Canada: Indigenous land defenders at risk

The British Columbia Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General supported the deployment of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers to arrest Wet’suwet’en land defenders and peaceful protesters in their traditional territory three times in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Seventy-four people were arrested and detained, including judicial observers and journalists. The RCMP were equipped with assault weapons, helicopters and canine units and on one occasion media was recorded breaking down the door of a house with an ax and a chainsaw while pointing weapons on people inside. To date, over C$20 million has been spent policing and monitoring Wet’suwet’en land defenders. Federal government public safety documents refer to Wet’suwet’en leaders as “aboriginal extremists.”

In February 2022, Coastal Gaslink lawyers asked British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church to seek Crown approval for criminal contempt charges against those arrested in November 2021. On two occasions, the Crown had determined that criminal charges were not in the public interest. However, on June 1, the British Columbia Prosecution Service announced that it would prosecute 15 people for criminal contempt and was considering charging 10 more people arrested on November 19. The Crown will announce its decision on July 7. The Crown says land defenders repeatedly defy a court order, but hereditary chiefs say Canada has no jurisdiction to grant a company an injunction in its own sovereign territory for a project it does not not approve. The Wet’suwet’en won their claim to title and rights in the Supreme Court of Canada’s Delgamuukw decision in 1997.

The RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) was formed in 2017 in response to large-scale resource-based industrial projects throughout British Columbia. It aims to “provide strategic oversight of energy industry incidents and related public order, national security and criminal issues and create a standardized response across the province.” Much of its efforts relate to the enforcement of injunctions. The C-IRG coordinates responses from different police groups such as the RCMP, Indigenous Policing Services, the Electronic Division Critical Incident Program and government agencies.

Canada is a party to international human rights conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and has a legal obligation to uphold the rights enshrined in these treaties. Canada has announced its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which was passed into federal and provincial law in 2021 and 2019 respectively. The Declaration affirms that indigenous peoples have the right to make their own decisions about their lives and their future in accordance with their own laws and traditions. Yet Canada consistently fails to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples when they say no to resource extraction projects. A selective approach to human rights is contrary to the letter and the spirit of Canada’s human rights obligations and the reconciliation with Indigenous peoples that the federal and provincial governments purport to uphold.

The Coastal GasLink pipeline is part of LNG Canada’s liquefied natural gas project to export LNG to Asian markets. The project is supported by the Government of Canada and the Province of British Columbia. Canada pursues an aggressive policy of domestic fossil fuel expansion that contributes to rising greenhouse gas emissions. Canada urgently needs phase out the use and production of fossil fuels to protect human rights.

Internal emails reveal that police plan to raid the camps while the province is in talks with Wet’suwet’en leaders.
• RCMP expenses on the Wet’suwet’en conflict exceeds $21 million.
• United Nations Committee problems third criticism of Canada.

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Martin E. Berry