known as the Morice River).

Mobilizing a militarized unit, police used an axe and chainsaw to enter a home. As Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) reports, the undertaking included “an RCMP tactical unit equipped with choppers, snipers, assault rifles and dogs.” Brett Forester observes in Nation to Nation that the government of British Columbia signed off on the deployment of the unit as an emergency action under the authority of deputy premier and solicitor general Mike Farnworth.

The government of the province, run by the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), has sought distance between themselves and the enforcement action. Enforcement decisions, they claim “are made by police. Politicians do not direct police operations in BC.” The government response is a classic evasion that seeks to depoliticize the highly political and unnecessary action.

Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders

The Wet’suwet’en are a First Nation whose unceded territory is in the north central region of British Columbia. There are five clans among the Wet’suwet’en and several communities. The First Nation is governed by the precolonial hereditary chiefs and the elected band council that was established through post-Confederation colonial law in Canada.

In response to the militarized police assault and frustrated with the BC NDP government, a left faction of New Democrats started a grassroots petition denouncing the raid. The petition has been signed by a handful of current and former NDP members of Parliament and high-profile party members and officials. The petition condemns “in the strongest terms the militarized raid on the Gidimt’en Checkpoint and Coyote Camp by the RCMP on Wet’suwet’en territory, as authorized by Premier Horgan and the BCNDP government.”

The petition also takes aim at the federal NDP in no uncertain terms:

We further express our dismay and anger at the federal NDP’s statement in response to these events, which obscures the oppressive role the RCMP and BCNDP are playing in perpetuating colonial violence. We stand firmly on the side of the Wet’suwet’en nation and condemn individuals and entities that are willing to turn a blind eye to colonialism for the sake of political expediency.

Standoffs between the state — the courts, politicians, the police — and land defenders who oppose the CGL project as an environmental threat have been ongoing for years. In early 2020, ahead of the pandemic, Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their allies blocked rail lines after the RCMP enforced a court order in support of pipeline construction.

Opponents of the liquefied natural gas pipeline say the project poses a risk to waterways, wetlands, and marine life. In early December, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that inspectors from BC’s Environmental Assessment Office found that Coastal GasLink had yet to address environmental orders related to the pipeline project going back to 2020. The company claims that it immediately addressed the noncompliance orders. But the orders themselves support the concerns of those who oppose the project.

Reconciliation Through Violence

Beyond environmental concerns, the standoff reflects the ongoing tensions between the state and indigenous communities. The federal government and various provinces, including BC, which passed an indigenous rights law in 2019, have routinely claimed a desire for reconciliation with indigenous peoples. However, state efforts to support and push through natural resource projects — through years of raids and blockade dismantling — undermine such claims. The state has yet to find a way to consistently and substantively recognize and respect indigenous rights.

Opposition to the CGL project, however, does not seamlessly hang together with indigenous rights activism — the situation is more complicated than it may seem. There are indigenous nations that support the pipeline and Wet’suwet’en who oppose the protests and blockades. There is also disagreement between hereditary chiefs, who support the resistance, and elected chiefs, who oppose it.

In an interview with the CBC, Chief Woos, a Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief, pointed out the state has no right to control action on the land, including who has access to it. Asked by CBC host Carol Off about indigenous people who disagree with him and the resistance, Woos said:

I say I still respect them. I don’t want to move forward in disrespecting any more Wet’suwet’en people. I don’t want to move forward anymore [with] these divide-and-conquer tactics by anybody. I still respect people with their own opinions, especially when they’re Wet’suwet’en people.

The resistance to the CGL project and the state’s use of police force to neutralize it represent an untenable impasse. Bound up within this standoff are environmental concerns that grow day by day as the threat of climate change rises; indigenous rights issues that have yet to be addressed; the erosion of press freedoms; and the threat of an increasingly militarized police force. The issue also poses a challenge to nonindigenous protesters, politicians, journalists, and others who must sort out a way to engage with these issues without flattening or homogenizing the voices of indigenous peoples.

This will not be the last time Canada faces such issues. Indeed, it’s very likely this will not be the last time Canada faces such issues regarding the CGL pipeline and Wet’suwet’en resistance. All eyes should remain fixed on the crisis — not simply because of the situation’s pressing and important implications, but also because of the ways in which its unfolding will affect the future of the environment, indigenous rights, and the ever present threat of state violence.