Wet’suwet’en protesters face surveillance and harassment on Indigenous lands

Traditional leaders and organizers of the Wet’suwet’en movement against Coastal GasLink have pointed out constant police incursions since March and heavy surveillance of protest sites

April 20, 2022 by Anish R M
Pictured is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) made an arrest based on a mistaken identification on April 18. Wet’suwet’en activists have stated that the arrest was a part of prolonged intimidation and harassment by the police. (Photo: Gidimt’en Checkpoint/Twitter)

As the Indigenous anti-pipeline resistance against the Coastal GasLink (CGL) continues in the Wet’suwet’en lands in Canada, the police have been intimidating the protesters and residents of the land and conducting surveillance. On Monday, April 18, the Royal Mounted Canadian Police (RCMP) arrested and later released a supporter of the Wet’suwet’en cause over mistaken identification.

According to the Gidimt’en Checkpoint, a group of Gidimt’en clan members of the Wet’suwet’en organizing the resistance, the arrest is an outcome of more than a month of intimidation and harassment by the police. “This tax-payer funded harassment and intimidation is an explicit attempt to make Wet’suwet’en people unsafe on our own lands,” the group said in a statement.

Gidimt’en Checkpoint stated that since March, the RCMP has been making nearly daily visits to village sites in the lands. The group claims that the federal police force made over 100 visits to residences and congregations in the Indigenous lands. The RCMP visits are made anywhere between four to eight times a day to intimidate and harass leaders, activists and supporters, said Gidimt’en Checkpoint.

Protesters have claimed that the lands have been under surveillance round the clock, since January, when protesters had to make a strategic retreat from a major occupation near Camp Coyote on the pipeline’s drill site to avoid further arrests and legal harassment.

The concerns of widespread state surveillance were only vindicated further when a recent report published on APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) on April 8 revealed that federal officials have been keeping an eye on possible coalition building among Wet’suwet’en activists and Mohawk groups protesting against logging in Fairy Creek in Vancouver.

The report based on de-classified internal memos showed that the crown-indigenous relations deputy minister, Daniel Quan-Watson, briefed the Privy Council Office (the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office) and its intelligence wing about the alliance-building and the possibility of such alliances causing a repeat of the nationwide protests of early 2020. Those protests were sparked by police repression against Wet’suwet’en activists.

Activists have also accused the police of interrupting Wet’suwet’en rituals due to these unwarranted visits, which the police say is to “check-in” on the activities in the lands. “It is not okay that this level of daily harassment is being normalized,” the group said. “We are not free on our own yintah (land).”

The RCMP has in the past employed heavy-handed tactics to break apart sit-ins and demonstrations near the CGL pipeline drillsite. According to reports, the RCMP spent close to CAD 943,234 (over USD 750,000) between November 1 and December 23, 2021, at the height of violent confrontations with Indigenous protesters.

The harassment comes at a time when pipeline resistors have taken to expand their movement outside the Wet’suwet’en lands and pressure investors of the controversial pipeline project. Last week, on April 7, a delegation of hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en were scheduled to attend the shareholders’ meet of the Royal Bank of Canada, one of the main investors in the pipeline project.

The RBC had canceled the in-person meeting due to a COVID outbreak, which activists argued was an excuse to avoid uncomfortable questions from the Indigenous group. RBC had earlier scuttled a major proposal on financing of fossil fuel projects from being considered in the shareholders’ meeting, prior to the meeting.

“RBC has a track record of ignoring our concerns, and the criticism of shareholders and customers,” said Molly Wickham or Sleydo’, spokesperson for the Gidimt’en Checkpoint. “It seems like they don’t want to answer for their financing of the rights-violating Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline and to face us in person.”

Wet’suwet’en activists have nevertheless refused to back down and continued to attract solidarity and attention, both nationally and internationally.

In March, a group of 65 Hollywood personalities, including the likes Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, Jane Fonda, and Robert Downey Jr. wrote a joint letter to the RBC, demanding that it pull out of CGL.

“Despite claiming to be a leader in climate conscious banking, since acquiring CNB (City National Bank, a subsidiary of RBC) in 2015, RBC has spent over $160 billion to become one of the world’s largest and most aggressive financiers of tar sands, fossil fuel extraction, and transport,” the letter reads. CNB is often called the “bank of the stars” for holding bank accounts of major personalities in the entertainment industry.

Wet’suwet’en activists and traditional chiefs have long resisted the construction of the pipeline on their traditional lands. While TC Energy’s project has been backed by an injunction by the British Columbia Supreme Court which permitted the work to continue, Indigenous groups have argued that the lands were never ceded and any construction on it requires the consent of the traditional tribal chiefs.

They have also countered TC Energy’s argument of having secured consent from band council chiefs elected under the provisions of the controversial Indian Act, and instead cited a 1997 Canadian Supreme Court judgment that the aboriginal title for Wet’suwet’en lands have never been extinguished.